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The Rules (driving in southeast Asia)

I don't make the rules, but I do try to live by them.

1. Move in a predictable, purposeful manner.

2. Yield to momentum.

3. Don't hit what is in front of you.

4. Toot your own horn for good, not evil.

Our brains naturally seek to find order in chaos, right? This seems to be particularly true when, at second glance, the chaos appears to be highly functional. Chaos that works, of course, must not actually be chaos at all, but rather, something complicated we simply don't understand.


That is why Andy and I have spent significant amounts of time over the last couple of months observing, analyzing, and theorizing on the traffic patterns (or lack thereof) that govern the Southeast Asian city streets in many places we’ve been.

At first, the crazy streets just seemed like chaos, but on closer observation we have realized the flow of traffic here totally works. It is highly functional. There must be some rules, then, but they can't be official. After all, there are vestiges of intended order and rules of the road--lane markers, dividers, crosswalks, assorted signs, even occasional traffic lights. No one pays much attention to these guidelines, though. There must be other rules that are not spelled out in the DMV handbook, but are inherent to everyone's understanding, so internalized that no one would ever think to overtly communicate them.

Weeks ago, we came up with one rule:

"Don't hit what is in front of you."

At first that seemed sufficient. We watched as so many drivers approached intersections without hesitation, without ever looking to the left or right. They just plow straight ahead here, so we thought that one rule must cover all bases.

But today we borrowed bicycles from our lodging. It was the first time I’ve driven a vehicle (either motored or pedal-powered) through traffic by myself, instead of riding on the back with someone else or following along behind a tour guide. Piloting my own craft was a whole different ball game. After a couple of hours of it, I felt like there must be more to the equation than that one simple rule.

This evening, we spent some more time brainstorming while eating cheesecake on the third-story patio of a 400-year-old building--just a regular night at a coffee house in Hoi An's historic part of town.

After much discussion, we added three more rules and placed them in the logical order--the order of importance shown above.

RULE #1: Move in a predictable, purposeful manner

It doesn't matter if you are walking, pushing a cart, riding a bicycle or motorbike, or driving an enclosed vehicle. If the others around you can rely on your movements to be logical, smooth, and trustworthy, everyone can adjust to your presence and things flow smoothly. It is when someone moving forward in a straight line suddenly loses their nerve and wobbles side-to-side, or hesitates, or worse yet, makes a sudden turn without alerting others nearby to the change of plans, that the problems occur.

Unpredictable movements are often results of tourists not knowing their way around or not understanding the rules of the flow. Friends, make your decisions about directions first—then go. If you must check your digital map again, find a graceful way to pull over first. Don't hesitate while in the flow of traffic.

In the game of traffic survival, advantage goes to the confident. But this is Asia, not the United States of America, and the value system is different. The goal here is not to gain a rugged individualist advantage over the others. The goal here is to work together in harmony so everyone makes it to their destination safely and efficiently. This takes coordinated effort—and the confidence that comes from knowing you can trust those around you.

This kind of group-mentality, everyone being on the same team and trusting one another for the success of all, has been a huge lesson for us in our travels. Our lodging hosts, for example, are highly motivated to give us a good experience and help us arrange our every transportation and tour need, even if it means making arrangements for us behind the scenes that we don't entirely understand.

What benefit is there for them to cheat or take advantage of us? When we realize we’ve been snookered, we will leave a negative review online—in English. That could ruin them. No, they are our most trusted partners, our closest allies. If they succeed in making us happy, the review we leave will glow with positivity, attracting other travelers and invariably leading to their success. Treating us well means their business can grow, allowing them to send their children to school and provide a comfortable life for their elderly parents.

In the long run, it seems to me that pursuing group success accomplishes more than looking out only for one's self.

RULE #2: Yield to Momentum

At some point in the traffic flow game, someone will need to yield. It is impossible for everyone to consistently do only what they want, when they want it. Conflicts naturally arise when two people want to occupy the exact same space at the same time.

We have found that momentum—not size—determines right of way. When a determined peasant on a bicycle, heavily-laden with farm-fresh produce headed to market, enters an intersection at a steady pace without flinching, motor scooters and even big trucks will yield.

When a Grab delivery-driver or a scooter carrying an entire family makes a courageous turn without hesitation, even a taxi cab will slow its approach. Everyone seems to understand who will have an easy time stopping and who should be allowed to plow forward. This rule is definitely more nuanced, as respectful human decency is often difficult to quantify, but the effects of the rule are obvious.

When in doubt, revert to Rule #1 and move forward with purpose. It’s a bit like a game of chicken, but again, the goal is for no one to get hurt and everyone to reach their destination.

RULE #3: Don't hit what is in front of you

This rule is irrefutable and not at all nuanced like the previous two. No one wants to be in an accident. There is no reason, then, for stubborn insistence on one’s sense of entitled rights—justly deserved or not.

You can boldly move with purpose, make your movements clear and easy to interpret, and exercise your right to move forward based on your momentum versus others’ hesitation, but don't be a stubborn ass about it. That makes you look like an arrogant fool, not a strong winner, in the eyes of reasonable human beings. Decent human beings rarely respect an egocentric bully.

(Why this same concept does not seem to apply to the realm of American politics, I’ll never fully understand, but that is a different post altogether. This blog won't go there today, or likely ever.)

So, if you are adhering to Rules #1 and #2, and someone still pulls out in front of you, causing you to break your momentum and lose all sense of flow, let it be. Contrary to the American school of driving, this is NOT the time to honk your horn at another driver. Horns have an entirely different purpose here. This brings us to the final rule of the road here, at least as far as we can determine.

RULE #4: Toot your own horn for good, not evil.

Horns here are not angry blasts or dangerous harbingers of impending road rage. They are your firm but friendly advance warning system, an audible cue that you are approaching someone for a close-range pass or you are about to make a lane change or turn. Horns here are a courtesy to others, for the purpose of information and cooperation, not an expression of anger or frustration.

We have noted that some big buses and trucks are even equipped with a horn that doesn't sound one long blast. Instead, pressing the button once sounds a short blast of rapid-fire beep-beep-beep-beep-beeps, just enough to announce you are big and coming through a crowded space. It is a kindness, a mercy, not a punishment. My husband was quick to adjust to using the horn on a motor scooter liberally on this trip, having learned the friendly art of it decades ago in the Philippines.

When Andy and I went on an organized bicycle tour in Bangkok last month, our guide used the bell on his bicycle frequently, particularly to alert pedestrians to our presence. We quickly learned to do the same.

When we borrowed bicycles yesterday, we found the lack of a working bell to be disturbing and dangerous. In response, I began sounding my own audible in its place—”Ding, ding, ding! ‘Scuse me! Ding, ding!” It made me chuckle, but it helped. Later in the day, as a pedestrian, I smiled to hear another bicyclist behind me doing the exact same thing. It did help me realize she was coming, and I was grateful for the considerate communication.

Almost Heaven

Traffic here is crazy, but it is, as I have shown, not actual chaos. It is highly functional, just complicated. It requires intense concentration and constant microdecision-making (that is a term that should exist, no matter what autocorrect tries to tell me). The energetic hustle and bustle of the city is exciting and fascinating, but for the unaccustomed, it can be stressful.

It is no wonder, then, that one of the most beloved songs we hear spilling out of live music bars and on karaoke stages is John Denver’s “Take me home, country roads.”

At first, we found it amusing to see Thai or Vietnamese crooners belting out these lyrics with such passion—and such poor pronunciation. But I have noticed a consistent pattern. When this song starts, crowds gather—and not just crowds of foreign tourists, crowds of locals and domestic tourists. People put down their phones, stop their conversations, and sing along, passion in their voices and intense longing on their contorted faces as they clutch their chests and disappear into their memories. This song triggers something in people.

Country roads are wide open. They contain very little traffic and require very little decision-making. No one is tooting their horns. There is time and space to glance around at the lovely scenery without endangering the lives of yourself and others.

Best yet, country roads take you home. Back to the small town of your childhood. Back to the village of your ancestors. Back to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm. Back to the state park where your family went camping. Back to Mountain Mama, whatever that is. Away from the crowds. Away from the noise and exhaust fumes. Back to the place where your heart can finally be at peace. Country roads represent an escape from the stress of the daily grind and a celebration of beauty and simplicity. Although John Denver was an American, this longing is not unique to America. It is universal.

I get the appeal. Nostalgia for what you remember (whether it is a complete or a partial and perhaps wholly inaccurate memory), for what you think should somehow still be, is a powerful thing. It drives the country music industry. It fuels political campaigns. It sells boatloads of (largely foreign-made) kitschy home decor in Cracker Barrel gift shops.

But is it accurate? Were the good old days really all that good? Did the ancestors live easy, care-free lives? Did the folks on the farm have the luxury to sit around and gaze at the fields, not a care in the world? Was your small town free of backstabbing and gossip and devastating alcoholism? Was life more idyllic, just because the population was lower? If we’re being honest, I rather doubt it.

But the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence . . . or right over the septic tank, right? After a day (or a decade) of driving according to the unwritten but essential rules of Southeast Asia’s crowded cities, a cruise down a winding country road sounds pretty good.

Just watch out for those potholes. And don't drive at night. And beware of the wildlife crossing the road.

And make sure you calculate how much fuel is in your tank compared to where the next source of fuel is located. And bring water. And watch out for yahoos testing the limits of their car’s speedometer and suspension.

Other than that, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Or at least sing along with the chorus.

🎶 Country roads, take me home . . .

With a beep-beep here and a beep-beep there, here a beep, there a beep, everywhere a beep-beep . . . 🎶


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