Dancing in Saigon

Traffic intersection, Saigon. Photo: Rieke Porter, accessed from pexels.com

There is a lot for a Westerner like me to learn from how everyday people in other countries are adapting their cultures to the new age into which we are moving.

Consider 50 to 100 motorbikes converging on an intersection that has no traffic lights, each rider with his or her own idea of where they want to go. And you want to walk across to the other side!


Such is daily life in Saigon, visited recently.

Fortunately the French have left a legacy of wide boulevards and generous spaces at intersections. There are few cars. Most people travel by 125cc motorbike, usually with a passenger sitting on the back. 

This is what I learnt from Saigon traffic.

What happens at the intersection is like a dance. These seem to be the steps.

  1. It is a slow movement. There is no speeding. But decision-making is fast and ‘agile’.
  2. Awareness of the other and the guessing of the other’s intentions is paramount. 
  3. Masterly anticipation and adaption, one making a little move, the other creating a little space for them to progress before asserting one’s own intention, noticed by the other with minor corrections to continue to assert their own passage.
  4. All is played out on a huge ‘dance floor’. It would really become impossible without such a generous space for negotiation.
  5. To join the traffic dance, each negotiates their will – it can’t be demanded. (Unless you are in a car and have the capacity to act as a bully!)

Walking into this chaos would be impossible without recognising this culture and playing by its rules. You choose your best moment, of course, but if you walk slowly, directly and predictably, the bikes dance around you and you make it to the other side unscathed. ‘He who hesitates is lost!’ because hesitation destroys the predictability.

This chaos dance, I suggest, is the new world into which we are being plunged. Simply recognising that uncertainty has become the characteristic of our age is not enough. We have to learn how to dance in it!

This is where Nouwen’s concept of hospitality as ‘making free space for the other’ comes in.

The Saigon Dance teaches us that getting on with each other in our increasingly complex world requires 
1. creating space-making organisational structures that value the relational principles illustrated in the Saigon Dance
2. re-valuing ‘slow’, to create the time for negotiation in our getting on, and, I would suggest, more humanly fulfilling processes and outcomes.

The alternative might be represented by creating infrastructure that alleviates the need for such negotiation, speeding things up and therefore considered more efficient.

Photo: mhtoori .com, accessed from pexels.com

There are downsides to the infrastructure solution which seem to me to be becoming increasingly obvious. One is the ‘White Elephant Effect’ we are witnessing in empty office blocks in cities, deserted because of Covid, made relatively redundant by adaptions to the new situation. Billions of dollars of infrastructure. And, all the while, a housing crisis!

The same consequences are being felt by the fossil fuel industries, trying to hang on for as long as possible to their investments in the face of human extinction by climate change.

But also our own investments. How do we offload the useless stuff to live more sustainably and simply?

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