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Decoding Vietnam’s road culture through David Beckham’s picture

Saturday, November 29, 2014, 20:01 GMT+7
Decoding Vietnam’s road culture through David Beckham’s picture
Traffic flows chaotically at a roundabout in Ho Chi Minh City.

HANOI – I first learned that football great David Beckham visited Vietnam from the Facebook post of a Vietnamese American friend. A post on Beckham’s official FB page has sparked a bit of controversy for its depiction of modern Vietnamese society.

A depiction that is utterly accurate. 

Beck’s site sports a photo of a woman using a camera phone to take a snapshot of the international celebrity as she sits on her motor scooter. She is not wearing a helmet as required by law and, worse, is holding an infant between her knees.

“I’m all for fans taking a picture but not sure this is the safest way to do it!” Beckham wrote.

It’s hard to believe that such a sight would shock anyone who has been in Vietnam for more than a few days. But it’s easy to see why some Vietnamese find the image embarrassing, as some expressed among the thousands of comments prompted by the post.

“This is an ugly face of Vietnam,” said Van Deng Yeu, according to one news report.

“A baby in her lap? That’s crazy,” declared one Minh Anh.

Crazy, perhaps, but also very Vietnamese.   

Yes, the Beckham fan was flouting the law – but don’t very many Vietnamese do this on a daily basis? Helmet laws are often ignored, as are laws restricting the use of handheld devices. Small children are routinely carried on motorbikes without helmets or, it seems, other safety precautions. Only the blind don’t see this.

For foreigners visiting Vietnam, the crazy traffic offers the first dose of culture shock. My first weekend, my son and I were surprised by a rush-hour herd of motorbikes that crowded up behind us – on a sidewalk. Foreigners gawk and drop their jaws at the sight of motorbikes piled with cargo that is often odd – beehives, bags of tropical fish, flat screen TVs – and/or seems unwieldy. But it’s the sight of families squeezed onto a motorbike – four and even five butts on a long seat, plus a baby in mommy’s arms – that provokes moral outrage. Foreigners can be aghast: Don’t the Vietnamese care about the children? Aren’t there any child endangerment laws? After a few weeks in Vietnam, my standard quip to visiting Americans is to expect on any given day to see about 30 or 40 instances of behavior that, back home, would be a violation of our (overprotective) child safety laws. But as someone who often uses my old Nuovo to carry the kids, I also know some outrage is misplaced.

My experience is that parents carrying children on motorbikes are typically among the safest drivers on the road. They rarely hurry and navigate carefully because they know the cargo is precious. (Of course there are exceptions: I was appalled by the young man who held an infant in his lap with his left hand, while navigating with the right at a dangerous speed.) When I’m out on the road, my larger concerns are car and truck drivers who act as if they owned the road, giddy teenagers who are fast and reckless, and the many motorists who are dialing or texting as they drive. Twice in recent days I had to swerve to avoid such motorists who weren’t paying attention to the road.

Mobile phones have become a deadly menace to drivers in much of the world. The consequences of becoming distracted driving a ton of metal can be much greater than the typical distracted motorcyclist in Vietnam.

But as Vietnam’s growing economy inspires more Vietnamese to buy sedans and SUVs, I fear that this could become a great problem in Vietnam. I, for one, am very reluctant to drive a car in Vietnam. “It’s nerve-wracking,” a friend once told me. “The other day I nearly killed a kid.”

So if somebody offers me the keys to a car, I say thanks but no thanks. Maybe someday Vietnam’s motoring culture will be safer, but not yet.

The news article that reported Beckham’s Facebook post included this sobering detail: About 14,000 people lose their lives every year in Vietnam due to traffic accidents. I have a hunch it will get worse before it gets better.

Scott Duke Harris

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