More than once, while watching the intense traffic at cross-roads, these ancient verses came to my mind:
Five hundred years have passed since that poem was written by doctor of humanities Hoang Duc Luong. Nowadays, facing the frenzied flow of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and men, ruled by the alternations of red, yellow and green lights, Ỉ gloomily feel that the question posed by my forefathers has remained unchanged, even at the end of this century.
The sight of a crowded cross-roads of Ha Noi in flux can bring very diverse thoughts to the mind of an observer, according to his preoccupations at the moment.
A Japanese anthropologist, Yoshiko Higuchi, detects there a manifestation of the Vietnamese communal spirit, for the lights are not always respected, and there are even no lights at all in some streets with dense traffic. She observes:
“Here there is an order in chaos, just like the hidden rhythm in the traffic of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and people are thrown into a chaotic flow without traffic lights to control them. And yet people move easily without bumping into each other. There is great synchronicity. There are no agreed-upon rules in teachings. We get the instructions instinctively” (from “Collectivism in Viet Nam and Japan,” a thesis, in manuscript).
When she was alive, my friend Françoise Corrèze would sometimes close her eyes as her car was riding in the streets of Ha Noi, for she feared that it was about to run down a pedestrian or bump into a motorbike or a bicycle. Happily that kind of accident rarely happens. Everybody is mindful of others’ safety and his own. Y. Higuchi looks for that consensus in traffic anarchy in the sense of community. She classes Vietnamese culture in the category of “high-context,” i.e. collectivistic communication, as opposed to “low-context,” i.e. individualistic, cultures.
Besides, one may find an explanation to the present anarchy in Hâ Noi streets: a lingering peasant mentality. Over a decade ago, before the launching of the policy of Renovation, the city was full of bicycles. Cars and motorbikes were fairly rare. Only a few major cross-roads had traffic lights.
Streets were narrow, especially in the old quarter. Pavements being cramped, pedestrians invaded the roadway. Each morning, from the rural suburbs and the countryside of provinces, there poured into the city an enormous mass of irregular rather than regular labourers (itinerant peddlers, pedicab drivers, shoeshine boys, new vendors...). People behaved as though they were in the countryside and walked in the streets as though they were village lanes. That kind of behaviour has spilled over into the urban population who indeed has not yet acquired the habits of a modem city.
Within the framework of “industrialization and modernization“ traffic in Ha Noi will gradually come to obey the rules of urban discipline. The centuries-old capital will lose much of its traditional charm for better or worse.
But these 15th century verses will remain:
“Men of today never stop travelling
But where are those of yesterday?"
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