Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Honking for Uncle Ho

By David G. Young

Hué, Vietnam, January 20, 2011 --  

Vietnam's rapid development is good for its people, if not for its visitors.

"Honk, honk!" sounds the motorbike as you walk down the streets of Vietnam. Thousands of them pass by as you wander larger cities like Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang.

In smaller towns these were mostly bicycles and pedestrians less than 10 years ago, my wife observed. As Vietnam's economy chugs along at nearly double digit growth rates, people are buying more and more motorcycles and cars. Last summer, 64,000 motorcycles were imported in a single month.1 Beep, beep! Out of the way of Vietnam's progress!

Drivers in Vietnam honk an awful lot. They honk to tell you they are coming. They honk to tell you they have passed. They honk to tell you to get out of their way. And when in doubt, they just keep honking. Honk, honk, honk! "Don't you love our new motorcycles?" the horns seem to say. "We never have to walk again!"

The Vietnamese drive their motorcycles everywhere. On the roads, on the sidewalk, through the front door of their homes and restaurants -- even into Confucian temples! At times, it seems like the sound of a rapid-fire motorcycle horn is the country's national anthem.
Hello, motorcycle?

But it's not just the motorcycles that abound. Almost a quarter century into Vietnam's capitalist experiment, small businesses are everywhere. A small ice cream shop in Hanoi notes on its sign, that it is a joint stock corporation. Foreign factories abound in Hanoi and Saigon. Small-scale construction, always in the ubiquitous concrete, is everywhere.

Yet with 90 million people crammed into a narrow coastline a third smaller than California, development quickly becomes overdevelopment. Once idyllic coastline in Nha Trang, China Beach, and Mui Ne are now largely spoiled by concrete behemoth hotels crammed up against an eroding beachfront, or just a concrete seawall marking where the beautiful beach used to be. Find one of Vietnam's best remaining natural treasures, and I'll show you a bulldozer and concrete delivery truck on its way.

Yet for all this overdevelopment, the nation's land transportation infrastructure consists of a pothole filled two lane highway stretching for 1100 kilometers from Saigon to Hanoi that is jammed with traffic crawling along at 40 KPH past endless cinderblock motorcycle repair shops, with all vehicles constantly honking their horns.

But all the honking in the world can't make the traffic go faster, and just one toppled truck can make the narrow asphalt highway that links these 90 million people shut down for most of a day.

Ironically, this nominally communist country sorely needs some more central planning -- at least to upgrade its one and only highway, to protect its natural treasures from overdevelopment, and to inspire the channeling of the boundless economic energy of the Vietnamese into something a little more strategic.

But that does not appear to be in the cards for Vietnam's bottom-up revolution, driven by short-term benefits. In this sense, Vietnam has the worst of both communism and capitalism. It suffers both political repression and short-term economic thinking.

Ho Chi Minh, whose image looks down on motorcycle drivers from countless propaganda billboards, probably did not have this in mind when he founded the communist state a half century ago. While he would likely cheer Vietnam's development, he would certainly denounce its wasteful excess and the long-term ruin caused by attempts to make a fast buck.

Yet there is no doubt that even short-term thinking can bring benefits. Motorcycle ownership may be the first of these benefits to be enjoyed by most common people. Whether or not this development is in the best interests of the nation depends on which side of the honking you are on.


1. Vietnam Business and Economy News, Motorcycle Imports Rev Up During August, September 22, 2010