Putting the cart before the horse

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Nha Trang Bay, the top beach destination in the country, has been consistently vandalized by "˜development' over the last two decades. Photo by Nguyen Chung

Given the frequency with which evidence emerges of government ineptness, readers can be forgiven for wondering if we are in a state of lawlessness.

Perhaps this isn't exactly accurate.  If anything, Vietnam appears to have more laws and bureaucrats than it can afford. Every year, both national and local governments add new laws without regard to their enforceability or even their usefulness. The law passed in Saigon several years ago to ban all three wheeled vehicles from the city streets is a good example.

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The small, human powered cyclos and carts can be a hazard on the streets but they are a vital necessity in the narrow residential alley ways into which all Vietnamese cities are divided. 

The city couldn't function without them but that obvious fact was not considered when the rule was adopted. As far as I know, after many attempts to make the need for these devices a superfluous factor, the law has yet to be enforced. 

More recently, the report in the Vietweek edition of December 28, 2012 about the abolition of parking in certain areas of Saigon is another example of a failure to consider the consequences when proposals like this are enacted prematurely.

What was intended as a step to make vehicle transit smoother instead created a huge problem for tourist companies in delivering and collecting their passengers from the area's popular tour sites, both increasing the number of buses moving about the city and adding to the air pollution.

On the subject of inept handling of transportation issues, a recent story decried the impact on the Vietnam automobile assembly sector when the reduction in excise taxes mandated by the WTO agreement is implemented.

The story goes that this change will increase the market for overseas products and result in an enormous decline if not the elimination of the local industry because of the assumed superior quality of foreign produced vehicles.

What isn't mentioned at all is the fact that Vietnam has no room for an expanded automobile population"¦ period. As the increase in wealth has allowed more cars to appear, there has been not concomitant improvement in roads to drive on or parking areas in the cities to park in. 

Infrastructure shortage is one of the greatest deficiencies the country faces but it continues to be a subject for debate but not action.  There has been an obvious need for a "world class" (a common label the government puts on laudable goals!) highway on the path of Route 1, instead of the hodge-podge of pot holes and occasional toll stops that currently comprises the most important vehicle artery in the nation. 

Unfortunately, we are only given all the reasons why it can't be done.

We are treated to the imaginary prospect of a pair of railway tracks running parallel and speeding up the transit of goods and passengers (the bullet train idea seems, sensibly, to have been abandoned for the time being) instead of the single track with frequent bypass points that succeeds in slowing commerce on a daily basis. The problem is that this need has been known for years and talked about incessantly, but nothing has been done. 

We are told there will be a number of new ports built along the coast to bring more transport.  Sadly, these ports will have no roads connecting them to the inadequate Route 1 or to the overburdened railroad. 

There is no shortage of government buildings or bureaucrats to fill them but there is a definite lack of effective action.  In order to provide more employment for the influential and their offspring, the number of government buildings being added to the landscape has increased exponentially in the past ten years. 

So a lack of bureaucrats or laws or grand schemes is certainly not a problem. No, the problem is that it appears that no one is in charge.

There is disorder because there is no control. A case in point are the tragic developments on the Nha Trang beachfront. Some time ago we were told that all development was to be removed from the park land between the sea and Tran Phu Street. 

At that time there were several structures in that space including the Sailing Club, the Louisanne Brew House (both owned by the same partners) the three buildings that made up the Four Seasons Restaurant, a souvenir shop and at the south end of the beach, the Anna Mandara Resort. 

The word of mouth was that all of these were to be removed within a couple of years. No one paid much attention. We assumed some money would change hands and that is all what would change. So far, that's been the case.

Shortly after the plan to eliminate all waterfront buildings was announced, we heard that Nha Trang Town has had its status changed so that the central government in Hanoi would determine what was done here, rather than the Khanh Hoa provincial authority. 

After the plans were revealed for a new face for the appearance of the beach front with an underground business facility with a park above it, a new structure began to take shape above ground.  First Tran Phu was blocked while a tunnel was dug to connect the two sides of the street.  None of the five star hotels on Tran Phu had been able to do such a thing, but this tunnel which connected the new Best Western Havana Hotel with the beach was built. 

Subsequently a huge excavation began to open up where the underground shopping covered by a park was anticipated. Then an underground structure, which immediately filled with water (What did they expect digging 10 meters from the shoreline?!) was constructed, which was obviously not going to be covered by a park. 

Articles in the English language papers appeared stating that "Hanoi was disturbed to learn that the clearing plans for the beach were being upset by unapproved construction." Unfortunately this discovery by the authorities in Hanoi came so late in the game that the underground passageway had been constructed and the deep foundation for a new building had been completed and there seemed to be no going back.

Now, where we had anticipated a pleasant vista of the beach with a park over an underground business area we are faced with a monumentally ugly structure that would be better placed as a temporary exhibit building at a second rate exhibition housing some kind of restaurant cum disco cum bar.

Everyone who sees it reacts in the same fashion. Interestingly, it appears that Russian origin Viet Kieu money interests, which is becoming increasingly evident in Nha Trang, are behind this monstrosity.

Whenever a comparison is made between Nha Trang and Da Nang, the latter invariably prevails on the strength of its local political power structure.

The recent debate over building a multi-billion dollar airport 53 kilometers from HCMC is another example of the problem. Where do these ridiculous ideas come from and how do they gain support? To the foreigner, the only explanation is that there are some powerful interests who will benefit if this plan is implemented. As with the Nha Trang Beach debacle, it is never completely clear who these people are, but there is little doubt they exist.

If the facilities at Tan Son Nhat airport are inadequate they should be improved, not replaced by a brand new airport which will add additional expense to every traveler, not to mention the huge investment in infrastructure that will be required to bring an arterial highway into being to serve the new airport. 

According to the authorities who are promoting the new airport, the cost of expanding Saigon's Tan Son Nhat would be many times more than the new facility. Where is the evidence for this?

Just wondering. Tune in next time for more developments but keep your eye on the money. That's the key!

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By Richard McKenzie*

* The writer is an American expat who lives in Nha Trang. The opinions expressed are his own.

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