Executive Perspective

The Fantasy and Flow of Vietnam

by By Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

Let me tell you about my recent visit to Vietnam. It is exotic and beautiful. Most of its people are Buddhists, and they have gentle dispositions as sweet as the flowers that blossom over the countryside. Like most Buddhist countries, there is a peacefulness to it that makes you reflect on the tensions we feel here in our more developed country. But perhaps the greatest interest of Vietnam is the power it holds over American imaginations.

For Americans of my generation the Vietnam War was the pivotal event of our young adult lives. The names and visions we hold from the evening news are seared in our collective memories, and the passions and emotions linger just below the surface of our skin. Yet to go to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City now is its official name) and to ride along the streets in search of that history is a largely fruitless quest. You just won’t find many images from the war.

In fact, it was interesting to talk to the Vietnamese about it. We would ask about the war, they would pause wondering exactly which war we meant, and then their eyes would light up and they would say, “Oh, you mean the American War?” It would be our turn to pause for a second—not what we would have called it, but it makes sense, so we would plunge on in our conversation. Usually, the next statement out of their mouths was “we were never sure why you were here.” And many of us could relate to that.

From their perspective the war was about reunifying their country, which had been divided by the French. The issue here is not to revisit the wounds of that past time. But I kept hearing the words of a song from that era: “War …what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” We lost more than 50,000 young men in that war. The Vietnamese lost more than 2 million people and yet today, here we were dealing with it through the gauzy veil of history.

The Vietnamese continue to live their lives pretty much the same as they had before, and they wonder why we were there. Their dreams aren’t that different from ours—peace and a better life for their children—and they would dearly love some of the modern conveniences we take for granted. Most wanted to visit the United States and they all wanted Americans to visit there. In essence the war means little today.

I don’t consider myself a pacifist—I wish I had the moral clarity that those folks have. I think there are such things as just wars. But I also think we haven’t seen many of them lately. Certainly, stopping Hitler comes to mind. I think that our efforts right after 9/11 to get the Al Qaeda fits that bill.

So the good news and bad news from Vietnam is that it doesn’t seem the fruits of war linger; we saw no bitterness toward the United States or us, but the reasons for war also seemed strained now that it is over.

Fascinating Traffic
But the greatest lessons for me from Vietnam were about “flow.” The greatest single image of the experience was watching the traffic flow through the streets of Saigon. It is a city of six million with four million motorcycles and few discernible traffic signals or rules. The traffic just keeps moving in this constant colorful swirl of patterns, lights and sounds. And crossing the street always is an adventure. When and where do you cross? And what prayers should you utter?

It is like the old video game “Frogger” except in this case you want to miss all the logs. So you run and hop between the cycles and trucks with your heart in your throat and your life in your hands. But that isn’t the way it should be done.

One night a friend and I were walking around. We had just had a conversation with a young Vietnamese boy who was trying to sell us souvenirs (capitalism thrives even there) and we were getting ready to make our mad dash through the traffic. As we stood on the curb, screwing up our courage, rocking back and forth in an effort to get going, he looked at us and said, “You don’t know how to cross the street, do you?” We looked at each other sheepishly and said, “Well, not really.” He said, “Just step out.” We said, “Just step out?”

The boy said, “No, it’s OK. Illegal to hit tourists here.” I said, “Great, do all these people know that?” He said, “Follow me and just do what I do. Don’t go too fast or too slow.” And he stepped off the curb. I was reminded of the biblical admonition that “a little child shall lead them.” So we stepped off right behind him. And it was magic.

Mutual Trust
The traffic just flowed around us. It was like having a force field around our bodies that repelled motorcycles. I can’t tell you how euphoric it was to just step out into that traffic and walk across those teeming streets and have the world flow around you.

You see the whole system is built upon reciprocity and trust. Everyone counts on everyone else knowing what they are doing (“not too slow, not too fast”), and each alters his or her movements to the other people. Pedestrians set the pace and the cyclists alter direction based on that. And everyone trusts one another to do the right thing. It occurred to me that perhaps the lesson here was that we would have fewer wars if we spent more time mastering trust and reciprocity.

But the real lesson I learned was about leadership. Sometimes you just have to step out. It may look dangerous and chaotic and patternless, but the only way you are getting to the other side is by stepping into the traffic and trusting the flow. I am willing to bet that if you can stay steady and deliberate and move with dispatch you will find a way to catch the flow and get your folks to the other side. If an 8-year-old could get me across the street in Saigon, moving your organization will be a walk in the street. And it will be a magic walk at that.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.
E-mail: phouston@aasa.org