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Vietnamese headgear is de rigeur

Posted by: Frederik Balfour on December 17, 2007

Hats off to the Vietnamese government [pardon the inverted pun] for passing a nationwide law that requires all motorcyclists to don helmets as of December 15.

Half-hearted attempts have been made in the past to force the drivers of Vietnam’s xe om – which translated roughly means transport-hug, so named because the passenger embraces the motorcycle driver from behind. But this time the government apparently means business, and legions of police have been deployed to slap on-the-spot fines on the offenders.

I have my doubts whether the fines will make their way into government coffers. If the past is anything to go by, the money will disappear into the pockets of traffic cops, who whose peach colored uniforms belie their avarice. During my four years living in Vietnam I found Vietnamese police to be terrible bullies who tended to prey on the least fortunate, especially poor vendors from the countryside trying to eke out a living in the city. If enforcing the new law means the cops will spend less time picking on these harmless hawkers of fruits and vegetables, so much the better.

Of course I’ve long been an advocate of mandatory “rice cookers” as the Vietnamese call motorcycle helmets. Although I eschewed motorbikes in favor of a bicycle during my tenure in Hanoi, I berated friends and colleagues whenever I got the chance about protecting their noggins. To make my point I used to invite them to walk into a wall headfirst without a helmet, then asked them to imagine what it would feel like to skid along the pavement on one’s scalp at 50 kilometers per hour.

One question I haven’t seen answered however. Does this law apply to all ages? Are manufacturers cranking out mini rice cookers for infants? Anyone who’s ever been to Vietnam will marvel at how an entire family of five will climb aboard a motorcycle. I never got used to seeing junior, all of 16 months, standing in front of daddy between the handlebars. For people who dote on their children as much as the Vietnamese do, I could never understand why they seemed so cavalier about road safety. Let’s hope the new law will change that.

By the way, it’s probably just a coincidence, but a Vietnamese-based motorcycle manufacturer from Taiwan named VMEP will have its IPO on the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong this week.

p.s. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I bought a vintage Italian-made Lambretta just before leaving Vietnam in 2000 without ever once firing up the engine myself [though a friend did take it for a test ride in Ho Chi Minh City for me]. Since moving to Hong Kong, the scooter has remained in its crate. As much as I would love to take it for a spin, I just can’t in good conscience justify what that would do to global warming.

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