Vietnam city beefs up bus services to Vung Tau; hydrofoil firms cry foul

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Ho Chi Minh City authorities have instructed the transport department to operate more buses to Vung Tau to meet the surging demand during Tet (Vietnam's Lunar New Year) as hydrofoil services have been suspended indefinitely.

Meanwhile, hydrofoil companies are concerned about losses and difficulties for customers who have booked tickets.

Tat Thanh Cang, director of the city's transport department, said at an usual meeting Tuesday that around 12,000 passengers are likely to have used hydrofoils during Tet.

"But though the hydrofoils have been suspended, the increased transport demand will be met since the Ho Chi Minh City Long Thanh Expressway opened recently and buses can make more trips thanks to the reduced travel time," he said. 

Following a fire on a Vina Express boat from HCMC to the beach town of Vung Tau on Monday, the city administration has halted the use of all hydrofoils in the city pending safety inspections.

The Vina Express 1 vessel was carrying 85 passengers --37 of them foreigners -- and seven crew members when it caught fire some 15 minutes after departing the Bach Dang Wharf in downtown Ho Chi Minh City on January 20.

Although the scene was chaotic as the passengers jumped off the boat and into the water, everyone was safe as the captain had piloted the vessel to shallow waters near shore.

No one was injured in the accident.

At the Tuesday meeting, HCMC mayor Le Hoang Quan ordered that the use of all hydrofoils in the city be suspended for inspections of the vessels.

The suspension took effect immediately. It is not clear yet when it will be lifted.

Quan also ordered city police to investigate why rescuers did not respond to the accident as quickly as they should have.

He requested that the transport ministry inspect agencies tasked with conducting periodical inspections -- a compulsory process to endure that means of transport are safe for operations -- of all hydrofoils known to operate in the city.

"It needs to clarify why the incident happened only a few days after it [the boat] was inspected [on January 17]," he said

Hydrofoil firms grumble 

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Tran Quoc Hieu, director of Petro Express, said his company's four hydrofoils each make six trips every day.

"We don't know what to do after selling 30 percent of tickets during Tet," Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper quoted him as saying.

The city authorities should do an immediate inspection and allow boats in good condition to continue operating, he said.

Trinh Thanh Chuong, director of Greenlines Express, was also unhappy with the hydrofoil suspension.

"We planned to operate 18-20 trips every day during Tet and already sold tickets for peak days," he said.

Chuong supported the idea of inspecting all hydrofoils for safety and an early resumption before Tet.

Before the "‹fire, hydrofoil companies "‹were already concerned "‹about a major slowdown in business after the HCMC-Long Thanh Dau Giay expressway "‹opened on January 2, shortening the distance from HCMC to Vung Tau by almost an hour.

Le Huy Thao, director of Vinalines one of the three hydrofoil companies on"‹ the"‹ HCMC-Vung Tau route told Sai Gon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) newspaper "‹that the number of passengers "‹was declining significantly. "‹

Previously, it took three hours to go to Vung Tau by bus, but this time has been halved "‹by the expressway, "‹which now takes "‹almost the same "‹amount of "‹time "‹as the hydrofoil"‹,"‹ while "‹bus tickets are only half "‹the "‹hydrofoil's fare (VND200,000, or US$9.4), he said.

Smoke on the water

"I decided to jump, fearing that I would be killed if the boat exploded," said Pham Thanh Duoc, a 29-year-old sales director of an aluminum window company. 

He was traveling by boat from HCMC to meet a business partner in Vung Tau when the Vina Express 1 caught fire. It was only fifteen minutes after departing, and Duoc was startled by people shouting about a small fire near the engine room.

"The vessel later drove to the river bank when the fire spread and terrified passengers jumped into the shallow water near the river bank," he said.

People who could not swim were shouting in terror on the boat. Some of them finally jumped into the shallow water and were helped by others to get ashore.

Nearby boats came to the site and helped those struggling in the water, Duoc said.

Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy and her husband, who vends goods on a small boat near the site, were among those who helped many passengers.

"Many people were in the water shouting for help while the boat was engulfed in big flames. Many women and children onboard were terrified and crying," she said.

The muddied passengers were then carried back to their departure point in HCMC. Luckily, no one was injured in the accident.

Some of them were transferred to another boat to Vung Tau, others were provided hotel rooms and some locals returned home.

The city authorities have instructed the hydrofoil owner, Vina Express Joint Stock Company to compensate passengers for their damages.

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