July 9, 2015

Rush Hour in Vietnam: Teaching Us About Business


First time visitors to Vietnam universally take notice of the heavy rush hour traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and other big cities across the country. The mass of cars, taxis and scooters looks like a crazy mess, especially for those of us accustomed to driving in western countries. Lane markers are suggestions only. Traditional right of way rules for vehicles entering traffic circles are definitely not followed in Vietnam. Traffic circles are not the only issue – for pedestrians, just crossing a street can be quite an experience. Cars merge from side streets or from a parked position without waiting for an opening. I’ve witnessed a taxi make a complete U-turn on a very busy street with tens of scooters and other larger vehicles approaching from each direction. Behavior like this would might get you arrested in a place like Palo Alto.  Fortunately, the only conventional rule followed is stopping properly and in time for a red light. At first glance, traffic flow in Vietnam appears to be the victim of poor planning and lack of manners. However, after watching traffic over many days of cab rides from my District 1 based hotel to our office on To Hien Thanh street, I began to see the Ho Chi Minh traffic from a much more positive perspective.

I’ve begun to substitute my original anxiety and fear with the recognition that this system actually works. I now see traffic flow in HCMC as a harmonious orchestration of millions of people getting about the city. There is a smooth elegance to a large mass of movement. It reminds me somewhat of of watching a school of fish in an aquarium window. I don’t see any road rage. People honk horns, sometimes often, but taxi drivers and others are notifying a scooter to the side or ahead to be careful, “I don’t want to run you over”. Drivers don’t really go fast, usually because they can’t go fast, but when the road opens up a bit, it’s uncommon to see drivers accelerate to fill the space. Predictability and flexibility are key. There are lessons learned from how people negotiate traffic that can be applied to building software.

Self Organisation

The most important analogy seen by watching rush hour traffic to a software development project is self organization. In Vietnam, traffic is much more self organized than in Western countries. The Agile Manifesto states that “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”. Traffic in Vietnam works well, given the enormous number of people out on the roads, due to this self organization. Getting from A to B in HCMC can take some time, but you will get there, predictably and not in a frustrating amount of time – it will never take hours. It is hard to imagine that on US or German roads that one could arrive in a comfortable time frame with as much traffic. With LA or Bay Area traffic, everyone would just grind to a standstill if we applied our Western traffic systems to Vietnamese traffic volume. It would be a huge disaster. The ability to self organize and problem solve together allows this system to work, even with the huge volume of drivers served.


Secondly, the importance of the collaboration is highlighted by the Vietnamese traffic. Groups of scooter drivers stick together to get around larger vehicles or form lines or pods that benefit the group of riders. The Forbes article “The 12 Habits Of Highly Collaborative Organizations” points out the natural befits of collaboration in a business organization, including learning to get out of the way and integrating into the work flow as two of the articles main principles. When you ride a scooter, you are unwittingly participating in a team of other scooters around you and applying many of the principles of collaboration to make it work.

Not Taking it Personally

Lastly, drivers in Vietnam just don’t seem to take anything personally. There is no point to prove to someone else, no one that you have to put in their place. This allows small violations of one’s personal space to just roll off easily – you move, adjust and work together.  The point is to get where you want to go safely, relatively quickly and reliably every day.