I just returned from a week in Hanoi and wonder if “going with the flow” may squelch creativity.

One night I sat with friends on a restaurant balcony overlooking one of the busiest plazas in the city.  Nha Tho, or Church Street, is just over a block long and reflects the surface level economic change that defines Hanoi today. It’s full of boutiques like Ipa Nima, an international handbag shop that started in Hanoi, and eating places like Highlands Coffee Shop and Mediteranneo, the Italian restaurant that’s been in Hanoi since its owner and I both had brown hair. Now, we both have more white than brown. 

As we watched motorbikes and taxis below us, the traffic chaos sorted itself out. Motorbikers ignore lanes, “one way” signs and traffic lights. Pedestrians mosey across those same lanes and almost never get hit.  Even car drivers adapt to the consistent, relatively slow pace of a street like Nha Tho.  I’ve been in Hanoi for so long that I know those rules intuitively—just step onto the street, keep a steady stroll, and never stop. When I do this in the U.S., my friends whap me across the chest to stop me. But in Hanoi, it works.

Boys playing soccer...in Hanoi

At one point, a boy plunked down his backpack in the middle of the street. Soon, seven more joined, kicking a ball, with the backpack as the goal post, in a space the size of two SUVs. When they started, motorbikes and a car or two drove right through the soccer field, sometimes sending the ball flying. After about five minutes, though, the wheeled vehicles adjusted, weaving around the invisible rectangle. Drivers were semi-oblivious to the boys and their game, going with the easy flow. Seven minutes into the game, one boy fell on the ground, holding his knee in good feigning-pain fashion (or maybe it was real). He stood up, walked to another much taller, skinnier kid and walloped him in the shins, Tae Kwon Do style. They then turned toward the backpack, one of them picked it up and they strolled down the street together. Game over. The other boys faded into the crowds and the vehicles reclaimed that portion of the street.   

Going with the flow, whether strolling across Hanoi’s crazy streets or playing pick up soccer in a crowded throughway is a normal way to behave. And that’s what I see in so many other parts of Vietnamese life—people go with the flow to avoid conflict on the road, at work, at home. 

But we know that sometimes, friction, asking uncomfortable questions and bumping into obstacles is good for creativity. For a week, we heard government and other officials say that Vietnam needs to develop a more innovative work force if it is to continue its economic development. So maybe that means people need to consider when to go with the flow (like in traffic) and when to screech and push against the grain.   

Copyright © Nancy K. Napier

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