Anarchy, or Spontaneous Order, on the Streets of Saigon


News of the several successful experiments by several European cities with getting the state out of traffic regulation created quite a stir last year. (See European Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs.) Non-libertarian-minded folks saw it as counter-intuitive, not self-evident, that people themselves would do a better job looking out for their own safety rather than relying on a nanny state to warn them of every conceivable danger. But it turned out that drivers slowing down at intersections and looking both ways was much, much safer than blindly trusting one’s life to a mindless green light.

Perhaps these successful experiments with traffic anarchism would have come about sooner had planners visited a city ironically located in a socialist country and renamed after a socialist “icon” of the 20th Century. The streets of what is now called Ho Chi Minh City offer the same lessons learned from the European experience, and much more. Following is a description of what the author experienced on a visit in 1997. In the intervening decade, I’m not sure to what extent archy has broken out, if at all, and destroyed the glorious freedom on the streets of the Paris of the East that I am about to describe.

Saigon’s thoroughfares are a breath-taking sight. The tree-lined boulevards teem with motorbikes moving in every direction, competing with the Vietnamese pedicabs known as “cyclos” (xch l), lovely o di-clad lasses and others on bicycles, and the occasional car or truck. The scene becomes even more remarkable upon first viewing an intersection.

There are no stoplights. Nor are there the ubiquitous red octagonal signs one sees in every script in just about every other corner of the planet. Mayhem, blood, and death must surely result, no?

No. Traffic merely slows, never stopping fully, and vehicles yield and merge, and then safely pass through the intersection. They then accelerate, and move on happily and unshaken to complete the process again at the next intersection. It is, if traffic can be described in such terms, beautiful. But surely, adding pedestrians into the picture is a recipe for disaster and carnage, no?

No. Admittedly, I found quite daunting the prospect of crossing one of Saigon’s wide avenues the first time I had occasion to do so. After all, growing up in the United States, I had taken in traffic signals and rules with my mother’s milk. In the absence of both traffic lights and stop signs, I resorted to the cardinal rule of street-crossing: “Look both ways before you cross the street.”

This rule was utterly useless, I found. Looking both ways, I was paralyzed with fear. Getting struck by a motorbike or cyclo probably wouldn’t finish me off, and colliding with a lovely o di-clad lass on a bicycle might be a pleasant experience, but nonetheless I hesitated to put my foot on the street. When I finally got up the nerve, I hastily bolted through the traffic, looking in every direction and wishing I had eyes on the back and sides of my head.

I grew anxious every time it came for me to cross a street, and did so as quickly as possible. I did not realize that my haste and overcautiousness were putting myself and others in greater danger.

Then, I observed the Saigonese. What was it that allowed the city’s natives to cross so effortlessly across the teeming streets? At first, I chalked it up to being one of the many mysteries of the East. “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner,” said General William Westmoreland. “Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Could this man I held to be a monster have been correct after all?

Unlike the general, however, I decided that there might be something to learn from the Vietnamese, so I observed them. With Zen-like serenity, they crossed the streets, with their eyes focused directly in front of them, never glancing to the left or the right. This, then, was the key, but I did not realize it until I gave it a try myself.

I crossed the street slowly, calmly, without looking from side to side. Motorbikes, cyclos, lovely o di-clad lasses and others on bicycles, and even the occasional car or truck passed by without so much as coming near me. They had no personal interest in hitting me, and thus avoided me. I had simply needed to learn to place my trust with my fellow human beings, rather than with the state.

In The Ancient Chinese Libertarian Tradition, Murray N. Rothbard notes that the “spontaneous order” spoken of by Proudhon and F.A. Hayek was presaged by the Chinese Taoist Chuang Tzu (369 BC–286 BC). Said the sage, “Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.” The Vietnamese are Taoists of the highest order, at least on the streets of Saigon.

I learned many lessons during my short visit to Vietnam, a culturally-rich country blessed with a joyful people. A visit to what was then called “The Museum of American War Crimes,” with its rows of formaldehyde jars filled with dead babies deformed by Agent Orange, taught me much about American foreign policy. Witnessing the entrepreneurial vigor of the Vietnamese taught me much about the triumph of the human spirit even under socialism. But the “spontaneous order” I witnessed on the streets of Saigon gave me perhaps the most valuable lesson I took with me.

October 16, 2007