Vietnamese people are fantastic. Friendly, energetic, incredibly helpful. Historically, the strong influence of Chinese culture, in particular Confucianism, has meant a great cultural emphasis on respect. “Saving face” – loosely translated as avoiding the slightest embarrassment – is important, as is emotional restraint. It is exceedingly rare to see people yell at each other, or, on the other end of the spectrum, engage in mushy displays of affection in public. In short, if you’ve ever been to Italy or South America, it is the exact opposite.
That is, until those unassuming Vietnamese straddle their motorbikes, donning their alter-egos and surgical masks. Suddenly all cultural norms go up with the exhaust fumes. Seemingly pleasant people become helmeted rule-flouting monsters, running red lights, driving on the sidewalk, treating zebra crossings and road signs as ugly decorative adornments that ought be destroyed. Whereas, to a Vietnamese sans horsepower, a pedestrian is a person to whom she will offer directions, to a Vietnamese on a motorbike a pedestrian is a menace to society.
As a perpetual foreign pedestrian here, I have been on the receiving end of all kinds of street-crossing advice and theories. But there is only one way to be certain you will make it through the motorbike fire alive: attach yourself to a Vietnamese senior citizen or to a Vietnamese family with at least 2 children under the age of 10. Grab on to their shirts if you have to. Do not let go until you reach the other side. Breathe a deep sigh of relief.