Crossing the line?
Updated : 07/07/2012 06:00 GMT + 7
It has been an eventful first week for me at City Diary. A story out of Hanoi has ignited an uproar, and comments and opinion pieces have been flooding in. Surely everyone knows the details by now, but just to recap: Early this week George Heydlauff, a long-term expat living in the capital city, stopped drivers going the wrong direction on a one-way street and asked them to turn around. In a few instances he even grabbed the handle at the rear of a couple of motorbikes, forcing them to a sudden stop.
Opinion on whether what Heydlauff did was right or wrong has been split almost evenly – expats and other foreigners have strongly condemned his actions, while locals seem to be much more supportive. On this page Stivi Cook argued that it is up to Vietnamese people to take action against the dangerous traffic situation in this country, while foreigners have no right to decide what is right or wrong.
Another Hanoi expat, one Mr. Hauser, wrote in to respectfully disagree with Heydlauff’s actions. He agrees that traffic in Hanoi is awful, but points to personal safety as his main reason for not supporting what happened. Finally, local reader Minh Hieu expressed praise for Heydlauff, stating that his motivations were right and that what he did should be emulated by more people.
Sadly many of the comments attached to these stories have turned into what online arguments inevitably become: shouting matches of people calling each other immature names in capital letters. However, there are some interesting thoughts mixed in with the anger.
Many expats have wondered what right Heydlauff had in attempting to enforce laws in a country he isn’t even from. It is the job of the police to regulate traffic and they argue that, even though Heydlauff apparently had gotten approval from local authorities, he should have never become involved in the situation. How would Americans feel if a Vietnamese person stood in the middle of the street and told them what to do? Some believe that infractions like going the wrong way are so common that they have almost become acceptable, but I don’t buy that. Going against the flow of traffic is dangerous for all involved.
Speaking of safety, this factor was also a common theme in comments. In the videos that have appeared online Heydlauff is seen running into the street to get in front of motos going the wrong way. He could have easily been hit. Grabbing the back of a motorbike can throw the driver off balance, and someone could have fallen over or crashed into other traffic. It was also noted several times that, had this been in another country, Heydlauff could have easily been beaten or even shot. Many of these commentators concluded that what Heydlauff did was incredibly inappropriate, while adding that if he is so frustrated with traffic violations that he tried to stop them himself, he should probably just leave the country.
Locals, on the other hand, largely agreed with the spirit of what Heydlauff did, if not necessarily how he did it. Safety was mentioned, particularly the grabbing of the rear handle of motos. However, these commentators also stated that the majority of drivers disapprove of those who break the law, and more needs to be done to curb the widespread abuse of traffic rules. Heydlauff wanted to prevent people from breaking the law, thus creating safer streets, so his motivation was admirable.
Both sides of this argument make good points, and in the end there really is no single right answer. Surely everyone can agree that traffic in Vietnamese cities is terrible. It’s impossible to put numbers on how many traffic violations there are in a given day, but I see at least one per minute whenever I drive around Saigon. Especially for those of us from the west, the casual manner in which many people regard traffic rules is startling. From gleefully running red lights to driving the wrong way to pulling dangerous u-turns, drivers seem to follow the rules only when they are convenient. This can be extremely frustrating, and I would have a hard time believing any expat who says they haven’t dreamed of doing something similar to Heydlauff.
That being said, expats have to toe a fine line when it comes to living here. Most of us come from countries that are vastly different from Vietnam in nearly every way. We can’t expect to come here and find streets as calm as those in, say, the U.S. or Germany, countries that have had decades of safety announcements, driver’s education, and social acceptance of a standard set of rules. Vietnam hasn’t had mass individual transport (other than bicycles) for very long, so the country is still in the early stages of establishing road awareness. It’s fine for foreigners to complain about the insanity of traffic here, but we need to do it without being condescending.
In the end I agree with those who say this is an issue that needs to be handled by locals. I suppose it is true that most drivers usually follow the majority of rules, though it seems common that people select certain ones to obey and certain ones to ignore. I’ve had taxi drivers tell me they can’t stop in certain areas without getting in trouble, only to blow through a red light at high speed two minutes later. I’m not sure why that is. No foreigner will really be able to figure that out, so it will come down to the Vietnamese to police themselves. It only takes a few bad drivers to make the roads dangerous and give the country a bad reputation, and right now they rule the streets. The actions of Heydlauff were indeed dangerous, but if local communities don’t come together to try to improve awareness of the laws we may well see similar incidence in the future.
What do you think?