When our friend drove up in his SUV, I noticed the big dent in its side.
He’s an American who has lived in or near Hồ Chí Minh City for more than a dozen years and speaks Vietnamese.
Later he told us about the taxi that had T-boned his car – how it was clearly the cabbie’s fault, and how he berated the cabbie, calling him “Stupid! Stupid!” in his own language.
He told us this story a few hours before another accident which left a woman with a deep bruise across her left shin and had me wondering if I was the guilty party – or if somebody else had made the stupid move.
I prefer to think the latter.
This was one of those close encounters of the Vietnamese kind – a traffic accident that simply wouldn’t happen in much of the world, but can easily happen in the land, where the rules of the road are fungible and sidewalks may fill with motorbikes at rush hour.
Here’s what happened.
The Tết barbecue had been a pleasure, and our friend was chauffering us and another family back to the city in his SUV, with a third family in their car following behind us.
I was sitting in the front passenger seat.
Night had fallen, and we were travelling along a two-lane, two-way road without lines or curbs, flanked by the typical Vietnamese stretch of small eateries and little shops.
To my right we passed a common sight:
A Vietnamese family moving slowly on their motorbike, the smallest child in front, then dad driving, then the older child, then mom in back.
If this had been a film – like “Rashomon,” say, the Japanese classic of rival viewpoints – the mom and I would have made eye contact. And maybe we did, for a fleeting moment.
Our three-year-old, in his mother’s arms, was running a fever. He asked for water but we’d run out. Our friend spotted a tiny market up ahead.
He eased to the right side of the street and came to a stop.
I reached to open my door.
As I exited the car, the motorbike had stopped, and the mom had come off to sit on the asphalt, moaning with pain, holding her lower leg. I was feeling dismay, concern, and some confused guilt. Was this my fault? Somebody at the store retrieved ice; there was then a red line where the edge of the door caught her shin, now swelling. She expressed only pain, not anger. Her husband showed concern, no anger. (Later I wondered if the woman was saving her anger for her husband.) I mumbled some words of concern, in English.
I was expecting my Viet Kieu wife to come out to mediate. Seconds passed and it’s our American friend who came out, expressing concern in Vietnamese. (I later learned my wife figured that it would be better for the expats to take the lead – that she might have made things worse.)
I was standing there, feeling dumb.
I was thinking about the stories I’d heard:
About how a little money may resolve such matters.
I happened to have a few 500,000 đồng bills in my pocket.
Would 1 million đồng – less than $50 – smooth things over?
Was that too much?
I’ve heard horror stories about uninsured Vietnamese truckers paying poor rural families a pittance in blood money after a fatal accident.
This was a wrongful welt at worst.
Yes, the woman was wronged – but was it by me, or her husband?
I stepped aside and bought the water for my son.
The driver in the trailing car, also American, had pulled over.
He came up and whispered that it clearly wasn’t our fault.
I feel better learning that the turn signal was on.
But I’m still thinking about how, after more than two years in Việt Nam, I should know that what is an almost unthinkable traffic accident back home can easily happen here.
“I suggested a figure,” our friend tells me after chatting with the woman and her husband.
“They turned it down.
They don’t want any money.
But I think it would help if you apologize.”
I thought I had.
I summoned my scant Vietnamese.
“Xin lỗi,” I said.
And so we parted ways, bygones.
Inside the car, our friend said that he sort of wished the family had accepted some compensation, and I sort of did too.
But quickly it occurred to me that I would simply be trying to buy a clean conscience – and may ultimately resent doing so, since I didn’t consider myself at fault.
Perhaps that is what the Vietnamese couple was acknowledging by refusing money:
That it wasn’t our fault, and they had no intention of profiting off this accident.
They had their own consciences to consider – and taking money didn’t seem right to them.
Expats, especially those riding in an SUV, are perceived as having deep pockets, at least by Vietnamese standards, and are wary of getting hustled. But this family had no interest in exploiting the situation.
My wife later said that two Vietnamese parties probably would have worked it out the same way.
Maybe a couple of lessons were learned:
Don’t try to squeeze your motorbikes to the right of a pulled-over car, and be careful opening those doors.
By SCOTT HARRIS