Vietnam: A Country On Two Wheels by Aileen Funk
Before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City I was told of the unbelievable number of motorbikes I would see zipping though the city streets. I accepted the information, not thinking much further about it until I awoke in my sun warmed hotel room on the morning of my first day in Vietnam. I lay in bed for a moment listening to the continuous sound of beeping horns and the rumble of small engines. I walked to the balcony door and stepped out into the already sticky and sun warmed air. I looked down to the street a couple stories below and stared in amazement at the clogged street, which somehow managed to hold the swarms of motorbikes weaving amongst one another as they sped along. Every driver and passenger that passed wore a thick, patterned facemasks similar to those worn by medical professionals. Although motorbikes are a mode of transportation that allows for the greatest number of drivers on the road as well as increase affordability, it has negative impacts on the environment.
I stared in scared amazement as one motor bike buzzed by holding a family of four. The father drove while his young son stood in front of him holding onto the dashboard. The mother sat behind, holding a new baby in her lap. No seat belts, no car seats, no protective metal walls. The element of danger was screaming in my face. I was stunned that parents were so comfortable to transport their families in such an unsafe way. There seemed to be few rules of the road, drivers seeming to ignore the yellow line dividing the lanes if they had no room to drive as well as utilizing the sidewalk as a drivable zone. But similar to any unfamiliar custom or practice, it came to make sense once I learned the historical and cultural significance.
According to Dr. Duong Van Ni from Can Tho Univesity, following the American-Vietnam war, large numbers of people migrated from rural areas to cities at much higher rates than the government had anticipated. City planning in infrastructure was unable to keep up. With no time to widen the narrow roads to support the influx of people, cars were simply not an option for transportation. A realistic alternative was to utilize motorbikes. Motorbikes allow numerous drivers to fit on the small roads while still allowing quick transportation of entire families. With the country trying to lift the majority of its population out of poverty, motorbikes, unlike cars were far more affordable, even allowing for multiple motorbikes per family.
Despite the small size and lack of storage space, the people of Vietnam have become very skillful at loading their motorbikes. The careful arrangement of numerous friends and family members on a single bike seemed like such an impressive feat until I witnessed the hauling of goods and other belongings. Both men and women ride by; their bikes piled high with heavy bags of rice or carefully arranged boxes of mysterious goods. Bags and boxes are stacked between feet while hundreds of pounds are strapped onto the bike behind the driver. Often one hand is used to hold onto one of the many items being transported. I have struggled riding my bike while holding coffee, so I am completely unable to imagine how it is people are able to drive while hauling such extreme amounts of goods and possessions.
Although tailpipe emissions of motorbikes are less than cars and other larger vehicles, Vietnam’s motorbikes are not as environmentally friendly as one might assume. The air in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is far from clean, containing dangerous levels of benzene, sulfur dioxide, and PM10. Although considered only moderately high, levels of PM10, microscopic dust, are likely to increase in the coming years. Decreasing these emission levels in the near future does not look very promising because along with using lower quality dirty fuel as a way to save money, 30% of Vietnamese vehicles do not pass nation wide emissions tests.
The problem of vehicle pollution is not unique to Vietnam but no other vehicle equally as fast while also staying compact has yet to be developed. Change doesn’t happen overnight as we all very well know. A solution to the issues stemming from the widespread use of motorbikes will not be seen for many years, not until another viable option is available. As of now there is no projected time line for change. My hope is that in the coming years Vietnam is able to find a cleaner transportation option that is also able to increase the safety of the passengers.