No walking the talk

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After a decade of discussions and planning, the establishment of pedestrians-only streets in downtown Ho Chi Minh City is not just in the pipeline, but remains a pipe dream

Foreign tourists cross a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The establishment of pedestrian-only areas in downtown HCMC remains on paper after almost a decade of planning.

Glyn had been forewarned but he was still flabbergasted by the ceaseless flow of motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City when he arrived here on a three-day visit.

The tourist from the UK said he had no clue as to how to cross a street. Some people, volunteer youth assigned to downtown city areas to assist tourists, helped Glyn and other foreigners in the same predicament, but they are not always around the corner.

"Walking street area! Really?" he exclaimed disbelievingly when told about plans to set up one in the city.

To be or not to be

In 2003, the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee, the municipal government, instructed the Transport Department to make a plan to establish a walking street area on a section of Dong Khoi Street in the city downtown.

However, the plan was aborted after a two-day trial in 2004, with relevant agencies saying more studies on costs and the project's feasibility were needed.

In 2007, the city assigned the Sunflower Media Company to prepare a plan to set up another walking area on Nguyen Hue Boulevard a major downtown street that is transformed into a flower street (and a pedestrian street, to boot) during the annual Tet (Lunar New Year) festival.

However, the company's plan was rejected and the reason for the rejection has remained unknown.

Two years later, the state-owned travel agency Saigontourist was appointed to invest in the plan.

The company proposed to upgrade Nguyen Hue Boulevard, sidewalks and street lights and move cables from poles to underground.

The VND4 trillion (US$194 million) project also included a two-story underground trading center.

According to the municipal Department of Planning and Architecture, Spanish consultancy firm IDOM in July 2011 completed a report on establishing a walking street area in downtown HCMC.

The plan includes three areas. The first one is bordered by the Tran Hung Dao, Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets; and the other two covering the area surrounding the Ben Thanh Market and certain sections of major streets including Nguyen Hue, Dong Khoi, Le Loi, Ton Duc Thang, Ham Nghi and Le Duan.

According to Saigontourist, they have not received any feedback from HCMC authorities on the project until now.

An American expatriate who has been in Vietnam for seven years said he was aware of the city's plan to set up such streets in the city several years ago.

"When I lived further down on Dong Khoi Street, near Mac Thi Buoi, we were all in favor of this proposal. At that time, Dong Khoi was one of the most beautiful streets in Southeast Asia," he said, requesting that he is not named.

"Now, however, it is being destroyed by unchecked and inappropriate development. Nevertheless, I am still in favor of "˜walking streets' in District 1, Dong Khoi, especially, and the surrounding area."

In fact, the lack of walking street area, given the current traffic situation, makes the city "tourist unfriendly," he said.

"All you need to do is to hang around the center and watch the fear on people's faces as they attempt to cross the street," he said.

He said recently he witnessed an elderly tourist who was knocked down in front of a trading center by a "well dressed driver who just continued on his way."

"I think walking streets would be greatly welcomed by tourists and residents alike. I walk all over HCMC but it is getting so that walking is more dangerous than driving."

He said walking streets would also be good for business because more sidewalk cafés and restaurants could open up and people could relax away from the "noisy, polluting and dangerous traffic."

Not feasible

Nguyen Minh Hoa, a lecturer at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said the project is unfeasible because it would seriously affect the life of local residents.

"The planned areas are densely inhabited, with residences and shops. Just think how messy it would be."

Nguyen Van My, director of the HCMC-based Lua Viet Travel Agency, said there must be walking street areas in HCMC, but these should be set up following "careful research and thoughtful planning."

"Walking streets is not a necessity but a must. Any famous tourism city should have such an area," he said, adding that foreign tourists from different time zones would need services like walking streets and night markets.

My, who has written extensively on tourism issues in Vietnam, criticized tourism authorities for not following "basic rules" in "serving what we like without thinking if others like it.

"The Ky Hoa night market on Cao Thang Street in District 10 is an example. It was far away from the center and few people knew about it," he said.

My said walking streets must have food and souvenir shops and other services excluding hotels and residences.

"We have to encourage local residents at planned areas to relocate outside."

However, My was not so optimistic about a walking street being established in downtown HCMC in the near future.

"I wonder which [agency/company] will finally be approved to establish this. They have been very sluggish over the years," he said.

While walking streets remain far from reality, Pascale Herry, general manager of the HCMC-based Buffalo Tours travel agency, said tourists are just hoping for safe sidewalks around the city.

Now these are illegally occupied or used by reckless drivers.

"I don't know if walking streets are the best option, but I would suggest that the focus should be first to free up the pavements on all main streets, so that pedestrians can effectively walk on the pavement instead of walking on the street, due to the pavement over-crowded with motorbikes.

"It is almost impossible at the moment to walk safely on the pavement, leading to many dangerous situations. For instance, motorbikes drive on the pavement whenever there is a one-way street or when there is a traffic jam. They drive fast, and put the pedestrians' life at risk."

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