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Of Mopeds and Murmurations

The traffic flow in Hanoi is an insane Wild West. Kelly and I witnessed it, a little horrified, firsthand.

Stop signs and red lights are optional. There is no such thing as “right of way.” Intersections look – and behave – like two crossing murmurations (there’s your vocab of the day).

Sidewalks are used as moped parking lots, so pedestrians walk in the streets. And for pedestrians crossing the streets, the dead-serious how-to advice is:

  • Wait for a small dip in traffic density
  • Commit to crossing. Go.
  • Then don’t change speed. Go.
  • Traffic sees you and will go around you. Trust them.

In other words: violate every impulse you’ve ever learned (as a Westerner), walk directly into traffic, and permit dozens of speeding mopeds to miss you by 1-2 feet each.

Insane. 

And yet, Vietnamese traffic works.

How?

I think it’s because everyone is playing by the same rules. It might look chaotic, but it’s organized and agreed-upon chaos.

The mopeds all expect to slow down and weave. They all expect to get cut off, even when they have green lights. They all expect pedestrians to cross the street in front of them (given ~30 feet or so of heads-up space). There’s a universal, non-verbal agreement. (And I mean non-verbal – we didn’t hear a single Vietnamese yell from their moped, despite the craziness surrounding them).

Traffic speed is uniform and cautious. If the speed limit is 30km/hour, then 98% of drivers follow that speed. Nobody’s going way over the limit (unlike the US). This makes sense. The #1 cause of traffic accidents in the US is not excessive speed; it’s speed differential! Uniform speed cuts down on accidents. 

The fact that 99% of Hanoi’s citizens travel on mopeds – small, quick, flexible, easy to brake and accelerate – certainly helps. I don’t think you could do it with full-sized cars.

I don’t think Vietnam’s traffic pattern is optimal. But nevertheless, it proved to me that “success” is less about perfecting all the details, and more about adoption and buy-in. The Vietnamese make it work because they all agree to make it work.

I’ve seen some weird financial habits in my time. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve spent time trying to perfect the details of your financial habits.

What’s the best budgeting system?

What’s the optimal portfolio design?

What online bank has the best interest rate?

Those are great questions. But many people take those questions too far, stalling their implementation for fear of imperfect answers. They’re missing the forest for the trees, sacrificing dollars in their quest for extra pennies.

I’m here to tell you: using the 3rd-best budgeting system and the 6th-best online bank is infinitely better than stalling. It’s better than the analysis paralysis of searching (and waiting) for a perfect financial system.

Should we try for good/better/best systems? Of course. The compounding long-term benefits of great decisions are, well, great.

But strong adoption, even of sub-standard systems, goes a long way. If you’re waiting to adopt the best financial habits, stop it. You’re stalling.

Commit. Go.

Trust me: it’s easier than walking out in front of traffic.

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-Jesse

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