Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The Motorbike Diaries – Vol. 14

9 Comments 13 July 2009

Start from the Beginning - Motorbike Diaries Vol. 1

The Great Horn Divide

No matter how hard I try, I just can’t do it. I lose the mental battle every time. I tell myself to be calm, patient, understanding – but then it happens – BEEP, BEEP BEEEEEP, BEEP, BEEP; and after the 3rd time of being serenaded by this noise I just can’t be mentally strong any longer. My culture seeps in and I inevitably get angry.

Horns take on a whole new meaning in Asia. I am constantly struggling to remind myself of that. One interesting thing about living abroad is that you become much more acutely aware of your own cultural habits and actions. I realize that my American culture is impatient and loud, and we like to eat sweet things for breakfast. We value equality and freedom to choose, we believe that sidewalks are there to keep pedestrians safe, we like rules but we love to challenge them in an organized manner, we like the ease of having a price tag tell us how much things cost, we love our privacy and personal space, and finally – we think a horn on a vehicle is there for emergencies and becomes an extension of our voice when we want to say “Look out!”, or “You idiot!”, or “Are you an imbecile?”, or my personal favorite “Fuck you!”

Asians in general are quiet, save face, don’t mind having no personal space, think that sidewalks are there to park and drive motorbikes (ok – this just applies to Vietnamese), they like savory things for breakfast, they follow rules and don’t question authority, they don’t mind bartering for everything, and they think a horn is there to nicely announce their presence – “Hey, I’m here on your right…just wanted to let you know.”, or “Hello there, I’m going to go around you now, so please don’t make any sudden movements.”

I’ve been able to deal with all of the other differences; however the ‘Great Horn Divide’ eludes me.

You are even asked to blow your horn!

You are even asked to blow your horn!

I have been unable to retrain my brain on the meaning of horns. Yesterday as I drove my motorbike to work in rush hour traffic, I found myself on a one way street. The street had two lanes; the rule of thumb is that the cars/buses have the left lane to use and the motorbikes have the right lane to use. This works pretty well and keeps traffic moving; a must when there are 5 million motorbikes in a city of approximately 7 million people. This ‘left lane cars, right lane motorbikes’ means that if you are on a motorbike, you can generally get around quicker than by car. Motorbikes can be maneuvered easier than a car, so we zip along a little faster. Even though the cars are slower, they have air conditioning and protection from the rain and pollution; it’s all about trade-offs I guess.

As I was zipping down the right lane with the rest of the motorbikes, I became aware of a horn behind me – 3 little fast beeps – it kept getting closer and closer. I looked in my mirror to see what the commotion was and saw a white Mercedes in our right lane beeping at the motorbikes. The Mercedes was parting the sea of motorbikes by ‘politely’ and continuously beeping letting people know that they were coming through.

The beeping was getting on my nerves since my brain was interpreting it as “MOVE YOUR IDIOTS!” I had a little mental conversation with myself and said – this doesn’t mean that he’s yelling at you Sherry, this is just a polite gesture, this is actually a nice thing that he is doing…very nice….just a little warning…no problem…he’s not ‘talking’ to me personally, he’s talking to everyone.

The honking continued as he was right behind me now. I looked in my mirror again and became upset that he was in my motorbike lane for no reason other than to get to his destination faster as the left hand ‘car lane’ was moving slowly. However, I told myself to remain calm; I was doing nothing wrong, I was just driving along in my lane being beeped at. No other motorbike seemed to be moving out of the way much, the drivers had tuned out the horn noise and kept on going. I tried to tune out the horn noise by thinking of the incessant horn as if I were being serenaded nicely. Even though I had decided that I wasn’t going to make an effort to move for this car, I still wanted to try to see the horn as someone giving me a pleasant reminder and not someone yelling at me. I spoke to myself – “Find your inner Asian – Calm, calm, calm.”

The horn continued. My mental wall eventually crumbled and the American culture started invading my brain as the honking continued and continued. I was mad, I wanted to turn around and scream “Fuck you!” at the car. I imagined doing just that.

But I refrained. I let the anger roll around in my brain for a bit and didn’t allow it to come out of my mouth.

After I arrived at my destination I chastised myself for allowing myself to break under the horn pressure and allow my old culture to seep back inside my brain. However at the same time, I looked at it positively; I didn’t actually turn around and yell. I restrained.

Maybe I haven’t lost the battle after all. This could be the first step to making the cultural horn adjustment; only time will tell.

Get your own Vietnam Motorbike License and get out on the streets!

Like what you read?  Then keep reading!

Motorbike Diaries vol. 15

Your Comments

9 Comments so far

  1. Iain says:

    I know what you mean. It does get easier though, and using the horn yourself helps get into the swing of it. Not that I need the horn much now with Dao’s raucous exhaust note :-)

  2. Anil says:

    The worst I’ve seen is in India. Honking doesn’t bother me too much, I mostly drown it out. Think of it like birds chirping, except you can chirp back (and often too!)

  3. hstryk says:

    Oh man, if/when I make it over there I know that’s going to drive me insane. I felt my blood boil several times in Hanoi getting beeped at. I would have a hard time not stopping the bike and jumping on the hood of the car. Haha. You did good!

  4. Sonia says:

    I think this is the best encapsulation of the East vs West (or First vs Third World) cultural divide I’ve ever seen! :) It’s true, the incessant horn-tapping is totally anathema to our notions of civility in the States. Patience, grasshopper, I predict you’ll get your Zen on eventually.

  5. admin says:

    @Anil – that’s very zen of you…I hope I can get that kind of ‘mind control’ eventually!!

  6. admin says:

    @Iain – yes – can hear you coming from a ways away! Your little bike sounds very intimidating!

  7. Priyank says:

    When I moved to Toronto from Mumbai, a friend told me that his car’s honk was not working since two years. I innocently asked him – “Then how do you drive?” :-) haha


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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