TRANSPORTATION IN VIETNAM: BICYCLES, MOTORBIKES, HELMETS, CYCLOS AND TRAINS

TRANSPORTATION IN VIETNAM

In the old days Vietnamese roads were the dominion of bicycles and a few Russian -made trucks. Now they are swamped with a variety of vehicles, animals and pedestrians. National Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey said when he came to Hanoi in 1973 the thing that struck him was: "It was silent. It was all bicycle traffic or people walking, so there wasn’t much on the streets to hear. To me that’s the sound of a socialist city....Now it is a city full of noise: cars, horns, motorbikes.” Up to the mid 1990s the bicycle was the dominant mode of transport. Now it is the motor scooter. In Ho Chi Minh City in 2000 there were 2 million bicycles, 1.5 million motorbikes and 58,000 cars.

Vietnam has one of the highest vehicle densities is the world's highest, with more than 18 million registered motorbikes in 2006 -- a number that grows by more than two million a year. Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2007, which lifted an import ban on bikes larger than 175 cc and lowered tariffs on cars, of which there were about one million in 2006. [Source: Frank Zeller, Agence France Presse, February 8, 2007]

Vietnam went from half a million vehicles of all kinds in 1990 to almost 14 million at the end of 2004, according to the National Traffic Safety Committee. Grant McCool of Reuters wrote: “The ever-increasing number of vehicles is fueled by one of the world's fastest expanding economies. The streets of the capital, Hanoi, the commercial center, Ho Chi Minh City, and other towns teem with motorbikes weaving between cars, bicycles and pedestrians. In the biggest cities, crossing the street is hazardous with few crosswalks or traffic lights available.Relatively few riders or passengers wear helmets. The preferred headgear includes cotton caps and sometimes the conical hats that are one of Vietnam's best-known symbols.Entire families of three or four often crowd the seat. A motorbike's cargo can include everything from trees to chickens and pigs, TV sets and crates of beer. [Source: Grant McCool, Reuters, April 13, 2005]

Vietnam’s transportation system is in need of modernization and expansion. Ports are operating below capacity. Roads are in generally poor condition, and the underdeveloped railroad system carries less freight than the inland waterways. Motorcycles are more popular than buses. In an effort to improve bus service, Hanoi plans to invite private companies to bid for operating rights for six municipal bus routes.

See Separate Article on Automobiles, Roads and Traffic Accidents

Dangers of the Rapid Switch from Bicycles to Motor Vehicles in Vietnam

Grant McCool of Reuters wrote: “Vietnam has sped into the motorized age, but the bicycle and the conical straw hat have been slow to give way to the crash helmet as protection in dangerous traffic. The estimated daily death toll of 35 people or more is one of the world's highest traffic accident rates. Many of the victims are motorbike riders without protective headgear. In 1990 Vietnam was primarily a bicycle-pedaling society, but rapid economic development since then has made it the world's fastest motorizing country. "It caught the government off guard, it caught society off guard," said Greig Craft of the Hanoi-based Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, a U.S. non-profit group that works with the government and United Nations agencies to improve road safety. "There was no training, no licensing procedures. The enforcement and education wasn't there." [Source: Grant McCool, Reuters, April 13, 2005 +++]

“In March 2005, the World Bank approved a $28.5 million loan to enhance its existing work with government and non-governmental groups to support road safety and improve public awareness. It said Vietnam's Communist Party rulers recognized that the high accident and death rates were an urgent political and social issue. A death on the road can push a family back into destitution. The new campaign emphasizes the need for "speed-limit and drunk-driving enforcement, separation of traffic and motorcycle helmet law enforcement." +++

“In recent years government, international institutions and advocacy groups have supported and paid for education programs and helmets for children, road improvement and law enforcement. Every morning, state-run TV shows skits of poor road safety and instruction on the correct practices. All of these measures have helped raise awareness of road dangers, but the death toll keeps rising. In 2005, 12,096 people were killed and 15,633 injured in 17,532 accidents, the government said. Observers such as Asia Injury estimate the number could be up to 30 percent higher because many accidents go unreported. +++

“In 2003, Vietnam had a reported death rate of more than 12 per 10,000 vehicles, or about 11,300 people, the World Bank said. It is not the only developing country in the region with a similar problem. The rates were below those of Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia. But comparable rates worldwide were in the range of two to three deaths per 10,000 vehicles, including industrialized nations such as the United States and Japan. +++

Bicycle 'Discrimination' in Vietnam

The Vietnamese carry huge baskets of fruits, vegetables, ducks and chickens, stacks of fish traps, tree trunks, 100-pound bags of rice, live pigs trussed on a sling and other improbable items on the backs of their bicycles and motorscooters. They ride bicycles even in heavy rain and wind. Unification brand bicycles are the heavy two-wheelers used by peasant to carry chickens today and by Viet Cong to bring supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Nguyen Ngoc Trung wrote in OhmyNews: “In a parking place on the road in Nguyen Xi Street, famous for cheap bookshops, motorbikes overwhelm bicycles whose owners are students and pupils. Only a few of the latter stand modestly on a small open space. In big cities, many people think that bicycles belong to the inferior classes and are deemed unfashionable. That's why people often find it hard (psychologically and physically) to park their bikes when going to a modern cafe or shopping malls. Nguyen Thu Ha, a business student from Bac Ninh province, said, "One day I cycled to a very big fashion shop in Hang Bong street in the old quarter. The security guard looked at me top down, and then told me they had no parking space for bikes. I then asked some of my friends and they said that the guard may have thought that I did not have money because I rode a bike."[Source: Nguyen Ngoc Trung - OhmyNews (.kr), March 14, 2006 \^/]

“Time has gone by and fewer bikes are visible in the street. The edges of roads throughout Vietnam are reserved for bicycles, but more motorbikes are encroaching on this area due to the rapid increase in their numbers. It was a totally different story in the 1980s when Vietnam was still reeling from the war. Owning a bike "made in Eastern Europe" was the dream of many. At that time, deserted streets were dotted with old and skinny bicycles. Bicycles are very good tools for saving the environment, but according to the Hanoi Department of Internal Public Transport, about 60 percent of Hanoians like motorbikes for commuting. Only 13 percent prefer bicycles. \^/

“Spencer White, chief Asian equity strategist for Merrill Lynch, was once quoted by Bloomberg as saying figuratively, "Bicycles have been swapped for BMWs in the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City." With the government decision to allow the imports of old cars, it is predicted that big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will be full of cars. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, motorcycles will meet the same fate as bicycles now. \^/

Motorbikes in Vietnam

Motorbikes are the main mode of transport in Vietnam, with 24 million of them in a country of 87 million people in 2009. In the late 1990s, Vietnam had about 10 million motorbikes for a population of 80 million people, one of the highest ratios in the world. The younger generation demands motorbikes rather than bicycles. Motorbike traffic jams are among worst in world. There is a high motorbike fatality rate. People don't need a licenses to ride motorbikes with 50cc engine Women in au dais and long gloves on the motorcycles are a common sight. A Honda Dream II motorbike cost around $1,700. It will run all day on 50 cents worth fo gasoline.

Naoji Shibata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “The number of motorbikes stood at 6.5 million in 2000. Since then, more motorbike assembly factories have been set up in Vietnam. Besides, many low-priced motorcycles have been imported from China. As a result, the figure exceeded 10 million in 2002. In Vietnam, there are few public transport options, so many people rely on motorbikes to get around. The number of four-wheel vehicles is still fewer than 1 million. Vietnam is the only country in ASEAN where the motorbikes account for over 90 percent of the total number of vehicles. [Source: Naoji Shibata, Asahi Shimbun, June 14, 2007 ////]

Nguyen Ngoc Trung wrote in OhmyNews: “With the influx of cheap Chinese motorbikes, more and more people can afford to get motorcycles at the cost of about US$200. More motorbikes of all brands have been dominating the road. Some youths try to show off with expensive motorbikes with famous brands like Honda or Piaggio. Pupils and students have long been associated with bicycles, but the trend is now changing. More among them can now get access to motorbikes (of course, their parents are financial sources), even if there is a law banning students under 16 from riding motorbikes to school. [Source: Nguyen Ngoc Trung - OhmyNews (.kr), March 14, 2006]

Motorcycles outnumber cars by 10 to 1 in Vietnam, among the highest ratios in the world. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “With so many motorcycles on the road, more than half of Vietnam's 13,000 annual traffic fatalities are from head injuries — twice as many as in the United States. Fortunately, the figures are edging down with the new helmet law. Just about anything is carried on Vietnamese motorcycles, and it's not unusual to see four people spanning three generations, women riding sidesaddle, on one underpowered two-wheeler. Although all passengers are required to wear helmets, only those older than 6 face fines, so protective headgear on children is rare. Many squirm in grandma's arms as their motorcycle hurtles along, like unguided missiles waiting to launch. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2010]

Motorbike Lifestyle in Vietnam

Andy Mukherjee of Bloomberg wrote: “The 4 million motorcycles on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City offer a remarkable -- if somewhat noisy -- testimony to the prosperity that beckons Vietnam. A US$900 Honda may not be everyone's idea of affluence. However, it has the same pride of place in this rapidly industrializing nation as a bullock cart in an agrarian society. Young men and women -- many of them migrants from rural areas -- commute to large, modern factories on the outskirts of the city on bikes they are proud to own and scared to lose. This mobility is so crucial to the workers' productivity that some employers in the city formerly known as Saigon have even begun buying insurance, at their own expense, against the risk of bikes being stolen from their factory premises. [Source: Andy Mukherjee, Bloomberg, December 8, 2007]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Kevin Nguyen, 29, who met his wife, Phuong Thao, 26, at the hotel where they work, would ride on her motorcycle — newer, flashier and yellow — when they were courting. They'd pass up such Ho Chi Minh City hangouts as Pizza Inn, presumably a cousin of Pizza Hut, and New York Pizza n Fries, in favor of a strip of local seafood restaurants where many riders go in the evening to cruise and show off.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2010 *-*]

Frank Zeller of AFP wrote: Hans Kemp “has spent hundreds of hours photographing Vietnamese traffic for his book "Bikes of Burden," a tribute to the motor scooters he calls "the backbone of Vietnam's economy". His pictures prove that almost anything can be transported on a motorcycle. The loads he has photographed include giant truck tyres, stacks of toilets, beer barrels, small forests of bonsai trees, flocks of live ducks and stacked crates of raw eggs. They range from the tragic, like a basket of dogs heading to a restaurant, to the ridiculous, like the dead shark flopped across a moped. Two thirds of Vietnam's population of 85 million are under 30, and the motorcycle has become the center of youth culture. But the flipside of that fascination is one of the world's highest road tolls with about 30 fatalities a day. [Source: Frank Zeller, Agence France Presse, February 8, 2007]

See Motorbike Industry

Honda’s Difficult Time Getting Established in Vietnam

In 1999, Reuters reported: “The motorbike division of Japan's Honda Motor Co is struggling to blaze a trail in Vietnam, even though motorbikes are the key mode of transport in the country and sales are bucking an economic slowdown. Haruo Takiguchi, general director of Honda Vietnam Co Ltd, said high taxes and other costs along with tough localisation requirements made it almost twice as expensive for Honda to make a motorbike in Vietnam compared with nearby Thailand. Bikes made by Honda in Vietnam also had to compete with motorbikes assembled from imitated components or full units smuggled across the country's land border, Takiguchi said. [Source: Reuters, October 26, 1999 <=>]

“Vietnam's market might have strong potential —which was why Honda built a manufacturing plant — but the firm was unsure if it would invest fresh funds over the next few years, Takiguchi told Reuters. "We appreciate the efforts of the government, but still we have many anxieties and difficulties,'' Takiguchi said. Honda Vietnam is a 70:30 joint venture between the Japanese giant and a local firm. It started making bikes in 1998. Honda, which invested $47 million in the entity, had wanted to set up a 100 percent owned company, but Takiguchi said the government insisted it link up with a local partner. <=>

“Takiguchi said he was puzzled why Hanoi allowed the four foreign investors manufacturing motorbikes in Vietnam to suffer when they were helping develop a local components industry, transferring technology and providing jobs. Vietnam has banned the import of fully assembled motorbikes, but allows completely-knocked-down units (CKD) to enter, which Takiguchi said was a key problem. <=>

“He said some 25 local firms were bringing in large numbers of CKD bikes from China, and many of these were made up of imitated parts that sold for less than $1,500 when assembled. Honda Vietnam's flagship, the Super Dream, sells for $1,990. Those CKD imports along with the smuggling of 30,000-40,000 fully built units each year meant Honda and the other three foreign bike makers accounted for only 40 percent of total annual demand, Takiguchi said without providing exact figures. <=>

"We cannot understand why the door is open to these imports when they do not contribute to the local economy,'' he said. In addition, Honda Vietnam was required to start making engine components -- which means expensive technology -- within six years, something that took 15 years in Thailand where Honda has capacity to make one million bikes a year, Takiguchi said. That investment would come from retained profits, he said. To make matters worse, Hanoi now wanted Honda Vietnam to drop its retail prices, something Takiguchi said was impossible without lower costs and greater sales volumes. <=>

In 1998 Honda sold 80,000 units and hoped to sell 100,000 in 1999, rising to 140,000 in 2000, Takiguchi said, adding that the firm was making a slight profit. He gave no details. He said Vietnam's economic slowdown was not a problem because Vietnamese placed so much value in a motorbike, as a vital mode of transportation and a family asset.

Dangerous Motorbikes in Vietnam

In 2000, Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in the Washington Post, “Weaving through chaotic traffic on his Honda motorcycle, Pham Hung Phong blended into the sea of clattering two-wheeled vehicles that clog this city's narrow streets. His large briefcase was balanced precariously between his legs. His 10-year-old daughter was perched behind him. Neither he nor she wore a helmet. "I'm not worried," Phong said. "I've been riding a motorcycle for 10 years. There's nothing to be concerned about." [Source: By Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, November 10, 2000 |^|]

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the unbelievable impact this is having on Vietnamese society," said Greig Craft, an American living in Hanoi who has set up a not-for-profit foundation aimed at reducing preventable injuries. The carnage has its roots in the Communist government's decision to move toward a free-market economy. The resulting prosperity enabled more than 8 million people to trade in proletarian bicycles for light motorcycles. Fewer than 3 percent opt to wear protective helmets, however, and motorcycle drivers routinely flout traffic laws. Vietnam may be a Communist country, but on the road, it's anarchy. People blithely ignore red lights, stop signs and one-way postings. Anyone wanting to turn simply cuts through oncoming traffic and expects others to yield.|^|

Motorcycles are used the way cars or trucks are anywhere else. Whole families ride on one bike, and it's common to see televisions, computers and stacks of dead pigs strapped on the rear rack. The costs associated with treating motorcycle injuries and other accident victims accounts for more than 75 percent of urban hospital budgets. Motorcycle-related carnage has so swamped city hospitals that doctors have had to reinstate Vietnam War-era triage systems. Safety experts say helmets could reduce the number of injuries and deaths by 75 percent. But it hasn't been easy to convince the Vietnamese. |^|

Naoji Shibata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “Vietnam is also known for the bad manners of its motorcyclists. They frequently go off road, riding along narrow sidewalks between parked motorbikes, pedestrians and food stalls. According to a survey by the Ministry of Transport, only half of motorcyclists turn on blinkers when they make a turn. Seventy percent of those surveyed said that they do not apply the brakes when they negotiate curves. In addition, many people ride motorcycles without a license. [Source: Naoji Shibata, Asahi Shimbun, June 14, 2007 ////]

“Nguyen Trong Thai, deputy chief of the secretariat of the NTSC, says that the rate of unlicensed drivers is about 10 percent--a marked improvement from 50 percent several years ago. However, some aid organizations estimate that the rate is really around 20 to 30 percent. Moreover, it is rumored that people can obtain a driver's license easily by giving money to an official of the license center. According to the popular conception, traffic police are worse than useless, spending their time hiding behind trees waiting to leap out, grab people breaking the law and extracting bribes from them. Another serious problem is lack of infrastructure. Vietnam has neither car-only roads nor pedestrian overpasses. The authorities do not have machines to detect speeding or drunken driving. They do not own high-speed cars to chase down speeders.” ////

Motorbike Accidents in Vietnam

Vietnam recorded 13,000 road deaths in 2008, one of the world's numbers in relation to its population, with the majority of accidents involving motorbikes. Every day, an average of 35 people are killed and more than 50 others are left with brain damage or other permanent disabilities in motorcycle accidents. Safety experts compare the fatalities to a fully loaded 747 jetliner crashing every week and a half.

Deadly accidents increased almost fivefold between 1990 and 2000. Naoji Shibata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “To put Vietnam's road toll in perspective, the number of fatalities is twice as high as the average road fatalities in Japan, whose population is 30 percent larger. Motorcyclists resist wearing helmets. They also frequently drive without a license or under the influence of alcohol. At the same time, traffic police take bribes instead of cracking down on violations. Recently, Vietnam has started to get serious about reducing deaths on its roads. [Source: Naoji Shibata, Asahi Shimbun, June 14, 2007 ////]

“The number of people killed in road accidents increased from 2,268 in 1990 to more than 10,000 in 2001. In 2002, Vietnam had the largest number of traffic deaths among the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vu Khoan, then deputy prime minister, described the situation as "the largest catastrophe since the Vietnam War." He ranked the traffic issue with natural disasters and corruption as the biggest problems facing the country. In an attempt to attract people's attention to the issue, the government conducted essay and campaign slogan contests. However, road safety has taken a back seat to economic growth, and Hanoi has relied on aid organizations to lay out the money to implement stricter traffic measures. ////

Motorbike accidents are the chief concern. In 2005, 85.7 percent of those who were treated at the Viet Duc Hospital in Hanoi after crashes had been involved in motorbike accidents. Head injuries accounted for about 77 percent of traffic deaths last year. Trinh Hong Son, deputy director of Viet Duc Hospital, lamented the situation. "Although the effects of helmets are obvious, people hate wearing them, saying, 'It is hot, inconvenient and does not look cool.' Those people think traffic accidents will never happen to them." It used to be rare to see people riding motorbikes with helmets in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, which are both flooded with motorbikes. According to the NTSC, of the motorcyclists involved in traffic accidents, just 1.4 percent were wearing a helmet when the accidents occurred. ////

Combating Motorbike Accidents in Vietnam

Naoji Shibata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “The Vietnamese authorities, for their part, are taking measures to address the problem. In April, the National Traffic Safety Committee (NTSC) imposed stricter penalties for traffic violations, and conducted a nationwide crackdown. The Hanoi city government also banned senior high school students from going to school by motorcycle. The growing attention to traffic violations was prompted by two headline-grabbing accidents that occurred in Hanoi. [Source: Naoji Shibata, Asahi Shimbun, June 14, 2007 ////]

“Seymour Papert, 78, professor emeritus of artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who visited Hanoi to participate in an international academic conference, was run down by a speeding motorbike as he was crossing a busy street. He suffered serious injuries. Several days later, Nguyen Van Dao, chairman of the Council of Natural Sciences of Vietnam and one of the country's most esteemed intellectuals, was hit and killed by a speeding bike near his home. He was 69. Local and foreign media reported the two accidents. A representative of an international organization expressed regret about the deaths at a conference of donor nations, which was being held in Vietnam at that time. ////

In 2002, the Hanoi government introduced new motorbike licenses “The Japanese government aid organization, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which has helped with the introduction of traffic safety measures in Vietnam since 2001, started to conduct training projects for traffic police last year. A Japanese traffic expert, Michimasa Takagi, who is serving as an instructor in the program, said: "People's awareness has not caught up with the rapid economic development or the arrival of a society in which motorbikes or cars are widely used. Vietnam needs to work on personnel training, policy-making and infrastructure development at the same time." ////

Motorcycle Helmets in Viet Nam

In 2000, the government made it mandatory for motorcyclists to wear helmets when they ride long distances on national roads. In 2003, it urged civil servants and students to wear helmets when they ride on motorcycles. However, every time the government had discussed making helmets compulsory, people have come out strongly against the idea. As a result, the government has yet to pass rules requiring riders to wear them at all times.

In 2000, Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in the Washington Post, “The government enacted a law last summer requiring helmet use on national highways as of Sept. 1, with the regulation to be expanded in the next year to cover city streets. But nearly everyone has ignored the new law. "It's not stylish," said Tran Thi My Trang, 20, a university student who rides a purple Kawasaki. Young women often wear matching scarves and forearm-length gloves to shield their arms and face from the sun. But protecting their head, they say, would look ugly. The most common complaint, however, is the climate. [Source: By Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, November 10, 2000 |^|]

“A typical helmet, which covers a rider's whole head and has a plastic shield to protect the face, is commonly referred to as a "rice cooker." "They're very hot," Trang said. "And it's very difficult to see when you're wearing one of them." So Craft designed a helmet suitable for a tropical climate, eventually settling on a combination of an equestrian helmet and a bicycle helmet with ventilation holes and a sun visor. He has yet to gain government approval of the design. The government hasn't started enforcing the new helmet law, but Craft said the key will be not penalties but a public-awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of riding motorcycles and portraying helmets as cool. |^|

As of 2005, helmets were required on designated national roads but the law was not universally enforced. Grant McCool of Reuters wrote: “Convincing more Vietnamese to wear helmets on motorbikes comes down to cost, police enforcement and designs better suited to the country's heat and humidity, safety advocates say. In the vernacular, Vietnamese frequently refer to helmets as "noi com dien" or "rice cooker" because they are hot and uncomfortable. Asia Injury makes lightweight helmets at a factory near Hanoi to encourage more usage. Like them or not, crash helmets have saved lives, said Asia Injury spokesman Hoang Tu Giang. "Some people don't like to wear it because they say it is a 'rice cooker' but many people have fallen back into poverty because the breadwinner died in an accident. So what do you choose?" Giang said. [Source: Grant McCool, Reuters, April 13, 2005]

One reason some Vietnamese say they do not wear helmets is the price. "We bought helmets in bulk but we do not sell very many," said Phai Huong, a sales attendant in a small motorbike helmet store in Hanoi. "In Vietnam many people are very poor so only a few buy helmets because they are expensive," she said The cheapest helmet for sale was 50,000 Dong ($3) and the most expensive one was 1 million Dong ($63).

Motorcycle Helmet Wearing Becomes Law in Viet Nam

The World Health Organization reported: In December 2007, “motorcycle helmet wearing became mandatory for ALL users of motorized two-wheelers in Viet Nam. This followed the 15 September 2007 deadline for all government and company employees to set an example. Overnight the wearing rate went from around 1 in 12 to almost 100 percent. WHO has been collaborating with partners in the country - governmental, nongovernmental and academic - to advocate for this change and to monitor the helmet wearing rate before and after the passing of the law. [Source: M Peden, World Health Organization (WHO)]

Results seem promising. According to the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, major hospitals reported that the number of patients admitted for traumatic brain injuries in the two days after the law’s enactment was much lower than on previous weekends. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, serious traffic injuries fell by almost 50 percent compared with pre-helmet weekends. This impressive change follows nine years of lobbying by the WHO and many partners on the ground in Viet Nam and has included the following:1) The development of a "tropical" helmet specially designed for the conditions in the country and head sizes; 2) The development of helmet standards, including the world's first helmet standard for children; 3) A helmet workshop using the WHO, GRSP, FIA-Foundation and World Bank Helmet Manual - A road safety manual for decision-makers and practitioners; 4) "Helmets for kids" - free helmets and education to school children; and 5) Various public awareness campaigns.

Deadly accidents increased almost fivefold between 1990 and 2000. Naoji Shibata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “On March 29, Miss Vietnam 2006, Mai Phuong Thuy, appeared at the World Bank's Hanoi office to launch a campaign calling on motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Posters bearing the slogan "Let's put on a helmet—no more excuses" feature a picture of the beauty queen in a flower-patterned helmet. Martin Rama, the World Bank's acting country director for Vietnam, said at a news conference launching the campaign, "Vietnam made a great sacrifice in the (Vietnam) War. Now, it is facing a similarly (critical) situation. People underestimate traffic accidents compared to terror attacks." The campaign is mainly organized by the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes safe driving. It is supported by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other organizations. [Source: Naoji Shibata, Asahi Shimbun, June 14, 2007]

The main problem with the 2007 law was a legal loophole that exempted children from wearing motorcycle helmets when they ride with their parents. In April 2009, Associated Press reported: “Vietnam has closed a legal loophole that exempts children from wearing motorcycle helmets when they ride with their parents, state media reported. Under a revised Transport Law that will take effect July 1, adults transporting children under age of 16 without a helmet will be fined up to $11, the Thanh Nien newspaper reported. Currently, children under 16 or the adults responsible for them cannot be penalised if youngsters riding as passengers do not wear a helmet. The World Health Organization has urged the Vietnamese government to amend the law to include penalties. The loophole had weakened a generally successful helmet law that Vietnam enacted in 2007. The WHO has said that even with the exemption for children, the helmet law has helped to save more than 1,000 lives per year since it was introduced.[Source: AP, April 18, 2009]

Making Motorbike Helmets Fashionable and Practical in Vietnam

Reporting from Ho Chi Minh City, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Thao Pham walks in her pink high-top sneakers along a row of motorcycle helmets at the eVo shop on Hai Ba Trung Street. Her current helmet, with a "Funny Love Pucca" cartoon character pattern, is so yesterday. And there's a sale, 30 percent off. The 21-year-old tries on a winged "Snoopy in Car" model, a red-and-white ladybug helmet and the "Monokura Boo," featuring a black-and-white pig, before wandering off. So many helmets, so little time. "I wear different ones depending on my mood," says Thao, an office worker. "My pink one is a bit dated. Since my boyfriend gave it to me, I'll continue wearing it. But I need something new." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2010 *-*]

Vietnam’s “communist government spent years ordering riders to wear helmets. But its warnings, celebrity entreaties and grainy pictures of people drooling from head injuries just unleashed angry protests by riders, who dubbed the hot, unsightly helmets "rice cookers." So in December 2007, Hanoi decreed that riders caught without helmets would have their motorbikes seized. As fast as you can say "chin strap," people were diving for headgear. And it didn't take long for vibrant Vietnamese consumers to make a virtue of necessity. *-*

“The traditional full-wrap motorcycle helmet has been streamlined and equipped with cooling vents to more closely resemble a bicycle helmet, then adorned with all manner of decorations. In a land that once relegated everyone to frugal, androgynous apparel, what better way to strut your stuff than to turn the humble necessity into a raging fashion statement? Of course, with most helmets costing less than $10, it's not clear how solid their safety credentials are, even if they bear the requisite certificates. And then there's the foldable helmet with air pockets in the ribbing that inflate and deflate like travel pillows to better fit in a purse or briefcase. *-*

"People didn't wear them before because they looked stupid, a bit like Gazoo in 'The Flintstones' on their smaller Vietnamese frames," says Ralf Matthaes, managing director at Ho Chi Minh City-based TNS Vietnam, a market analysis firm. "Now the helmets are personalized, with stickers, you name it. It's a really good indication of what's happened with youth culture here. People really want to stand out in a crowd." And stand out they do, with zigzag patterns, plaids, all manner of cartoon characters and matching designs for couples. (What better way to say you care?) Some are made to look like floppy hats, and there are even a few with mounted cameras to shoot video of the chaotic dance of two-wheelers unfolding before your handlebars like a bobbing, weaving school of tropical fish. *-*

Nguyen Thi Truc, 22, has been working at eVo for only six months, but she's already seen a couple of helmet fashion generations fly by. "In recent months, 'Pooh Bear' has edged out 'Funny Love Pucca,' but 'Happy Day Snoopy' is also selling well," Nguyen says. "Some people own several, just to make sure they're always wearing the latest." *-*

Phuong's helmet of choice is yellow to match her motorcycle. Buying headgear to match every outfit just wouldn't be practical, she said. She dispenses with the elegant elbow-length Audrey Hepburn-style gloves that some women wear to keep their forearms from tanning. She doesn't bother because she's married and no longer on the hunt, and her husband doesn't care if her skin darkens. There's an $8 fine if police catch you without a helmet, a pretty serious disincentive in a country where low-end helmets cost $2. Then again, who would be caught dead in a low-end helmet? "It's money for the police, although there's generally too few of them to catch you," Nguyen says, showing off his black helmet. "With helmets, safety is definitely an afterthought. It's really about fashion … and not getting caught." *-*

Cracking Down on Street Motorcycle Racing in Vietnam

Racing motorbikes is a popular pass time among Vietnam’s restless youth. Tim Larimer wrote in the New York Times that Hanoi is filled "20-something men who dash around the city racing their motorcycles, drinking whiskey, showing off to girlfriends, and acting like James Dean." The situation is even worse in Ho Chi Minh City. It is not uncommon for riders or pedestrians to die or become badly injured as a result of motorbike racing.

In August 1999, Reuters reported: “A court in southern Vietnam has sentenced nine people to prison terms ranging from one to four years in a crackdown on illegal motorcycle racing, official media reported on Friday. The Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper said the nine had been charged with disturbing public order after they were involved in late-night races last January that killed an elderly bystander in Ho Chi Minh City. [Source: Reuters, August 19, 1999 \=\]

“The Ho Chi Minh City People's Court handed down its verdict on Wednesday to the nine, who were described as "youngsters.'' No ages were given. They were not charged with killing the man, who had been struck by one of the racers. Vietnam's crackdown stems from a surge in motorcycle races in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that have killed a dozen people. Diplomats say the key cause of the races has been boredom among youth in a country where the ruling Communist Party keeps a tight clamp on political and student life. Earlier this week a Hanoi court sentenced six people aged between 17 and 20 to prison terms ranging from eight to 15 months for illegal motorcycle racing. More trials are scheduled. \=\

In August 2004, Associated Press reported: “Authorities have confiscated more than 100 motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City for racing and reckless riding as Vietnam tries to improve traffic safety, police said on Tuesday. The bikes were seized over the weekend and will be held for 30 days and returned to the owners after they pay fines, an officer said on condition of anonymity. The drivers weren't detained. Meanwhile, police in the capital, Hanoi briefly detained 10 people for illegal motorbike racing, state-controlled media reported. Illegal motorbike racing has begun resurfacing in recent months after a police crackdown. Illegal racers face up to 15 years in jail while organizers of such events could be imprisoned for life. [Source: Associated Press, August 24, 2004]

Urban Transportation in Vietnam

Vietnamese cities are dominated by pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, three-wheeled pedaled taxis known as cyclos, and especially motorscooters and motorbikes (the are a couple of million of them in Saigon alone). The number of cars and trucks, however, is increasing everyday. Streets in most towns and cities are named after the same two dozen or Vietnamese heros.

Alan Richman wrote in Conde Nast Traveler, “Cyclos, a suicidal form of public transportation, are hard to find. I used to love riding in them, sitting in a little chair without seat belt or helmet, a Vietnamese with ropy legs pedaling madly behind me, launching both of us into traffic. The few that remain are no more relevant than the gondolas of Venice. The single best sight in Asia, Vietnamese women in their ao dais, riding on motor scooters, long black hair flowing behind them, has practically disappeared too. The women are still around, still on their scooters, but now they wear T-shirts that read groovy in glittery letters.[Source: Alan Richman, Conde Nast Traveler, December 2005]

Many intersections don't have stop signs or traffic lights. Generally, the bigger vehicles bully their way through and pedestrians and people on smaller vehicles have to give way. Traffic police in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are largely ignored. Police who do stop vehicles are more interested in collecting bribes than stopping traffic offenses.

Crossing the streets is like dodging field artillery. When crossing a busy road, pedestrians work their way across in stages, and move slowly without stopping. Vehicles make way for them as they cross. Motorscooters and bicycles entering traffic from the opposite side of the road sort of do the same thing by going diagonally against the traffic until they reach the lane going in the direction they are going. It looks chaotic but Vietnamese know the rules and there are surprisingly few mishaps.

One visitor to Vietnam wrote: “Hanoi is famous for its traffic. There are still mopeds everywhere, they still don't seem to follow any rules and you still take your life into your own hands when crossing the roads. From this perspective, nothing had changed. Once I was able to trust that these moped drivers really weren’t going to hit me, I started to admire their skill at driving and doing about 10 other things at the same time.”

Motorcycle and Motorscooters Taxis known as xe om (pronounced OME) are probably the fastest way to get around Vietnam's cities. They are cheap but scary. Passengers should hold onto the seats not the driver. Fares are generally less than one dollar. A two mile trip on the back of one cost about 50 cents to 41. A xe om can be rented for the day for between $10 to $20. Xe om means “cuddly.”

See Getting Around in the Tourist Information

Obsolete Buses and Cobras in Vietnam

In August 2010, the Viet Nam News reported: “More than 20,800 unsafe old buses which should have been taken off the road and scrapped are still carrying passengers in major cities and regions. They are part of 60,000 obsolete vehicles the Government has ordered off the road and their licence plates cancelled. The buses are regarded as unsafe and a danger to passengers and other drivers. Statistics from the Viet Nam Register show 2,000 out-of-date coaches are still operating illegally in Hanoi and 12,500 in Ho Chi Minh City. The rest are carrying passengers in rural and remote regions. [Source: Viet Nam News, August 2010 /+/]

“Owners of the obsolete buses were required to return the number plates to the Traffic Police Office and scrap the vehicles, said Nguyen Huu Tam, head of Traffic Police Team No 5. Instead, many owners re-paint the buses and keep them on the road or sell them for use in outlying regions. "We have just sent notices to owners revoking licence plates for about 20 out-of-date vehicles," said Dao Xuan Lam, head of the Hanoi Public Security's Vehicle Registration and Management Team. Strict fines applied for violations, he said. Under the Government's Decree No 34, which took effect on May 20, drivers of out-of-date vehicles are liable to fines of VND4-6 million (US$209-$314), their vehicles seized and drivers' licences suspended for 60 days. /+/

In July 2012, Thanh Nien reported: “Traffic police officers found more than 36 kilograms of cobras in four sacks while checking a bus in Hanoi, online newspaper Dan Tri reported. The officers of Traffic Police Team No. 5 spotted a bus traveling on Thanh Tri Bridge carrying many bicycles inside and stopped the bus for inspections. While examining the luggage section, they saw two king cobras crawling inside. They immediately closed the door of the section and had all passengers get out of the bus. The bus driver was ordered to drive the vehicle to a dumping ground where snake experts were asked to catch the cobras. Another check found four sacks containing more than 36 kilograms of cobras inside the bus. The snakes were handed over to the environment police team of Long Bien District [Source: Thanh Nien July 18, 2012]

Venomous snakes have also been found on trains in Vietnam. In May 2011, Thanh Nien reported: “ Cobras in four bags were found on a Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi train. Hundreds of passengers on a Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi train were terrified to see four bags of snakes under the seats. Security officers of Quang Ngai Railway Station found bags containing cobras and king cobras after the train stopped at the station in the central province of Quang Ngai in the evening. The cobras were located inside green, half-transparent bags and the snakes lifted their heads up after people rushed to watch them. The owners of the snakes took advantage of the chaos to sneak out of the train.

The snakes, weighing a total of 45 kilograms, were later handed over to the provincial forest protection authorities for release into the wild. It was not revealed how many snakes were hidden in the bags. Some of the snakes weighed more than 1 kilogram each, said Nguyen Van Han, chief of the Quang Ngai Forest Protection Department. Wildlife smugglers may have transported the snakes before selling them to restaurants, according to Quang Ngai authorities. The venomous snakes are protected species under Vietnamese laws. [Source: Thanh Nien News, May 27, 2011]

Street Name Changes in Vietnam

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Communist revolutionary Nguyen Kim Bach, 70, who helped plan the 1968 Tet offensive, likes the latest crop of street names. "It's often good to see a shift, especially when you don't like what the old names represent," he said. Marie Nguyen, 59, who fled Vietnam in the 1970s with her husband, a paratrooper in the anti-communist south, and who now splits her time between Vietnam and Australia, feels differently: "The old names are part of our history. I much prefer them." "I haven't noticed any real switch," agreed Le Thi My Hanh, 24, a native of the coastal city of Nha Trang who spent three years in Ho Chi Minh City attending a university before heading overseas for graduate school. "It's rather hard to relate to older people on the street with all the change." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2010]

In recent years, Vietnam has seen another generation of names as the government reshapes provinces, districts and towns to streamline administration and, some insiders say, bolster the careers of particular party secretaries, a Vietnamese version of gerrymandering. "These efforts to get manageable units with the population change have become very complicated, with some older names from history reasserting themselves," said Carlyle A. Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy. "It's been a bit like putting a straitjacket on a mental patient: It hasn't always fit."

The few French street names that have survived in Ho Chi Minh City, down from 60 in colonial times, honor scientists who presumably remain above the ideological fray, including Louis Pasteur (1822-95) and Nobel laureate Marie Curie (1867-1934). "If the name changes, but the street looks the same, it's not a problem," said Nguyen Thanh Minh, the restaurant worker. "But if the whole appearance changes, it gets confusing. Fortunately the numbers stay the same."

One change that hasn't really stuck, even after 35 years, is Ho Chi Minh City, which most locals still refer to as Saigon. "Most Vietnamese prefer the old name," said Nguyen Kim Bach, the revolutionary. "Saigon is only two syllables. When you have to say 'the City of Ho Chi Minh,' it can be a bit of a mouthful."

Cyclos: Vietnam’s Unique Pedal-Powered Taxis

Cyclos (pronounced SEE-klo, short for cyclo-pousse ) are three-wheeled pedicabs with the driver sitting behind a seat with a cover that can be raised in rainy weather. The seat is large enough to seat two two Vietnamese comfortably and two Westerners uncomfortably. Cyclo drivers usually charge less than a dollar for a ride in downtown Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, and charge about $5.00 for an entire day. A two mile cycle ride costs about 25 cents. They are slow but are a fun and unique way to get around.

Cyclos are adaptions of trishaws introduced by the French during the colonial period. Drivers can rent them by the day for about 50 cents or buy one for $70. As of 2000 there were an estimated 40,000 of them in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City alone. One driver told the Los Angeles Times, "We provide an important service, moving people and freight at very, very cheap rates.

As motor vehicles, particularly motor scooters, have become more common and people have more money and can afford fast taxis, less cyclos are being used. In the late 1990s, orders were given that they can only go on certain streets in Saigon and Hanoi and there were plans to phase them out altogether from Saigon. For cyclo drivers competition is a major problem as there are still a lot of cyclo drivers around and they are competing for fewer customers.

Authorities have also passed rules prohibiting cyclo drivers from carrying more than two passengers and stopping in the middle of blocks. Despite the rules you can still see three or four people or piles of bricks or bags of rice packed into them, and they stop wherever they like.

Cyclo Drivers

Cyclo driving has traditionally been the job that anyone could do and was often the only job open to new arrivals in the cities from the countryside. Many the drivers in the 1990s in Ho Chi Minh City were former South Vietnamese soldiers. They typically start work at around 8:00 by queuing up at bus stations, have a bowl of pho for lunch and return home around 6:00pm. Some worker longer hours.

Cyclos drivers tend to congregate around tourist areas and some of them can be very pushy. Many speak English and offer their services as guides. Make sure to negotiate the price before setting off. Cyclo rip offs unfortunately have become quite common. They range from disputes over fares to unscheduled trips to back alleys where passengers are mugged. You are advised to make arrangements for a cyclo driver through your hotel.

Cyclo drivers in the 1990s typically made about $1 a day. Sometimes they made a little more. One driver told the Los Angeles Times he once made $2 when he pedaled 150 kilograms of concrete 12 miles to a construction site and rode back. By contrast a motorcycle taxi driver can make $4 using 30 cents a day for gasoline, using a $1,700 Honda Dream II.

One of the more well-known cyclo drivers in Hanoi in the early 2000s was Quang Giang. At the age of 90, he pedaled 40 kilometers a day and hadn’t seem a doctor in 34 years. He said he enjoyed riding a cyclo job because it helps him stay independent. He had 12 surviving children, one of whom was 72, and all of whom said they would take care fo him. When Quang Giang was younger he rode his cyclo the 1,700-kilometer distance between Saigon and Hanoi. It took him two months and 11 days. [Source: AP]

Saving the Cyclo and Finding a Niche for It in the Modern World

Brian Williams of Reuters wrote: “They banned them. They even banned a film about them. But now the humble cyclo is back on the streets of communist Vietnam, striking a retro note. Behind the comeback is 56-year-old Do Anh Thu — a man the Vietnamese press dubs "The Cyclo King". A university graduate, truck driver on the Ho Chi Minh trail and ex-cyclo driver himself, Thu says he wants to preserve a national symbol, not glorify a way of transport seen by many as outdated and an unsavoury reminder of Vietnam's war-torn past. For many American troops based in the South, one abiding memory was a city tour by cyclo, a three-wheel vehicle with the driver pedalling at the back and a compartment in front big enough to seat two passengers -- or one big foreigner. [Source: Brian Williams, Reuters, April 19, 2005 >>>]

“In his fight to save the cyclo, Thu took on his own government -- and won -- to build a thriving business, one of a myriad ways that Vietnamese found to survive in the economic devastation left by the "American War". There were once 10,000 cyclo drivers in Hanoi alone, with similar numbers in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang. Hanoi now has just 200, and numbers have dwindled elswhere. "The cyclo is part of our life and heritage," Thu says. "We couldn't let it die."" In 2001, as Vietnam strove to lure foreign investment and present a modern image to the world, the cyclo was banned as a remnant of the past. "The government was modernising the economy and they just didn't fit," Thu says. >>>

“The cyclo had already run into trouble five years earlier when authorities banned the critically acclaimed film "Cyclo", accusing director Tran Anh Hung of blackening the country's image for its gritty portrayal of a hard-pressed cyclo driver. It seemed as if the cyclo's days were numbered, but then Thu hit his law books and argued that they could survive as a "tourist vehicle". The government agreed and in 2003 the ban was lifted. Now Thu, who once had a fleet of just five, runs 140 cyclos charging 20,000 dong ($1.25) for an hour's ride. As he sits in his small two-room apartment in a back alley of Hanoi's Old Quarter, his mobile phone rings endlessly with calls for cyclos from hotels and tour organizers. >>>

"Each driver generally makes four or five trips a day," Thu says. "We also have special occasions like weddings when Vietnamese ask for them." Thu says that in the two years since the ban was lifted his revenue has tripled and is still growing. He acknowledges that the cyclo will never again be the mass transport vehicle it was in the past. "I accept that their slow pace doesn't fit in today's traffic," he says. "But there is a place for them still." That place can now only be in the niche market of tourist transport. City commuting has been transformed as Vietnam's economic fortunes have risen, with virtually every household now owning at least one motor cycle, often several. >>>

But Thu is building up another source of revenue from his cyclos — tourists so enchanted that they buy them up and have them shipped home. "French and Australians love them. And we had one Saudi Arabian customer," he says. His eyes light up with recognition when I mention multiple Tour de France cycle winner Lance Armstrong. "He'd be a good cyclo driver," Thu says. "I'd hire him at once." >>>

Taxi and Cyclo Scams

Cyclos drivers tend to congregate around tourist areas and some of them can be very pushy. Many speak English and offer their services as guides. Make sure to negotiate the price before setting off. Cyclo rip offs unfortunately have become quite common. They range from disputes over fares to unscheduled trips to back alleys where passengers are mugged. You are advised to make arrangements for a cyclo driver through your hotel.

Gregory Rogers wrote in About.com: “Always confirm before getting inside any taxi that the driver will use the meter. If getting a ride from one of Vietnam's famous "cyclos" or bicycle-taxis, agree on a clear price before getting inside; you have lost all your bargaining power once the journey starts. Confirm whether the price is total or per person and assume that any price you are given is one-way. Prices for rides can usually be negotiated. Do not rely on information about a particular hotel or restaurant being "closed" - this is usually the driver's attempt to take you to a friend's restaurant instead. [Source: Gregory Rogers. About.com]

“A more-dangerous scam in Hanoi consists of drivers pretending to be taxis, then driving their passengers outside of the city unless they agree to fork over money and valuables. Exercise caution by only using official taxis, easily identifiable in Vietnam. There have been reports of airport taxi drivers operating on the coupon system who demand more money once at your destination. The driver will hold your luggage hostage in the trunk until you pay the difference. Keep your bags on the seat with you!” [Ibid]

Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi Metros

In February 2008, AFP reported: Vietnam's largest city started construction of the country's first urban railway system, a project worth nearly US$1.1 billion (S$1.6 billion) and financed mostly with Japanese loans, officials said. Workers in Ho Chi Minh City broke ground on the system set to carry 526,000 people per day by 2014 along 19.7 kilometers of above and below ground rail lines in the traffic-choked city of about seven million. 'This project is very important to improve the transport situation in the city and will help boost economic development,' Nguyen Huu Tin, deputy chairman of Ho Chi Minh People Committee, said in a press release. The line will link central Ben Thanh Market with southern Suoi Tien, with the first 2.6 kilometers in the city center to be built underground. The Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC) will provide 83 percent of investment capital, or US$905 million, said the press statement. The first part of the project to be built is a repair and maintenance depot, and construction of the rail line is scheduled to start in 2010, said Yoshifumi Omura, in charge of the project at JBIC. [Source: Agence France Presse, February 21, 2008]

The Hanoi metro is expected to open in 2016. AFP reported: “The $1 billion project - funded by France, the European Union and the Asian Development Bank - had previously been expected to be finished by 2015. Hanoi authorities approved only in April a master plan for the underground section of the link, putting a new timeline in place, Marie-Cecile Tardieu-Smith, the embassy's economic counsellor, told reporters. "Large efforts are indispensable if we are to avoid new delays and have this pilot line of the metro in service at the end of December 2016 in Hanoi," she said. "We do not have a lot of time from now until then for a project as complex as this." [Source: AFP, July 10, 2011 ><]

“Some initial work had begun in 2006 but the project formally started in September 2010 with work on the train depot. About one-third of the 12.5-kilometre (eight-mile) system will be underground, with the rest on elevated tracks. Vietnamese and French experts said they would begin soil testing required before construction of the underground tunnels, which is slated to begin in November next year. The rapid-transit link, the capital's first, is to connect Hanoi's main railway station in crowded, older Hoan Kiem district with the Tu Liem neighbourhood being developed as a modern business center in the city's west. Foreign businesses have repeatedly complained about Vietnam's underdeveloped transportation and other infrastructure.” <>

Hanh Thu wrote in the Saigon Times, “Although Hanoi City expects to launch the first metro line route into operation in 2016, construction of the metro lines faces huge difficulties due to legal framework and manpower shortage. Speaking at ‘Urban traffic-Technology and French experience’ seminar in Hanoi on Tuesday, experts said that Vietnam needs to develop an urban railway network given the fast pace of urbanization and favorable conditions. The local railway system should account for 13 percent of passenger transportation and 14 percent of cargo transportation in 2020. [Source: Hanh Thu, Saigon Times, October 31, 2012 ^^]

“Under the traffic master plan, the capital city has plans to construct metro lines. The first pilot metro line is expected to start operating in 2016, followed by the second line Nam Thang Long-Tran Hung Dao. Nguyen Quang Manh, director of Hanoi urban railway management board, said that numerous problems occurred during construction of metro lines. The lack of legal framework has challenged construction while the capital city has yet to set up planning for underground space, making it difficult to connect the metro lines with the current traffic network during the completion stage. ^^

Manh also pointed out the lack of skilled manpower for the project, especially those in the field of operation and exploitation of elevated metro lines. Besides, the project is using various ODA (official development assistance) loans from France, China and Japan, so it has to follow regulations of many donors. Therefore, it is difficult to harmonize instructions during construction and secure convenience for passengers in the operation stage. The pilot metro line project between Hanoi Station and Nhon Station had an estimated investment capital of 783 million euros. The second line Nam Thang Long-Tran Hung Dao will stretch 11.5 kilometers, including 8.5 kilometers of underground section and seven stations. The project in 2008 was expected to cost over VND19.5 trillion and finish in 2017.

Railroads in Vietnam

The total length of railway system in Vietnam is 2,600 kilometers, including main train routes:- The "Reunification Express Route", from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, is 1,726 kilometers.- Hanoi - Lao Cai- Hanoi - Haiphong- Hanoi - Quan Trieu- Hanoi - Dong Dang- Kep - Uong Bi - Halong- Kep - Luu Xa- The international trains from Hanoi to Beijing (China) via Dong Dang station (Lang Son).When it is more developed, Vietnam railway network is possibly linked to Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia railway network via which to Singapore and Laos railways. Express trains run daily between Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City along the coast. The 1,726-mile journey takes 24 to 44 hours, traveling at an average speed of 20mph to 40mph, and costs $100 for a hard sleeper. There are stops in Hue, Danang, Nha Trang and other cities.

Railways: total: 2,632 kilometers, country comparison to the world: 62. Standard gauge: 527 kilometers 1.435-meter gauge; narrow gauge: 2,105 kilometers 1.000-meter gauge (2008). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Vietnam has six single-track railroad routes with a total length of 3,260 kilometers. The network’s density is only about one-third the average for low-income countries. The longest railroad line measures 1,730 kilometers from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and requires 32 hours to traverse on the Reunification Express. Of the nation’s inventory of rolling stock, 25 percent is not operational. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s operational rolling stock is more than 30 years old. Freight traffic picked up in 2000 and 2001 following five years of decline. Vietnam needs more than US$400 million between 2004 and 2009 to modernize its railroads. The government plans to build two subway lines in Ho Chi Minh City by 2007. Project-related costs are estimated at US$800 million. [Source: Library of Congress]

Vietnam to Build Rail to Cambodia and Laos

In 2007, the Vietnam News Agency reported: “Vietnam is planning to invest US$527.5 million in building two railways that will link the country with Cambodia and Laos, an industry official said Wednesday. The projects are part of a scheme to construct trans-Asia railway networks connecting Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member countries, reported the Vietnam Railway Department. No details on when the railways would be constructed were given. [Source: Vietnam News Agency, June 28, 2007 :::]

“An official with Vietnam Railways Corp. said the first railway will link Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, and the second railway will link Quang Binh province in central Vietnam to Savanakhet city in central Laos. The 130 km, VND3.91 trillion ($280.5 million) Sai Gon-Loc Ninh route to Cambodia will be built by the Vietnam Railway Department, the China Mechanical Equipment Import Export Corporation and the China Railway Construction Corporation. The other 120 kilometers line linking Vung Ang with Mu Gia in the central Ha Tinh province to Laos requires investment of over VND4.52 trillion ($247 million). The railways are expected to promote trade and transport cooperation among Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as well as between the whole Indochina region and the rest of Asean and China.” :::

Train Accidents in Vietnam in 2005 Kills 13 and Injures 86

In March 2005, AFP reported: “The toll in Vietnam's worst train crash since 1975 rose to 13 dead and at least 100 injured, a day after the accident in central Da Nang province, officials said. The train carrying about 400 people was travelling between the capital Hanoi and southern Ho Chi Minh City when it derailed Sunday near the Hai Van Pass, overturning eight of its 13 cars, a railway official in Da Nang city said. Nine people were killed on the spot while four others later died of their injuries and about 100 others were receiving medical treatment. [Source: Agence France Presse - March 12, 2005 |^|]

"We are conducting an investigation into the cause of the accident. We know that the train was travelling at high speed when rounding a curve," he said. Rescuers were forced to use boats to reach the site of the crash and used dozens of fishing boats to transport the wounded from the area. According to state media, many of the victims were rescued by local people before government rescuers arrived at the scene. The rail link between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh has been suspended as a result. |^|

Bui Ngoc Long wrote in Thanh Nien, “The engineer and his assistant of the ill-fated train involved in Vietnam’s worst rail disaster have been sentenced to jail for breaking rules and causing the accident. At the end of a four-day trial in Hue, the court sent the driver Bui Thai Son away for 13 years for exceeding permitted speeds. His assistant, Ha Minh Tam, got seven years for not obeying safety regulations. [Source: Bui Ngoc Long, Thanh Nien, April 30, 2006 /-\]

In March last year, express train E1 derailed in the central Thua Thien Hue province while en route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Eight of the 13 compartments overturned, killing 11, injuring 86, and causing losses worth VND6 billion (US$380,000). Son confessed to the court that he drove the train at 19 kilometers over the permitted 50 kilometers per hour, but blamed it on "pressure" to reach the destination on time. The judge refused to accept a broken coupler in compartment 3 as the main cause of the accident, a point raised by defense counsel. The court also instructed the Vietnam Railway Corporation to pay compensation at the rate of VND25-30 million (US$1,570-1,880) for death and VND3-20 million ($190- 1,300) for injury. These were well below both the amounts demanded and angered victims and their families, many of whom left the court while the verdict was being read. The two defendants have appealed to the Supreme Court. /-\

Air Travel in Vietnam

Air travel is taking off in Vietnam as the economy grows and a new middle class is taking to the skies for both tourism and business travel. On top of this Vietnam is becoming a very popular destination with foreign travelers.

Vietnam operates 17 major civil airports, including three international gateways: Noi Bai serving Hanoi, Danang serving Danang City, and Tan Son Nhat serving Ho Chi Minh City. Tan Son Nhat is the largest, handling 75 percent of international passenger traffic. Vietnam Airlines, the national airline, has a fleet of 30 aircraft that link Vietnam with 19 foreign cities. [Source: Library of Congress. 2004]

Airports: 44 (2012), country comparison to the world: 97. Airports - with paved runways: total: 37; runway over 3,047 m: 9; runway 2,438 to 3,047 m: 6; runway 1,524 to 2,437 m: 13; runway 914 to 1,523 m: 9. (2012) Airports - with unpaved runways: total: 7; runway 1,524 to 2,437 m: 1; runway 914 to 1,523 m: 3; runway under 914 m: 3 (2012). Heliports: 1 (2012)

Aircraft Makers Battle over the Vietnam Market

In 2007, AFP reported: “Aircraft giants Boeing and Airbus are competing to sell their new jetliners to Vietnam while Bombardier of Canada is also fighting for a slice of the fast-growing market. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is making a decision on buying new long-range jets for Vietnam Airlines, and lobbying has intensified for the big-ticket orders from US manufacturer Boeing and European rival Airbus. Montreal-based Bombardier Aerospace has also joined the fray, taking its 90-seat CRJ900 NextGen jet, launched this year, to Vietnam last week, saying it could fly domestic and Asian routes at the lowest fuel cost per seat. [Source: AFP, September 15, 2007 <>]

“To secure financing for any new planes, Vietnam's first aircraft leasing company has just been set up by Vietnam Airlines, Vietindebank, Petrovietnam and telecom group VNPT, with initial capital of 200 million dollars. Aviation officials will join Prime Minister Dung when he leaves for a trip to both New York and Paris. Nervousness about the hold-up on an anticipated Boeing deal has grown on the American side, more so since the new Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger plane, stopped off in Hanoi for a demonstration flight on September 2. Edouard Ullmo, Airbus executive vice-president for Asia-Pacific, said during the visit that Vietnam Airlines was expanding so rapidly that it could be ready to operate a plane the size of the A380 by 2012-13. <>

Hanoi's American Chamber of Commerce executive director Adam Sitkoff said it was in Vietnam's best interest to quickly strike a deal with Boeing. "The future growth of Vietnam's important tourism sector depends on having enough passenger aircraft," he said. "The longer Vietnam Airlines waits to purchase the Dreamliner, the longer it will be until the planes are delivered." Vietnam would consider the 787-9 for its US flights, he said, but he added that "for our long-range operation, it is not only the Boeing 787-9 which can do it, but at Airbus they also have products, like the A350-900. "It means that Vietnam Airlines has the right to select the appropriate aircraft for its fleet," he said. "But it's not Vietnam Airlines which makes the decision, it is Vietnam's government which makes the decision." <>

Vietnam Airlines

Vietnam Airlines, , the national airline, was founded in 1956 with five small planes. In opened it first international routes, to Beijing and Vientiane in 1976, and to Bangkok in 1978. In the 1960s and 70s it had a reputation, according to AFP, for being "a charmless, fear-inducing cattle carrier" with aging Russian aircrafts and a poor management team. In the 1980s the airline began to upgrade its planes and service and has been growing at a clip of about 10 to 15 percent a year ever since. Vietnam Airlines quadrupled its passenger load to 2.29 million passengers between 1991 and 1995. It doubled it passenger load in the late 1990s as Russian-built Tupolevs, Yakovlevs and Ilyushins replaced by Airbus 320s and Boeing 767s.

In the early 2000s, Vietnam Airlines began emerging as a major player in Southeast Asia. It advertised on CNN and changed it logo. In 2002, it had revenues of $736 million and a profits of $70 million and carried 4 million passengers, including 1.76 foreigners. In 2004, Vietnam Airlines had a fleet of 30 aircraft that linked Vietnam with 19 foreign cities. In 1997, it had 27 planes: 4 Boeing 767-300s, 10 Airbus A-320s, two Fokker 70s and six ART 72.

In 2004 Vietnam Airlines had 5 million passengers, up 25 percent from the prior year, and at that time management expected the number of passengers to reach 12 million by 2010. In November 2004, Vietnam Airlines announced that it would purchase 10 Airbus A310–200 aircraft and continue negotiations for four Boeing 7E7 "Dreamliner" aircraft. Vietnam Airlines’ goal is to expand its fleet to 73 aircraft by 2010. Beginning in 2006, Vietnam Airlines cooperated with American Airlines in international flights under a codeshare agreement. Vietnam Airlines’ code will apply to American Airlines flights from the United States to Vietnam, Japan, and Europe. American Airlines’ code will apply to Vietnam Airlines flights from Vietnam to Japan and Europe.

According to the Asia Times, the consultancy Indoswiss played a major role in Vietnam Airlines' turnaround from a stodgy loss-making state carrier to a slick, fast-growing profit-maker. In 2007, AFP reported: Vietnam Airlines operated “45 aircraft -- ten Boeing 777, ten Airbus A320, ten A321, three A330, ten French-made ATR-72 and two Fokker-70. It received five more A321 in 2008 and later four Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners. It is also in negotiations to acquire as many as 14 to 16 more Boeing 787-8 or 787-9 jets on a lease/purchase basis while also talking with Airbus, subject to the government's final decision, industry sources say. State-run Vietnam Airlines, soon to be part-privatised, plans to modernise its fleet of 45 aircraft -- a mix of Boeing, Airbus, ATR and Fokker planes -- to compete against a slew of foreign carriers and new budget airlines. "We want to be one of the leading regional carriers," said Vietnam Airlines general manager for corporate affairs Bach Quoc Thang. "Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are the examples we want to follow."The airline is also considering turning subsidiary Vietnam Air Service Co. into a low-cost carrier, sources say, to take on Pacific Airlines, part-owned by Qantas, and AirAsia, now in partnership with ship-builder Vinashin. [Source: AFP, September 15, 2007]

In 2011, Vietnam Airlines carried more than 13.5 million passengers in total (international 4.8 million, domestic 8.7 million), 10. Percent increase from 2010. The airlines has revenues of $2.4 billion and a profit of $3.3 million in 2012.

Vietnam Airlines Smuggled Goods Into Japan

In 2009, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Several crew members of Vietnam Airlines are suspected to have been involved in a large-scale operation to smuggle articles stolen in Japan out of the country and smuggle foodstuffs into the country in large numbers of suitcases and cardboard boxes brought on their flights from Vietnam, according to police sources. Dang Xuan Hop, a 33-year-old Vietnam Airlines copilot, was arrested in December on suspicion of attempting to take to Vietnam items stolen by Vietnamese crime groups in Japan. Prosecutors indicted him on charges of transporting stolen goods on Jan. 7. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 25, 2009 >=< ]

“A special investigation headquarters comprising 14 officers from the Yamaguchi, Saitama and Hyogo prefectural police forces has been investigating the case in an effort to grasp the whole picture of the alleged smuggling, suspecting that Dang was involved in an organized crime in which flight crew put in their luggage items stolen in Japan for resale in Vietnam. According to police investigators, pilots and crew members of Vietnam Airlines had been bringing unusually large quantities of baggage each time they arrived in Japan, telling customs inspectors that the suitcases and cardboard boxes contained "souvenirs." >=<

“The police believe they brought in foodstuffs such as frozen eel in their baggage from Vietnam and took out massive amounts of Japanese cosmetics when they flew back to Vietnam. When crew members told customs officials that the items were for their own use or that they were souvenirs for their family and friends, the officials were obliged to let them go, according to sources. According to the police, Dang has admitted receiving money for transporting stolen items from Japan to Vietnam. He was quoted by the police as saying, "All my colleagues were doing the same thing." The special investigation headquarters believes other crew members were paid to bring items into and out of Japan regularly. An official of Narita Airport said, "Vietnam Airlines crew members take much more luggage with them than those from other airlines when they enter Japan, even for short stays." >=<

Vietnam Airlines splits order between Boeing and Airbus

In 2007, Bloomberg reported: “Vietnam Airlines split $5.5 billion in aircraft orders between Boeing and Airbus in agreements that analysts said owe as much to political considerations as commercial ones. The Asian airline announced a preliminary contract for 12 Boeing 787 Dreamliners and another for 10 Airbus A350s and 20 A321s. The 787 and the A350 — both long-range, midsize, widebody planes — are direct competitors. [Source: Bloomberg News, October 2, 2007]

"It must be political," said Paul Nisbet, an analyst at JSA Research. "Buying both the 787 and A350 doesn't make an awful lot of sense, certainly not economically, as it's going to cost them a lot to set up logistics support and training for two very different planes." Airlines tend to stick with one manufacturer for each class of plane to save money on spare parts and pilot training. Vietnam Airlines didn't specify the reasons for ordering planes from both manufacturers, saying the company was comfortable with its decision. The provisional Boeing contract is worth $1.8 billion at list price and comes on top of an existing order for four 787 Dreamliners. The carrier's preliminary order for 10 300-seat A350s and 20 single-aisle A321s gives the Airbus deal a total value of $3.7 billion at list prices.

Budget Airlines in Vietnam

Jetstar Pacific (formally Pacific Airlines) is a Vietnamese budget airline based in Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN), Ho Chi Minh City. It joined the Jetstar family and was renamed in 2008. The airline now operates under the name Jetstar Pacific. Destinations include: 1) Taiwan: Kaohsiung (Kaohsiung International Airport, KHH) and Taipei (Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, TPE); 2) Thailand: Bangkok (Bangkok International Airport, BKK); and 3) Vietnam: Da Nang (Da Nang International Airport, DAD), Hanoi (Noi Bai International Airport, HAN), Ho Chi Minh City (Tan Son Nhat International Airport, SGN) Hub. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Indochina Airlines was a one-plane Vietnamese airline that was founded in early November 2008 and went out of business a year later. Based in Ho Chi Minh City, it was the first operational private airline based in Vietnam, originally licensed in May 2008 as Air Speed Up (Vietnamese: Hãng hàng không Tang Toc). The founder and chairman of the board was Vietnamese musician Hà Hùng Dung . Indochina Airlines began selling tickets on 12 November 2008 and launched its first commercial flight from Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City to Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi and Da Nang International Airport in Da Nang on 25 November 2008. After a series of difficulties including unresolved debts and a drop in customers, Indochina Airlines ceased flying on November 25, 2009; its schedule was revoked two days later.

Air Accidents Involving Vietnam Airlines Planes

In September 1997, a Vietnam Airlines twin-engine, Russian-built Tupolev 134-B crashed heavy monsoon rain as it attempted to land at Phnom Penh’s international airport, killing 64 of the 66 people on board. The plane crashed into palm trees and bamboo and skidded into a rice paddy and exploded. Only two infants, a Thai boy and a Vietnamese boy, survived. After the crash Vietnam Airlines, suspended the use of Tupolev Planes.

When a Vietnam Airlines plane crashed near Phnom Penh airport in 1997, the first people on the scene were villagers who took wallets and purses from corpses, carted away luggage and took clothes off the dead. Police officers joined in rather than tried to stop them. Villagers even made off with the black box flight recorder and didn’t return it until they received a reward. One villager told AP, "It was a stroke of good luck for a lot of people living around here.”

In July 2005, Associated Press reported: An airport near Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples was closed today after a Vietnam Airlines jet overshot a runway in adverse weather conditions and plowed into a nearby field, a manager at the facility said. None of the 98 people aboard the Airbus A320 from Ho Chi Minh City was injured in the accident which occurred in the evening at Siem Reap International Airport. However, the plane was lodged in the ground and the airport was shut while technicians tried to drag it out of the way. The plane "moved off the runway after landing under adverse weather conditions,’’ said a statement from Khek Norinda, manager of Cambodia Airport Management Services Ltd., which operates the airport. "The entire aircraft is stuck into the ground and experts are on the field to remove the A320 by lifting it up and dragging it back on the runway,’’ he said. Ten flights, eight of them international, were canceled late yesterday and the airport was closed. It was partially reopened today for small aircraft, Khek Norinda said. Mao Has Vannal, the head of Cambodia’s civil aviation authority, said they were launching an investigation into the incident. [Source: Associated Press, July 06, 2005]

Vietnam Plan with Military Personnel Crashes in Laos

In May 1998, Reuters reported: “A 40-seat Russian-built plane carrying senior military personnel from Vietnam crashed in Laos and all passengers were believed to have been killed, a Laos government official said. The official Vietnam News Agency (VNA) quoted a Laos Defense Ministry statement as saying a Russian-made Yak-40 carrying a delegation led by Lieutenant General Dao Trong Lich, chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People's Army, had been missing. [Source: Reuters, May 27, 1998]

Details of the plane's route and take-off time given by VNA and the Laos official were the same, although VNA did not say if the plane had actually crashed."All aboard the plane, mostly senior military delegates from Vietnam, are believed to be killed,'' the Laos official said by telephone from the Laotian capital Vientiane.It was unclear how many people were aboard the plane and the Laos official did not have the names of the passengers.

Lich, also one of several vice defense ministers in Vietnam, was leading a military delegation which left Vietnam for neighbouring Laos. The Laos official said the plane left Vientiane on Monday for Xiang Khoang province in the country's north when it flew into a heavy rain storm and crashed in jungle about 300 kilometers (188 miles) north of the capital. The wreckage was spotted, added the official. "A rescue team from Laos flew out of Vientiane to retrieve the wreckage and bodies,'' he said.

Shipping. Waterways and Ports in Vietnam

The principal ports in Vietnam, listed from north to south, are Haiphong, Quang Ninh, Danang, Qui Nhon, Ho Chi Minh City, and Can Tho. Altogether, Vietnam has seven international ports and five additional ports that specialize in transporting oil and coal. Thefreight volume is about 14 million tons annually, compared with only 4.5 million tons in 1993. However, total traffic is only about one-third of capacity. Vietnamese ships carry only about 20 percent of the country’s international trade, although plans exist to expand the merchant fleet substantially. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Inland Waterways: Vietnam’s inland waterways, primarily the Mekong River and Red River systems, carry more freight than the railroads, and the volume of freight is rising slowly. According to the World Bank, transportation productivity via the inland waterways is 40 percent below the system’s potential, assuming proper maintenance, navigation aids, and dredging. *

Waterways: 17,702 kilometers (5,000 kilometers are navigable by vessels up to 1.8 m draft) (2011), country comparison to the world: 7. Merchant marine: total: 579, country comparison to the world: 20; by type: barge carrier 1, bulk carrier 142, cargo 335, chemical tanker 23, container 19, liquefied gas 7, passenger/cargo 1, petroleum tanker 48, refrigerated cargo 1, roll on/roll off 1, specialized tanker 1; registered in other countries: 86 (Cambodia 1, Kiribati 2, Mongolia 33, Panama 43, Taiwan 1, Tuvalu 6) (2010). Ports and terminals: Cam Pha Port, Da Nang, Haiphong, Ho Chi Minh, Phu My, Quy Nhon [Source: CIA World Factbook]

See Piracy, See Ferry Accidents, Tourism, Typhoons, Oil Slick

In the Mekong Delta people row boats with their feet while standing up.

Vietnam Ship Collision Leaves 1 Dead, 7 Missing

In May 2007, Associated Press reported: “Two ships collided in southern Vietnam and one sank, leaving one person dead and seven missing, state media reported Tuesday. The vessel Gas Shanghai, registered in Marshall Islands, slammed into the Vietnamese Hoang Dat 36 near the mouth of the Saigon river, the online version of the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper said. The Vietnamese ship sank nearly an hour after being hit, the report said. [Source: Associated Press, May 16, 2007]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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