Just for a change, we spent the Christmas period in Vietnam. There were many new experiences to enjoy in this remarkable country: the Daoist, Hindu and Buddhist temples of its syncretic national religion; an organic herb farm; the food; a silk factory; an ethnology museum; and the dynamic entrepreneurialism of the people. But the most fascinating experience was the thing that hit me on arrival: the traffic. It was truly an experience.
In the inner cities there is little public transport. There are no underground trains, no trams and only a few buses. They look rather incongruous and can barely pass through the narrow streets of the older quarters. Tourists get around on foot and by using taxis. The locals use motorcycles.
Everyone, it seems, rides a motorcycle. There are almost no trucks and very few cars. In Vietnam as a whole there are estimated to be an average of 280 motorcycles per 1,000 population, but just 13 cars, a ratio of 22:1.
The Vietnamese live on their motorcycles. They use them for transport, carrying everything on them: shopping, food deliveries, pieces of furniture. Some of the loads are scary. We saw one on which the passenger was carrying a six foot square of plate glass. Gas cylinders are a common cargo. But transporting goods is the least of it. They are meeting places for friends and family vehicles. It is not unusual to see Dad driving with a toddler between his knees holding on to the handle bars, and Mum sitting behind with another infant holding on to her back.
The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by the locals, is impressive, but it flows along wide boulevards, and there are plenty of traffic lights. The place to experience the traffic in its purest form is Hanoi. Streets are narrow - in the old city just a few metres wide - and traffic lights are few and far between. I was told that with a population of some 7m, half of them in the city centre, Hanoi has 4 million motorcycles.
In Hanoi, the traffic never stops. It flows like water, with small tributaries issuing into larger streams, forming noisy but gently moving rivers around the quietness of Hanoi’s central lake of real water. The noise of horns is continuous. Apparently, that is because if there is an accident you are liable if you have not warned of your presence. There are few traffic signs and no visible speed limits, though we were told there is a limit of 50 kph, which nobody in the city centre comes near to reaching. Pedestrian crossings are rare. People do not bother with signals, even hand signals. The traffic forms a self-organising system. It works brilliantly.
The system has several characteristics that mark it out from the traffic of most cities.
The first is the continuity of the flow. There are no stops and starts. There is continuous movement, at a fairly constant speed, rarely more than 20 kph or so. Even at junctions the flow never ceases completely. As a pedestrian, you cannot wait for the traffic to stop before crossing the road. Parked cars, large vehicles, pedestrians and junctions cause eddies in the flow, which the flow accommodates. It is constantly self-adjusting.
The second is its effectiveness. Everyone gets to their destination in a fairly predictable manner, making journey time predictable, regardless of the time of day. There is a way round any obstacle. The goals of road users are very diverse and all can be accommodated. Some are familiar. Getting to a destination as rapidly as possible is obviously one. Some are less so, like selling goods. Meeting friends seemed to be another. Maintaining the streets introduces other road uses with different objectives. We watched one uniformed street cleaner at a busy intersection. There were no cones and no signs. She ignored the traffic, stepping right out into it without raising her head as she concentrated on sweeping up leaves with a broom made of twigs. It passed around her like water round a rock.
Which brings us to a third characteristic. Everyone is very calm. There is no road rage here. Road users appear to be relaxed, even nonchalant, but they are all in fact intently watching what is going on around them and reacting to it. They can react easily because the flow is slow enough to give them time to do so and because the behaviour of other road uses is predictable. Nobody knows where anyone else is going, but everybody knows how others will react to arising situations.
They know this because everybody is following a set of simple rules. No-one worked them out or has written them down. These rules constitute, to use a wonderful phrase coined by the wonderful and unjustly neglected Mary Parker-Follett, ‘orders given by the situation’. Here is my guess at what they are:
1) Do not touch any other road user.
2) Fill any gaps you can fit into.
3) Don’t stop unless those around you do.
4) Do not make any sudden moves.
5) Watch your left.
There is some precision to them. ‘Clearance’ is about 2-3 inches between handlebars. Participating in the system requires some experience and is daunting at first. As a pedestrian, after you have got over the shock and the consternation, you start to feel safe. You can get across any road anywhere without nasty surprises. There are no speeders, no hidden bikes coming up to ambush you between the vehicles you can see. You need to step out, make eye contact with oncoming road users and keep moving predictably. We never saw an accident of even the most minor kind.
There are accidents of course – lots of them. Vietnam’s road safety record is one of the worst in the world. However, it has been improving dramatically for a decade, and the accident statistics are interesting. In the country as a whole, most accidents are on two lane highways and caused by speeding and overtaking, with cars heavily over-represented. In Hanoi itself only 16% of accidents involve motorcycles alone, despite their vast preponderance in numbers. In the centre of Hanoi speeding is almost impossible and ‘overtaking’ is an irrelevant concept within the flow. If you follow the rules, the system creates security. Most accidents are caused by vehicles pushing through the rivers like hippopotami wading through shoals of herring and drivers who do not form part of the core system, and so bring with them a rogue mentality.
Mentality is critical. Obeying the ‘orders of the situation’ creates a distinctive mindset. The general objective is ‘keep moving towards your goal’. In most parts of the world it is ‘go as fast as you are allowed to until you are ordered to stop’, so drivers focus on themselves in isolation. In seeking to optimise themselves, they sub-optimise the system as a whole, resulting in wasted fuel, wasted time, wasted mental energy, frustration and accidents. In Hanoi they focus on the situation and the opportunities for movement the system presents them with. By optimising the whole, they all achieve their individual goals and keep the city working.
All this is happening in a state ruled by a Communist Party. In places, the government disrupts the flow with traffic lights. But mostly, the flow is ruled by an invisible hand, the spontaneous rules of the system. There is no leader and no controller. It is, in the literal sense of the Greek word, ‘an-archic’ –without a leader. It is an example of the brilliant efficiency of chaos.