Let me put the question another way.
Is honking free speech or a crime?
In Vietnam, it’s pretty much the first one, and it sounds so bad on the packed roads of Saigon.
I was traveling to work this morning when the driver of a giant public bus kept honking his horn on tiny Nguyen Du Street. Cars and motorbikes tried to give way, but there was not much space.
So the bus driver kept at it until we all came to a red light. 30 seconds… 15… 5… 3… BEEP! BEEP! He was honking again even before the green light was back on. I turned into another road just to escape from him.
Some people say public bus drivers have time pressure. But it is not just them who are horn-happy. Many others are also quick on the draw, blowing the horn for no reason except that they want to go ahead.
My foreign friends say they can get at least one middle finger shown if they honk at another driver to indicate they want them to give way.
One afternoon two years ago my friend was driving me around Kuala Lumpur when a car in front of her kept zigzagging. We never found out if the driver was high on drugs, drunk or sick.
My friend had to slow down for fear of getting into a crash, but after around five minutes she lost patience.
She honked loud and long, which made the driver drive straight and move to one side for her to pass.
She immediately sped up.
“That driver might follow us and beat us,” she told me.
A Filipino friend in the car was also scared.
“What do you do that for?” he almost screamed.
I was not. Unfortunately, in Vietnam, you are not scared of honking at people. Honking is so loud and so often in the country that people just seem to accept it, and you should be scared, in fact, of asking them not to honk.
Vehicle horns are designed for the primary purpose of warning other vehicles of danger. Some also use it to punish others doing the wrong thing on the road, like my friend did.
But somewhere along the way, it has become habitual and a major cause of noise pollution, not just in Vietnam but around the world. The World Health Organization said in a 2011 report that one million healthy life years were lost every year due to traffic-related noise in Western Europe.
Since honking is a habit, it is hard to stop, just like we cannot stop people from using plastic bags or smoking even by printing graphic lung and throat cancer images on the pack.
From what I have read, there is a campaign in Mumbai to curb its honking “epidemic” by installing a device called Bleep to help drivers become aware of their unconscious honking.
It is a red button with a frowning face near the steering wheel that beeps repeatedly when the driver honks. They have to press the button to silence it.
Tests found honking by cars with the button reduced by 61 percent.
Most other countries use cash fines, which is US$350 in New York. In Peru, which is also known for its honking problem, the police can seize the vehicle as well.
Vietnam has a maximum fine of VND200,000, or less than $10, on drivers if their honking disturbs the peace in a residential area between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
In a country where traffic cops force people to drive past red lights and stop at green to make way for officials’ cars (I’ve seen that with my own eyes in Saigon), such a rule hardly means anything.
One time I was in a taxi when the driver said a young girl had paid him twice the fare for not touching his horn. I was not sure if it was a suggestion for me, but yes, a driver who controls themselves from honking in the city deserves a reward.
It really gets on your nerves when in heavy traffic drivers keep pressing their horns and pass their stress and impatience to others.
Maybe paying a few bucks to stop people from honking is a good solution.
* Editor's note: The view is personal and does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Thanh Nien News.