In Vietnam, the grass is redder on the other side

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Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City has never been easy, as 190 pedestrians found out at the cost of their lives in the last two years

Pedestrians cross a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. At least 190 people were killed while crossing the city's streets in the last two years as motorists refuse to yield to pedestrians even at crosswalks. Photo by Bach Duong

Despite living in Vietnam for years, Robert Hawks neglected a basic principle while crossing a street and was promptly hit by a motorbike.

"It is necessary to look both ways even when crossing a one-way street," the American expat based in Ho Chi Minh City said.

"Because there is always the chance that some idiot like the one who hit me will be driving the wrong way.

"I have a nice scar on my leg and ongoing pain as a result of being hit by a motorbike while crossing the street in front of Caravelle Hotel."

Crossing the road in Vietnam has never been easy and is only getting tougher with each passing day as traffic density explodes.

Statistics from the HCMC police department show that 64 pedestrians have been killed so far this year.

Last year the number was 126, or 17 percent of road fatalities in the city.

"In most countries, motorists are required to yield to pedestrians at the crosswalk, especially if there is no traffic light at the crossing," Hawks said.

"Not so in Vietnam, where the crosswalk has no meaning to motorists."

Hawks, who is constantly frustrated with the traffic violations in Vietnam, said it is unsafe even after crossing the street.

"There is always the danger of being run down by the morons who see absolutely nothing wrong with driving motorbikes on the sidewalk, often at high speeds.

"One only needs to see the terrified looks on the faces of tourists trying to cross Nguyen Hue or Le Loi or Dong Khoi streets in District 1 to see that something needs to be done." 

Deadly roads

According to the Road Traffic Law, drivers must slow down and yield to pedestrians and wheelchairs at crosswalks.

But the law is often ignored in Vietnam, with vehicles rarely yielding to pedestrians, no matter where.

Pedestrians are also forced to walk on the road since sidewalks are appropriated for parking motorbikes and vending, leading to more fatal accidents.

On September 30 a freelance Japanese language teacher was hit by a bus and died when she was crossing the street in front of Ben Thanh Market in District 1.

Miyamoto Michiko, 49, who reportedly had a disability and used crutches, was crossing the street to take a bus back to her house in District 7 at 3:30 p.m., when she stumbled and fell and was run over by the bus, witnesses said. She was killed on the spot.

A week earlier, a Dutch man known only as Blankenstein, 46, was struck twice by two different motorbikes as part of the same incident.

According to eyewitnesses, Blankenstein was walking on the sidewalk on Bui Thi Xuan Street in District 1 at around 5 p.m. when he was hit by a speeding motorbike.

He fell and the driver did not stop.

As Blankenstein was lying on the ground, another motorbike crashed into him, immobilizing him.

Passersby gathered around him and planned to take him to hospital, but he signaled that his neck was hurt and he was unable to move, prompting the crowd to call an ambulance.

A Trung Vuong Hospital ambulance arrived soon and nurses provided first aid before rushing him to the hospital.

Terrified pedestrians

Duke Godwin, a Swiss tourist, breathed a sigh of relief after being helped across the Thu Khoa Huan-Le Thanh Ton intersection in District 1 by a Vietweek reporter.

The zebra crossings may as well be decorative in Vietnam since vehicles keep moving in spite of stoplights, making the simple task of crossing the street impossible, he said.

He even searched the Net to learn about crossing roads in Vietnam before traveling to the country, but after spending two weeks in HCMC and Hanoi, he concluded that the task was simply terrifying.

He had been advised to keep calm and walk "proudly" like the Vietnamese so that vehicles would avoid him, but thought it was stupid.

Even after the green light for pedestrians comes on, one has to look all around since motorcycles still turn every way, he said.

It is not only foreigners who suffer but also locals, especially in bigger cities, who run the gauntlet each time they cross a road.

Some resort to waving their hands, hats, handkerchiefs or even blowing whistles before attempting to cross the street. 

Official hand-wringing

Dau An Phuc, head of the city Transport Department's road infrastructure division, admitted it is unsafe for pedestrians on the city's streets.

"Our department has been trying to improve transport infrastructure but [without success].

"The issue of harmonizing the demands of pedestrians and drivers remains unresolved.

"We are considering installing more signals, signs, and walking bridges for pedestrians.

"We will also build more speed bumps on streets in the city center where many tourists and residents cross the streets to prevent accidents."

"˜National disgrace'

Experts have called for improving infrastructure and making penalties more stringent for violators to safeguard pedestrians.

Pham Xuan Mai, a lecturer at the HCMC University of Technology, said speed bumps should be built near crosswalks to force traffic to slow down.

"There should be other measures like clearing the sidewalks and installing traffic signs warning about crosswalks," he said.

Lam Thieu Quan, a city legislator, said it hurts to think about the nearly 200 pedestrians who were killed in the last two years.

"[There are] fines for drivers refusing to yield to pedestrians, but relevant authorities have not implemented them, leading to fatalities," he said, adding the fines should be larger to ensure road safety.

Hawkers, the American expat, said authorities need to be determined if pedestrians' safety is to be improved.

"However, the relevant authorities obviously have no interest in addressing this issue. The streets of Vietnam are truly a national disgrace."

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