Saigon Traffic – A Lesson Learned

Posted by on June 18, 2013 in On Life | 2 comments


By Christina Carson

I read a line the other day, from a 1958 edition of a 9th century work of Chinese philosophy by Huang Po who was a revered Zen master. I have always been attracted to Zen because the directness it employs to express great Truth so mimics the very Truth it is talking about. Truth is simple. Breaking through to that realization appears alarmingly difficult. Huang Po stays away from both descriptions, and suggests instead:


They do not know that if they put a stop to conceptual thought

and forgot their anxiety, the Buddha would appear before them,

for this Mind is the Buddha, and the Buddha is all living things.


I saw this Mind at work in an amazing example that awed me. I’ve never forgotten it. Bert, myself, and a friend, Patrick, were traveling together in Vietnam, We were on a business trip, looking to see if we could start a small manufacturing business in that country. Bert was among the many Vietnam vets who fell in love with Vietnam, a phenomenon difficult for most to understand, but very real for the vets. I had never been in Asia so it was all new to me. Bert gave me an astute piece of advice when we arrived. On our first morning out, as I began tracking down the sidewalk with my speedy western gait, focused on my destination, he said, “Honey, slow down, pick up their rhythm, be with them.” And so, unlike other foreign experiences I’d had prior, this one, the most foreign of all, became deeply part of me.

The city of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) was a place of growth and verve in 2,000 when we visited. The entire country had lived in starvation for years after the war due to devastation of their farmland and U.S. embargoes, but now life was returning to this ancient country, business was moving in, and the people were deeply optimistic. That in itself was quite an experience, being surrounded by optimism even Vietnam traffic-3from those still living on the street, shaving in their tiny bicycle side mirrors, putting on clean clothes regardless, and selling their wares on the sidewalk. They are a people of an artistic nature, their wares primarily that expression—painting, carving, and writing.

But the aspect of this city, likely 3 – 4 million people in 2000, that I’ll never forget was how they dealt with Saigon traffic. I can’t tell you how many traffic lights there were in the city at that time, but I would think less than 10; maybe only 5. The streets were thick with bicycles, scooters, cyclos,and a few large vehicles with the lanes filled from one curb to the other. It was what happened at these major intersections that I found boggling. Traffic would flow across for a period of time, and then as if by some magical signal, everyone stopped at the edge of the intersection, and the flow would begin from the perpendicular direction. It would flow for a bit, and then it would stop, opening the intersection back to the original crosswise traffic. I never saw an incident of someone taking advantage in any way. There was no outward sign to stop or go. The only way I could describe this dance of vehicles through the streets was that I was seeing what awareness of Mind could look and act like.

If a pedestrian wanted to cross, the rule was: step into the traffic and do not stop moving. Then the drivers drove where you weren’t with an uncanny ability to keep everything flowing while accommodating those crossing. This is Mind working. This is people living in the moment. This is life humane, simple and interconnected. This is me still marveling all these years later.


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  1. Christina, your post takes me back to a few years ago when I visited Vietnam with a friend. It certainly took me a few days to “pick up their rhythm”, particularly crossing the streets. Firstly, I was helped cross a street when I hesitated and my friend didn’t, only to have a local come out from his shop and walk me across. I was very grateful. But soon after that we both slipped into the rhythm of Saigon. And we never saw an incident either. I love Vietnam, the people, the country, the culture and the food. Thank you for taking me back there through your post. 🙂

    • Christina Carson

      My pleasure, Vacen. It is a remarkable place.I particularly was fascinated when I asked a young man traveling on a hydrofoil done the Saigon River with us, how he could stand to talk with us since we were Americans. His answer told volumes about the people. He said only, “That was then; this is now.” We sure could stand a slice of that cake here.

Thoughtful comments are always welcome!


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