During my time in Vietnam and meeting new family I have been thinking a lot about a term that I read recently in a book by Jared Diamond. The book is: The World Until Yesterday, and is all about what we can learn from traditional societies. The term he used was constructive paranoia and he used it often to describe a cautious approach that people living in traditional societies adopt to avoid danger or potential death even though to us it may seem an extremely low risk or even paranoid. An example Diamond used was when he (frequently) stayed with communities in New Guinea and that they never slept under old trees at night for the fear that they may fall down and crush them. Although the likelihood is small on a particular night, if you were to sleep under trees every night as many Guineans do then the chances of an old tree eventually falling down and crushing you increases, therefore the most constructive long-term approach is to avoid them altogether as sleeping shelters.
If you had asked me before our visit to Vietnam if I would allow my kids to ride on motorbikes in a country where there seems to be little regulation on the roads I (and especially my wife) would have said no way! Nothing paranoid about that, just a total agreement that motorbikes are to be avoided if possible in countries like Vietnam and Thailand where the accidents involving motorbike accidents are high. It is difficult though when you arrive in a situation that is totally new to you and you suddenly find yourself in the hands of your hosts who so happen to be family. Things happen fast and people are speaking in a language that you don’t understand but you can start to gather an idea from the body language, gestures and the accumulation of motorbikes around you and triple the amount of helmets needed per motorbike!
Of course you think fast and make eye contact with your wife (and mother of your children) to quickly reassess the situation. The cousins are all excited though and so enthusiastic to see you and show you around – they really want to take their new family guests to the beach. The kids are all excited as well, the chance to ride a motorbike is a complete novelty to them and they of course believe they are indestructible. Your heart says go with the flow but your brain is telling you that this is not a good idea and to think it through a bit more. There is also the culture factor – do you stand your ground based on a mental risk assessment and possibly offend people that you have just met and are putting you up in their home. Or do you shift your perspective and realise this is how people commute in Vietnam, everyone does it – you are placed on a motorbike days after birth! Are we going to just sit in the house and feel safe and walk everywhere?
I know my wife’s feelings about motorbikes and what surprised me most was that she understood that this was an important time to go with the flow and to enjoy the cultural experience. This doesn’t mean we should be neglectful of risk, still be risk aware – paranoid enough to be constructive but not averse to the opportunity. We made sure that everyone is wearing helmets the right size and that the most experienced motorcyclists were in control of the bikes. The cousins soon got the message that we were happy with the situation but alert to the potential risks in a subtle way. They drove at a good speed and we always felt very safe without us having to say anything to them.
We ended up using the motorbikes everyday while we were in Phan Theit and Mui Ne and the family were over generous in their desire to transport us around and to spend time with us – telling us what time they would meet us and pick us up each day. We could of course taken taxis but this would have been less sociable and not as an authentic way to see the country, plus the kids really loved their motorbike experience and each one had their favorite cousin to ride with – often sandwiched in between Oanh or myself! If we had opted not to embrace this opportunity we would definitely have missed out on three amazing days visiting; the Flying Sand Dunes of Mui Ne, eating fresh crab on the beach, shallow river walking through a sandstone gorge, a sunset over Mui Ne bay and most importantly of all making close and honest bonds with special family members.