The Future of Transit in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Aleksandr Smechov

Vietnam’s economic growth in the past two decades has led to more and more motorbikes, and as of late, many more cars. Driveways are now lined with cars as the Vietnamese find comfort in what up until recently was considered a luxury. Congestion has grown with population, and the streets are jam-packed with vehicles of all sorts. Pollution is rampant and road safety is an increasing concern.

To combat the increasing issue of mobility, the government has put forth a plan to dramatically streamline transit for the masses. Fanny Quertamp of PADDI, a decentralised cooperation project between the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in France, the Greater Lyon metropolis, and Ho Chi Minh City, informed us of the city’s future plans (translated from French):

“To fight against these negative externalities, the government has planned the construction of an ambitious transport network, including eight lines of MRT, two monorails, a tram line and six lines of BRT. By 2020, the economic capital of Vietnam is poised to acquire several subway lines and a bus line along the high traffic area of Vo Van Kiet. The development of such infrastructure will profoundly change the urban morphology, landscape [and more….]”

It is an ambitious and difficult undertaking that becomes exponentially complex due to the city’s geography and the unique habits of commuters. But various departments and investors have committed to getting everything done in time, despite negative criticism in the press.

Who is Involved?

To get a clearer perspective we have to take a look at the key players in the transit game:

People’s Committee: The figureheads of all transit projects, the People’s Committee makes the final call for any decision after listening to the opinions of relevant technical departments, foreign donors, consultants, think tanks, academics and decentralised cooperation projects like PADDI.

Transit Departments: These are the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Management Authority for Urban Railways (MAUR) and the Urban-Civil works Construction Investment management authority (UCCI). They are under the direct supervision of the People’s Committee.

International Donors: These are donors from international organizations such as ADB, BEI, World Bank, or bilateral aid agencies like JICA and GIZ. This is how the metro project gets part of its funding. There are not that many international donors, and the city wishes to involve more stakeholders.

Institutes: These institutes can be dedicated to the fields of urban planning and transport planning, engineering, architecture, transport or social sciences. They act as advisors to the transit departments under the People’s Committee.

Decentralised Cooperation Projects: Projects like PADDI who provides training courses, technical assistance and studies on urban issues, especially on public transport.

Commissioned Companies: These are the companies actively involved in the construction and engineering of the project. They may be local or foreign.

What Challenges are Faced?

It’s a day-by-day learning experience for everyone involved. Fanny remarks on the two major challenges faced by authorities involved with the various transit projects (translated from French):

“From a technical standpoint, the authorities face two major challenges: the design and construction of subway lines - part underground - require a high level of technicality in an environment with many uncertainties.... The second challenge is to optimize the management of existing bus networks (140 routes operated by 18 operators).”

In addition, there are many other problems faced on a daily basis:

• New institutions (such as a Public Transport Authority or PTA) must be created on-the-go while the projects are still taking shape.

• Because the city has no end of winding side alleys, floods and non-existent sidewalks, people’s routes need to be constantly assessed and re-assessed. Factor in the increasing number of traffic jams, the connections to be developed between the new bus routes and the metro lines, the conflicts with real estate and a number of other issues, and this becomes an incredibly complex puzzle.

• External factors have to be considered every step of the way, including: road safety issues; motorbike parking at stations; balanced ticket pricing; the public, private and corporate aspects of the bus system; and much, much more.

A Lack of Perspective and Communication

Between 1990 and 1997, it took Shanghai nearly seven years to build 16km of Line 1 of its metro. Between 2009 and 2010, it took one year to build 1,140km of rail in Shanghai. What’s happening now in HCMC is a test project - whatever is learned by all participants should expedite the process the next time around.

On a final note, Fanny remarks that it is important that all those involved remain flexible to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances as the future of transit in the city inches towards completion.


Vietnamese Road Signs

By: City Pass Guide

Getting Lost in Saigon

Finding your way around HCMC is challenging for anyone who drives. Unfortunately, I have not yet installed a GPS in my car. Coming from France, which probably has the best signage system in the world, I never needed it there, or elsewhere for that matter.

Photo by: Anthony Tong Lee

Too often in HCMC, I found myself looking around for any signs to point me to a direction. Often left without solutions, I end up asking a local. Now, would he be able to understand my broken Vietnamese? Most likely not. Can I trust his directions? Probably not. Finding your way while driving in an unknown territory is and remains a dilemma

I often found myself dreaming about the business potentials that exist for directional signage in HCMC. They must be huge, as so much has to be done. In the mix of crazy traffic and insane number of intersections, streets and hems, it is not possible for unfamiliar individuals to know where to go. And if you do not believe me, try going from Conic 5B in Binh Chanh to Duong so 9, Phuong 9 in Go Vap and see for yourself!

Vietnamese Road Signs

In most countries I know, road signage is there to indicate where we can and cannot go. In Vietnam, it may serve this purpose, from time to time, but it also serves to confuse us or to justify the fines we pay.

Photo by: garycycles8

Too often I get pulled over while driving in HCMC. Not because I did not wear my seatbelt, or because I did not turn my lights on, but simply for the reason that I could not read the “signs”. And this has come at a hefty price. In France, in most cases I would hire a lawyer and challenge the police because the road signage is non-existent, inefficient, misleading or misplaced. Here in Vietnam, I pay the fine.

I spotted signage that said you could not go left, right or straight. Where then? I saw green traffic lights that tell you to turn left, when you cannot turn left. I discovered speed signage hidden behind trees and leaves. To be objective, let's recognise my own responsibility too, as I did not pass the Vietnamese driving license test, which may have given me a clearer view of how such signage systems work!


Saigon’s Wild Streets: A Driver’s Perspective

By: Patrick Gaveau

For 10 years I have been a fervent daily observer/experiencer of transportation issues in our city. I began while driving my unregistered 250cc motorbike without license and now “drive” a legal car with papers from/to home everyday. What used to take me 15 minutes in full speed, now takes about 45 minutes in “slow” mode.

My favourite time was during Tet when HCMC's streets were emptied for a week. It was then the best time of the year to drive around to uncover what could not be observed the rest of the year. Today, these “cool down” phenomena last a day or two and many small street vendors remain open. Not the same really.

Back then; we rode dangerously as helmets were optional. That entire free spirit changed abruptly on January 1st 2008, a turning point for us all. I still wonder how did the government managed to implement such important safety legislation within a day!

In those days, police rarely stopped “white foreign” faces, too afraid of miscommunications. Since then, lots of English speaking training was conducted and we, “the Expats” are not treated so differently anymore.

In 2006, traffic “rules” were mainly applicable for “blindsided ladies” who could not see too well. And yes, police street presence was less significant. Except, of course, for the 30 days leading to Tet where a bonus fine was to be collected by police to continue to “protect” us against the lawless drivers. This behavior is now active year round.

Back then traffic congestion was certainly nothing like it is now, as cars were available to the elite mostly. Nevertheless, the main axes were already too crowded with bikes all over, especially at peak hours. So much then, that traffic often took place on the pavement too. These pavement drivers continue to fay their way on unauthorised territory, but more rarely these days.

Today, the leading streets are further saturated, regardless of numerous road improvements and the newly built bridges. Apart from the peak hour’s ever present congestion, you may have noticed that driving in the city center between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. now requires a certain degree of insanity.

The rare times that I do visit the city at these odd hours recently felt like a fashion show. Honda HD, Piaggio and the likes are often driven by well dressed pretty looking boys held tightly by young, lovely long-legged ladies wearing shorts and high heels. Showtime for many; a kind of status empowerment exercise that reminds me of Cannes.

In the past, roads were too often flooded; especially during the heavier Monsoon seasons. This resulted in serious street damages across the city. Flat tires occurred more often, but not all could be blamed on the quality of streets. Much was due to planted nails that finance the nearby tire repair shop business activities. 

Traffic light synchronization is and has always been weak, and much of our daily traffic congestions is the result of that. Other constants include the fact that when a foreigner has an accident, he is always responsible for paying the bill regardless of responsibility. Another steady matter is road signage for directions. It was and remains mostly inappropriate and ineffective, and a special mention is awarded for street address numbers, which most of the time follow no logical order.

Some of the above listed issues can be used as a to-do list to effectively begin to improve traffic and transportation in our city, at least for the short term. If not, we may have to suffer hell for an extra 20 years or so until all metro lines as well as other public transportation methods are fully operational.


Hallucinogenic Streets

By: Nat Paolone

Someone once said if you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever be polished?

When you hear a Vietnamese colleague say, once again, “I’ve been unlucky…had an accident yesterday”, as they hobble displaying a bit of agony, almost gone is the sympathy, instead you’re bursting to say: IT’S NOT THAT YOU’RE UNLUCKY! PEOPLE DRIVE LIKE THEY ARE COMPLETELY INSANE AND NO ONE CARES ABOUT ANYONE ON THE ROAD! Uhm… I can assure you that luck has absolutely nothing to do with your misfortunes my dear friend.

We must admit that many expats, including myself, have assimilated and do drive like idiots from time to time as well.

I’ve been pondering how to convey the insanity of driving in Saigon to people who have never driven here. Driving in Saigon for eight years has truly inspired me to write on such a merging topic exploring social values, economic development and the Vietnamese psyche.

The glorious hallucinogenic episodes of daily driving in our lovely city. Why hallucinogenic you may ask? Well because many driving scenarios on these roads are simply unbelievable!

As you cruise along one of the many fine intertwining networks of roads in this chaotic urban maze, you see yet another couple with their baby in front heading straight towards you at full speed (opposite direction of course)… eyes locked in unconditional disbelief. Both you and they speculate… what a moron! Unfortunately this is the norm.

Anyone who drives in Saigon will be more than familiar with the signal light conundrum… signal left (in any other place people will pass you on the right) and get an onslaught of bikers passing you on the left missing you by millimeters. Don’t try and figure out why, it leads to nowhere.

According to Tuoi Tre News (January 2016), on average, road accidents kill around 9,000 people in Vietnam every year – and leave tens of thousands of others with injuries. Vietnam is one of the countries with the highest death rate from road accidents in the world following closely behind India and China. The local driving style claims about 30 lives per day usually from severe head trauma. Hmmm, you may want to consider spending a bit more than VND50,000 on a helmet guys.

Jonathan Passmore of the World Health Organization in Hanoi has worked for years on traffic safety issues in Vietnam. He estimates that 80 percent of helmets fail to meet national quality standards.

Shockingly, the months leading to Tet (the proverbial joyous time of year) sees the death rate climb steeply. Some may attribute this to the term “Tet-ness”, the time when people become possessed with images of the new year that carries a free pass to drive invincibly.

Many locals lament that Tet just isn’t what it used to be, lacking the emotional happiness with family and loved ones. Often it’s said that within the past 5-10 years the lead up to Tet includes numerous thefts and negative experiences and increased reckless driving.

So why do people drive so insane? Upon asking some random Vietnamese of a ranging demographic why, here are some opinions:

“Everyone follows everyone, so when we see people drive wrong we follow”

“Destiny, some believe if they are meant to get in an accident today then they will, regardless of how we drive”

“Traffic rules are not enforced enough. Education should also focus on rules of the road. In school we don’t learn enough about traffic laws”

“We can pay for a driving license without taking a proper test”

“Vietnamese want to do everything quickly and always arriving late so drive fast to get there on time, not caring about safety.”

Some say it’s the education that is the problem… sorry but I don’t understand that one guys, I mean in other Asian countries where driving is safer, they don’t teach in schools to not drive the opposite direction into oncoming traffic at full speed, or that it’s not a good idea to wave your baby in the air while driving your scooter, right? It is just common sense.

There are a few refreshing examples of people helping to make things better. Some university students have grouped together with long ropes coercing drivers to go only the right direction on the roads, holding signs saying don’t drive the opposite direction on one-way streets (cam di nguoc chieu).

A few years back there was an expat in Hanoi, holding the rear of motorbikes when drivers went the opposite direction. Many locals agreed with his actions in hopes of creating a safer place to drive. Obviously lack of proper law enforcement to shape a society that fosters safe driving skills is paramount.

Ok guys, solutions… ? How about whispering in your neighbor's ear: ban oi, slow down, relax, you only get one life, cherish it, pass it on.


Believe it or Not: Laws of the Road

By: City Pass Guide

It’s not difficult to recognise the anarchy of Vietnam’s road system - it pretty much slaps you in the face as soon as you walk outside! What is an issue is recognising the rules in all this chaos. What regulations should we all know and follow when riding the roads? Apart from the general rule of “don’t do anything unexpected”, there are quite a few laws and formalities that, believe it or not, are applied and enforced every day.

1. Crossing the street

According to Article 32 of the Vietnamese Law on Road Traffic, pedestrians may cross the road at a traffic light, a specific road marking, or otherwise when it is “safe” to cross. You can’t walk over a median strip, and if you are a child under seven you can only cross traffic if you’re with an adult. It’s also interesting to note that if you are walking your dog you are obliged, by law, to be careful with it and to watch it closely when crossing the street. Also by law, as a pedestrian you have every right to move from one side of a street to another, albeit as last in the traffic hierarchy, but you must never ever “cling to a moving vehicle” or deliberately walk in front of one. As if you would ever want to...

2. You can stop in the middle of the road

According to Article 18 of Vietnam’s Law on Road Traffic, you can be stationary in a road for the time needed to unload or load your vehicle, or “do other things”. Lovely and vague, this law tends to be interpreted as “stop whenever you like, with little warning, and move on whenever you fancy”.

Officially, drivers are obliged to signal when stopping and to stop in an appropriate place. You cannot leave your vehicle unless you’re sure you’re not being dangerous or inconvenient, and you can’t open the door of your vehicle unless you are sure you won’t hit someone. You can’t park or stand your vehicle on a road bend, the crest of a slope, where there is no space, under a bridge, on pedestrian crossings or inside intersections… but in reality? The only real rule is to accept the consequences of whatever you choose to do.

3. No riding tandem

You can’t hang onto another vehicle. Actually I see this quite a lot - someone has run out of petrol and a friendly uncle comes along, sticks his foot on their exhaust and propels them to the nearest petrol station. Nice, right? Well yes but also illegal.

It is also illegal to ride your motorbike right next to your friend and shout to each other as you drive abreast, to ride in those bits of the road that are not for your vehicle (ahem taxi drivers who drive in the motorbike lanes), using an umbrella whilst driving, driving with no hands or standing on your vehicle whilst it moves. I guess this last one is not exclusive to motorbikes - I wouldn’t advise clinging to a car or standing on top of your truck either.

4. You can’t carry your entire extended family

We’ve all seen those impossible piles of people riding the roads on a flimsy two-wheel disaster, and as you would expect this is illegal. According to Article 30 of Vietnam’s Law on Road Traffic, only one passenger is allowed behind the driver of a motorbike, unless a second is required because they are sick, have just done something very wrong and are being escorted to the police or are under 14 years old.

5. Honk Before Overtaking

Though the roads here look like chaos, there is in fact a lot of organisation involved according to Article 12 of the Law on Road Traffic. In small, densely populated areas the expected speed is 20-30km/hr, while the limit for other roads is 40km/hr and on the highway you can let loose to a daunting 60km/hr. In reality, I am yet to see anyone driving at any kind of limit and have begun to very much enjoy the concept of driving as fast as you can in the given space. The speed limit seems unofficially set by the number and nature of the vehicles in front of you.

Road etiquette is also officially set here, and in this case is followed by most drivers with pleasure: overtaking is only to be done after the honk of a horn and a light signal. You cannot, although evidence suggests the opposite, randomly change direction and expect the entire road to react in time. You cannot make a U-turn unless a sign permits it, you can’t drive the wrong way on a road and you must signal and be very obvious if you want to reverse.

6. Traffic Fines

If you do something wrong on Vietnam’s roads, then you may find yourself landed with a nasty fine. The list below is set by the government - although many of the fines we’ve seen administered are not so official.


Eco Friendly Buses in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Aleksandr Smechov

It’s very likely that in your travels around Ho Chi Minh City, you have - at least a few times - been stuck trailing behind a bus spewing thick black smoke in your face. You probably weaved through traffic at this point, attempting to overtake the ecological disaster in front of you.

Buses operating in Dien Bien Phu-Hanoi Highway – Photo: SGGP

Ho Chi Minh City is not an emissions pollution disaster like some other countries, although it is in the top 10. Recently, transport authorities have released a series of 23 eco-friendly buses that use compressed natural gas (CNG) as fuel, according to Thanh Nien News. A ceremony was held on March 1 to celebrate the occasion by the Saigon Transportation Mechanical Corporation (SAMCO).

Ho Chi Minh City's first public buses that run on compressed natural gas – Photo: Pham Thanh/TBKTSG

CNG is methane stored at high pressure. It is used in place of petrol, diesel fuel and propane, and emits less environmentally unhealthy gases than the other three according to Wikipedia. The CNG-fueled buses will run along route 33, which connects university campuses in Thu Duc District and An Suong Terminal in the Hoc Mon District. They will join an existing fleet of environmentally friendly buses, upping the total number to 52 buses. US$2.8 million was spent to acquire these buses.

A CNG-fueled bus operates on the Ben Thanh-Cho Lon route in HCMC. Many localities are calling for transport companies to use buses running on this environmentally friendly fuel to reduce harmful emissions – Photo: Anh Quan

Government authorities have approved a plan to introduce hundreds of eco-friendly buses to Ho Chi Minh City, which will make travel in the city less environmentally damaging. According to ngvjournal.com, general director at SAMCO said that “the buses are SAMCO’s first shipment of a 300-bus purchase by the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City.” According to vietnamnet.vn, this project will extend to 2017.

A CNG-fueled commuter bus manufactured by Samco. The corporation has two more years to complete the city’s project to manufacture 300 CNG buses – Photo: Van Nam

In addition, according to deputy director of the city’s transport department Le Hoang Minh, an invest plan has initiated to replace 1,318 old buses with 1,680 new ones, as reported by Tuoi Tre News. The deputy director also said that the department looks to improve the behavior of bus drivers and bus attendants.

Currently, Ho Chi Minh City has 3,000 operating buses. Given the fact that buses are the city’s only form of public until the metro arrives in town, and that bus passenger percentages have dropped as of late, this will be a welcome addition to Saigon’s transport scene.


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