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For those of you who have traveled abroad, or perhaps visited Miami, you know that much of the rest of the world treats traffic laws as a quaint yet utterly irrelevant feature of modern society. Vietnam provides a case in point. When you first walk on the streets, say in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, you are struck, if not by a moving vehicle, then by the mindboggling number of near misses about your person. Chaos!

Old Quarter City Corner

Click to embiggen

As a little background, realize that you start with a vast number of motorbikes, that came on the scene well after the roads were built for a society with mostly bicycles in mind.   In Hanoi alone, for 7 million people, 4 million of these things zip around (true fact as reported by Sunny, my tour guide). Each of these has one or more drivers, who may or may not be thinking of the esoteric concept called “rules”.


One possible rule to follow, when it’s convenient, is to drive on the right side of the road. But there are many MANY other factors that precede convenience in navigating the roads. Including whim.   For your edification, I have recorded the following.

  1. If driving down the right side of the road proves impossible, or annoying, or you just get tired of it, feel free to drive down the left side of the road. Or the middle. Or weave back and forth to suit your mood. If you’re a car, go ahead and straddle any of the white lines. There are no yellow middle lines to dissuade you, just those white ones to….to….well, honestly, I’m not sure WHY the white lines are there. If, when driving along, you notice coming straight into you a pack of bikes or cars or trucks, you can play chicken, and hope that someone leans a bit to one side or the other (hopefully not the same side at the same time). You don’t need much space to pass, 2-3 mm will do to avoid smashing into each other. Any more than that is just wasteful. Or you can move on to strategy #2.


  1. Honk.        Honk.        And then honk again. Honk as if your precious life depends on it. Which it does. Honk when you are entering an intersection. Or turning left. Or right. Honk when you are aiming at a pedestrian, car, truck, bicycle, BBQ grill or the 900 year old woman tottering along with a 50 pound load of fruit on her back. Honk when you don’t like that someone is in front of you. Honk if you don’t like that they are beside you, or behind you. Honk if you slightly suspect that the person sleeping on his motorbike may wake up, start his engines and abruptly drive into your path. Honk because you like the sound of your honker. And if none of those predicaments presents itself, well, honk anyway.



  1. For sport, when you see a pedestrian in the street, speed up.   Ideally, your expression should reflect your fantasy of being a Grand Prix racer, and your prize is the terror you strike in said pedestrian. If you can pull this off, it is especially rewarding because pedestrians do not scare easily. The calm indifference with which people cross the road seems very Buddhist, or fatalist…..
  1. If you are a pedestrian, you must strike a nonchalant expression and body posture, as dozens of motorbikes, with hot engines and protruding metal, uh, protuberances, flow by you like a stampede of bison being chased by whatever stampeding bison are chased by. The key is to keep a steady pace so the drivers can estimate your path, and adapt theirs to miss you by mere inches. Or maybe brush up against you without causing enough of an injury to require paperwork.     My strategy, recommended by Chris Chiesa, was originally to find an old grandma crossing the road and stick to her like glue. Unfortunately, the grandmas I saw were wisely sitting on the side, watching the madness – which is, I suppose, how they got to be grandmas. So I substituted teenage girls on motorbikes who would cross the stampede of vehicular plastic and metal with a haughty mix of boldness and caution. I figured they could take the first crash better than me.   And they tended to think it was cute that this tall, awkward big nose stranger was acting like such a wimp.

  How To Cross The Street When No One Will Stop For You

  1. If you can, load a lot of cargo and/or family members on your scooter to give you extra oomph.   2 parents and 3 children, all under the age of 6 is not too small a load.   8 cages of ducks is not. 10 tires, half of which are ringing the driver’s body, is not too small either. Show a little gumption!   Not only will you go faster, but your motorbike will become much less controllable and the consequences of crashing will become much more dire. In other words, more fun for everyone!












  1. Do not pay any attention to traffic lights or signs or cops. Because there aren’t any. You must find your own way and pace through the stampede. However, I did notice a fairly common rule of thumb – try not to crash into something. I also noticed a really beautiful rhythm to the ebb and flow. While there were no traffic lights, occasionally “soft spots” appeared where you could see some pavement. Drivers following this soft spot would actually yield to the cross current that filled the empty space, like a summer Pacific Ocean fog getting sucked in through the Golden Gate by the heat of the Central Valley. (might have to work on my similes, or this could be a long year of blogging). It encouraged me to see. this And I USED that information!


  1. If you are a taxi cab, you must throw your weight around by virtue of your speed, caroming, and randomly opening doors (and honking, of course, let’s not forget that), in order to sweep the motorbikes off the road like they were pesky …uh….bison?


  1. Sidewalks are reserved for parking motorbikes, selling wares, and running kitchens. They shall not be used for pedestrians. Occasionally, when space miraculously allows, sidewalks can hold an extra moving motorbike or two. But not for pedestrians. Pedestrians belong in the street, where everyone can get at them.



That’s it for now.  Stay tuned as I explore the rest of SE Asia traffic patterns. Next up: an overnight train ride from Danang to Saigon (or, for the truly stodgy, Ho Chi Minh City).


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Resetting Obsolete Stories
September 72014



I arrive in Hanoi wondering what I’ll find. I mean, my country bombed the hell out of these people 45 years ago, in a war that most, including Robert McNamara, admit was a horrific mistake.   Hanoi.   From the time I was 7 years old until, really, 17, the Vietnam war was always on our mind. Walter Cronkite reporting body counts nightly. War protests in Ann Arbor down on campus.   Vietnam.   In 1965, when I was just a little kid, a 20 yr old who lived just 3 houses down, David McKenzie, was killed in Vietnam after jumping on a hand grenade to protect his friends. I had dreams of the Viet Cong in black pajamas coming for me. And as the war kept going, and I approached 18, the fact that the draft was a lottery didn’t help my fear of having to go myself.    I remember vividly one day, I guess I was about 10, sitting alone in my bathroom, terrified that I would have to go to Vietnam. Eventually, movies like Platoon, Red Line, Apocolypse Now, even Good Morning, Vietnam, brought visualizations of what that war was.   And all of this was supposed to be coming from the evil Communists led by Ho Chi Minh, and backed by the equally evil Soviets.

Photo Source for above photo

So when do I happen to arrive in Hanoi? Why during their national holiday, of course, celebrating their independence from the French, and Ho Chi Minh’s historical speech declaring the establishment of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Vietnam! The red flag with the yellow star in the middle, that I remember anti-war demonstrators waving on campus during the protests, the same flag that for many instilled fear of the inevitable march of Communism through the “Domino Theory”….these flags are out every where I go today, like we put up our American flag on July 4.




So with this as psychological baggage, I walked up to the passport control at Hanoi airport, truly nervous. I know….I’m not ignorant (well, with this sort of thing).   I’ve read enough and talked with friends and people who have been here recently.   Their reports: Since 1995 and Bill Clinton’s visit, Vietnam has moved on, they truly want to develop their society, and nearly all see most of us Americans as helpful in that.   The war was a couple generations ago.   Yet, memories are sticky things, and mine, from the musty recesses of my child’s brain, was that Americans came to Vietnam to die.   But the woman at the passport window simply looked at my USA passport, smiled (okay, it was more of a bureaucratic perfunctory grimace), checked my visa, handed it back, and said thank you.   In English. Thus began the unraveling of my musty memories of Hanoi.

Today I went straight to it. Visited the Hoa Lo prison, the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” that tortured US pilots, including John McCain. Walked up to the ticket booth, paid 20,000 dong (<$1) and just walked in. Remember a few posts ago where I talked about being in an historical place and connecting to it? I did that here too. Most of the prison museum is about how the French imprisoned Vietnamese dissidents (patriots, as presented in the museum posters). And it wasn’t pretty. Even have on display the guillotine they used on some of them. I learned that most of the prison where the American POWs were kept had been torn down for a new shiny shopping mall. But I found two rooms dedicated to the Vietnam War time.   Now whether or not the display was propaganda depends on which side you’re on. All I can say is that there is no mention of torture, but plenty of mention of the destruction the 1972 Christmas bombing program (Operation Linebacker II ) did to Hanoi and its residents. And, while being a POW wasn’t great, as the tour guide I was eavesdropping in on explained to the couple from Missouri, the prisoners “were treated well, and could do things like read books, play cards, play basketball, decorate their rooms, ….”.   The stories of torture are pretty well documented elsewhere. Anyway, I’ve seen the movie Hanoi Hilton, and it was strange being in that same place. What I left with was a feeling of how badly we humans treat each other. Sobering.


07.PrisonersLight copy

Depiction of Vietnamese Prisoners during French colonial period.

Museum presented the war from their perspective, of course.

Museum presented the war from their perspective, of course.

Prison Hallway

Prison Cell

Prison Hallway

Prison Hallway

Questionable depiction of POW life in Hanoi Hilton

Questionable depiction of POW life in Hanoi Hilton

I took more pictures, and may post them eventually, but they’re kind of depressing. If you’re interested, search here.

Jeremiah Denton

Jeremiah Denton

[A fascinating story of resolve and ingenuity, that I have learned since I wrote this, is that of one particular POW, Jeremiah Denton (who later became a US Senator). During a 1966 TV interview that the North Vietnamese intended to use a propaganda, he blinked out, in Morse Code, “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” without his captors knowing it. A Navy intelligence officer watching the interview noticed it, and that’s how he communicated the real story of what was happening in that prison to American POWs.  See clip here.  And story here.




After the prison, I needed a break.  It was lunch time, so I wandered around and thought I’d found something new and adventurous, but it turned out to the be the same great restaurant I’d been to the day before with Forest, my new Chinese truck sales man buddy (who I’d met in the hotel over breakfast).   Decided that I wanted to branch out and try something different so ordered up Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup), not so different, aaaaannndddd…. Green Papaya Salad with Sparrow. That’s right, I ate sparrow. It did NOT taste like chicken , because it was WAY crunchier than chicken. I declined eating the head and beak. But the taste was very nice, rich and slightly gamey, in a good way. As you can imagine, there wasn’t much. I think I got one sparrow, not a flock.   Anyway, tasty meal for less than $10, including beer.

Sparrow is the dark meat on the edges.

Sparrow is the dark meat on the edges.

Next stop today was the Army Museum, which I heard had a lot of Vietnam War era weapons but not much description. And that pretty much turned out to be true. They had lots of captured materiel. Tanks, jets, howitzers, and plenty of smaller weapons and equipment captured at various times. All of the signs on the US weapons talked about the damage they had done, while all of the Vietnamese weapons talked about the victorious battles they had helped win. Fair enough, it’s their museum. What was odd was seeing specific weapons (like anti-aircraft guns) with the stories about which planes they had shot down, piloted by which US servicemen.   With names.   I don’t know what to say about this, except it felt odd reading the other side of the story. There is a bust of an old woman, who was quite famous, I guess, for having lost 9 brothers and sons to the wars against the French and US.   Can’t imagine losing that many brothers and sons.

B52 Engine shot down over Hanoi.

B52 Engine shot down over Hanoi.

US Air Force jet shot down over Hanoi

US Air Force jet shot down over Hanoi

Across the street from the museum was a big old Cold War statue of yours and my favorite social engineer, straight from 1919, none other than…….one V. I. Lenin himself! I think this must be one the last remaining public statues of him in the world.

16.DaveWithLenin copy

In 2014, when even the Russians don’t have many statues of him any more, as I’ve read, yet his presence in a place of honor just struck me as anachronistic.

My last stop today was Thuc Bach Lake, where Hanoi residents and soldiers hauled John McCain out of, after shooting him down as he was bombing Hanoi . Again, a weird place to be.   I mean, a future US Presidential candidate had been pulled out of this lake in front of me, body broken, and near death. Then put in the Hanoi Hilton.

17.McCainRescue copy

McCain being pulled out of the lake, central Hanoi, after being shot down.

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McCain’s flight suit.

Thuc Bach Lake today, with intense checker games.

Thuc Bach Lake today, with intense checker games.

So that was my day of connecting to the Vietnam War in Hanoi.  And what it did for me was resolve and reset the decades long mental images and beliefs I’ve carried of this place. This, I think, is how we get over any obsolete and purely invented emotions and thoughts. Get in touch with the reality, and get out of our Shadow thinking. The stark contrast between these images, seen in person, to the experience I’ve had with today’s Hanoi and Vietnam, did the trick.

So next post, TODAY’S Hanoi, and Vietnam!   And I think I’ll start off with the fascinating, crazy, almost unbelievable until you see it world of traffic, and scootering!


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