The Wisdom of Vietnam Traffic

Five business and life lessons.

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Traffic in Vietnam
It’s been over a decade since this article was initially published. Yet, the lessons provided on life and business are more relevant today than ever before. Originally written Feb 2011. Updated Aug 2022.


As I sip my cà phê dừa in a Hanoi coffee shop, I realize how much wisdom one can derive from observing the traffic here. What may seem chaotic to an outsider is quite the opposite. Traffic here runs fluid, like water finding its way through and around, without heeding perceived obstacles. Like the free markets in capitalist democracies, traffic moves as it needs to — it gets to where it wants.

This article aims to give you five tips to help you navigate the streets of Vietnam, life, and business.



1. You never have the right of way.

Whether you’re a pedestrian or a motorist, the concept of the right of way is as foreign here as an Afghan-Canadian ordering cà phê dừa in Hanoi.


Nobody owes you s#!t.


Regarding the right-of-way philosophy: Know that nobody owes you shit.
However, life and the busy streets of Vietnam are not so cruel as to restrict you from reaching your destination. Seizing the way is not a right but an opportunity that requires risk-taking and decisiveness. Like in life, seldom will society give you a free pass to change lanes or make a turn. Sometimes, you must take the initiative and go for it. Your right of way begins when you decide to take action — keeping in mind that your safety is not guaranteed.



2. Indecision will get you killed.

Move left or right, speed or stop; what’s important is that you make a decision. Hesitation and abrupt changes in mood and mind will get you killed in both life and Vietnam traffic.

Indecision leads to constant adjustments, or sometimes to no movement at all.
Both are fatal mistakes here and in life. Instead, one must decide on a path, move forward, and trust that motorists and pedestrians will adjust accordingly.


Successfully moving forward requires you to choose a path and close your options.


It might take you a few minutes (or months) to adjust from continuously swerving left and right to finally moving gracefully forward. Successfully moving forward requires you to pick your path and close your options. When you first ride in Vietnam, feeling overwhelmed by seemingly infinite variables is natural. Similar to life, endless opportunities and variables can cause indecision. Considering all variables is not just impossible, it’s dangerous for you and everyone involved.



3. Move forward and cut through fearlessly.

Whether at an intersection, alleyway, sidewalk, or the opposite side of the road, seize whatever opportunity life gives you and move forward. And yes, this requires you to abandon fears and reservations.

Failure to break conventional rules in life and traffic laws will undoubtedly cause you to halt as you watch competitors pass you.
There’s what they teach in school, and then there’s the real world. There are the rules posted, and then there are the real and unspoken rules lived.

In life and on the streets in Vietnam, many intersections are without traffic lights and signs. Waiting for traffic to slow down for an opportunity to move is futile. Waiting for the perfect opportunity to ask for a raise, ask out that special someone, or have children, will result in never achieving your goals. Don’t be intimidated by moving vehicles in every direction. Instead, concentrate on where you must go and move forward confidently and fearlessly. Quickly you’ll notice that others will adjust their path to accommodate.



4. Don’t shoulder-check.

In driving school, they teach:

  1. Shoulder check.
  2. Signal.
  3. Only when it is safe: change lanes.

You’re driving in Toronto. It’s 4 am, and the streets are empty. You want to change lanes. As a deeply ingrained habit, first, you shoulder check. It makes sense in Toronto, but not in life or Vietnamese traffic.

Shoulder checking does not work.
For one, not many streets have marked lanes. The few odd streets that have marked lanes are ignored. Secondly, taking your eyes off the forward direction you’re travelling could be fatal. There is too much noise in front to manage what’s beside you, let alone behind. Trying to see and anticipate the chaos around you will undoubtedly immobilize you. Trust that those around you will take appropriate measures to accommodate and adjust. In life, you mustn’t be concerned about the direction of everyone else – you can only be responsible for yourself.



5. Make yourself seen and heard.

Unlike in the West, honking your horn is not reserved for telling someone off. Instead, you regularly honk to communicate your general location, size, and travel direction. As a result, traffic movement is generally fluid, like a school of fish getting close but never touching. Without the constant sound of your horn (or scooter beeps), you fail to warn vehicles and pedestrians of your presence, which can result in a collision.

Honk and be heard.
In life, business, and the roads here in Vietnam, there’s great benefit from letting people know who you are, where you’re going, and what you’re about. Those who underestimate the importance of being seen and heard often go unseen and unheard. Like the competition in life, failure to make others aware of your presence will ultimately result in a bus cutting in front and running you over.





Coopetition is sometimes necessary.

Sometimes in life and on Vietnamese streets, it seems impossible to cut through the dense traffic. You may be experiencing this in your romantic life, business, or when making that difficult left turn from Huỳnh Thúc Kháng into Láng Hạ. The speed and density of oncoming traffic render any attempt to penetrate impossible. Oncoming traffic is relentless, loudly honking at you to watch out, slow down, and don’t attempt. Life and the traffic seem to conspire against you; none will let you through.


Two or more competitors working cooperatively to achieve a common goal.

Have faith in your fellow man. Lead by facing the direction you intend to go. Carefully move forward. Others with the same goal will gather around you and do the same. Before you know it, you’re leading a herd of motorists into oncoming traffic. Inch by inch, what first seems to be an impossible left turn is now a force of inevitability. The combined strength and cooperation of those with the same goal will eventually halt oncoming traffic long enough for your group to pass.

When enough people with a common goal work together, you will inevitably break through obstacles in life and business.

The Author