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Mysterious motorbike fires, explosion draw attention to the lack of qualified mechanics and potentially dangerous modifications

Wreckage of a motorbike that caught fire on December 12 in Hanoi

Five-year-old Nguyen Khanh Van died on Tuesday (December 13), becoming the latest victim of a series of unexplained motorbike accidents where the vehicles have caught fire, or in Van's case, exploded.

Doctors from the National Institute of Burns said Van died because of respiratory failure, multi-organ failure and serious bacterial infection.

The accident that claimed the little girl's life happened on the morning of December 1 when Van's mother, 29-year-old Nguyen Thi Quynh, was taking her to school in Bac Ninh Town in the eponymous province neighboring Hanoi.

An explosion blew up the motorbike soon after they left their house. Quynh, who was three months pregnant, and her daughter were taken to the Viet Duc Hospital but the mother died soon after.

Van went into a coma with severe burns and multiple injuries, including a broken right thigh. Her left foot had been amputated earlier. She was transferred to the National Institute of Burns on December 8 and died five days later.

The accident has sparked widespread concern as the motorbike is the most common means of transportation in Vietnam, with a total of more than 32 million registered bikes among a population of 86 million.

Quynh had bought the motorbike, a Honda Dream, from the Viet Long 1 an official agent of Honda Vietnam in Bac Ninh, on March 31. The shop confirmed that Quynh had taken the bike to the shop for maintenance twice, with the latest instance being on October 7, when the meter showed the bike had traveled more than 4,000 kilometers.

Honda Vietnam later sent condolences and gave VND50 million (US$2,400) to Quynh's family as ex-gratia payment, her husband Nguyen Van Que said, explaining that the money was to support the family no matter what the reason for the accident turns out to be.

On December 6, the Ministry of Public Security's Forensic Science Institute said they found no traces of explosives at the accident site and rejected speculation that someone had set explosives in the bike as revenge over certain conflicts.


Honda Vietnam says no fire ignition found amid bike fire concern
Another fire burned mysteriously in northern Vietnam

For now, the police have made no mention they suspect any kind of foul play involved.

A source from the institute said they found the explosion came from a position between the fuel tank and the battery.

The bike is being kept by police for further investigation. Honda Vietnam has said their products have had no such problem before this and therefore, they are willing to cooperate with the police to find out what really happened.

A source told Thanh Nien that Honda Vietnam had sent a Super Dream to Japan for carrying out further checks. However, Trinh Quang Dung, deputy managing director of Honda Vietnam, denied this.

On December 9, another motorbike of Honda Vietnam caught fire and burned into a distorted steel frame while it was being driven on Nguyen Trai Street in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District.

The driver, Dao Hoang Nhat Linh of Ha Dong District, said he jumped off the bike when passers-by told him that it was on fire. He said he had bought the brand new bike, an Air Blade model, a year ago, and has used it almost everyday.

In a statement on December 13, Honda Vietnam said they have not found any technical error in their products.

They said the motorbikes of Quynh in Bac Ninh and Linh in Hanoi are being kept by police for investigation and they could not carry out inspections of their own, local news website VnExpress reported.

More than 10 million motorbikes manufactured by Honda Vietnam have been sold in the country. In 2010, it sold 1.7 million motorbikes, or 64 percent of the local market consumption.

Dang Quang Truong, director of Van Phong Company that sells motorbikes of different manufacturers in the northern port city of Hai Phong, said the fact that more Honda bikes than that of other brands seem to be catching fire is because most of the bikes on the road are Hondas.

The spate of self-combusting motorbikes have made many residents afraid because they go to work every day on a motorbike.

Luu Dan, an office worker in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, said he bought a Honda two months ago and is afraid of what could happen. "Some say new models could easily catch fire because of the fuel injection design," he said.

Nguyen Giau, a teacher in Phu Nhuan District, said she rides a Honda motorbike to work, but was only "a little bit" concerned.

"Dangers from riding motorbikes in crowded cities always exist," she said, adding that she had fallen a few times after loosing concentration while driving.

She said local media should report on every motorbike fire and the manufacturers should review their production processes to increase safety as also give customers more safety instructions.

Clutching at straws?

There has been no clue as to why this phenomenon of bike catching fire or exploding has sprung up suddenly, but this has not stopped people from pointing out likely suspects.

Some people have warned against the quality of motorbike repairing services as also modifications done to the manufacturer's design.

Tuan Khoi, a 46-year-old motorbike mechanic on Hanoi's Dang Tien Dong Street, said modern motorbikes are designed with more fuses to ensure the best safety and these fuses will prevent any possible short circuit or other incident in the electrical system.

However, he said, the bike can easily catch fire when people have the electrical system modified to install several devices including a louder anti-theft alarm, extra lights, louder horns and even sound systems.

Do Huu Duc of the Ministry of Transport's registry department said the process of approving designs and assembly of motorbikes is very strict. However, it is difficult to manage the bike's quality and safety once it is sold, he added.

Unlike cars and trucks, motorbikes in Vietnam have no expiry date and are not required to undergo periodical checks, he said.

"It's common that a motorbike is used for decades in Vietnam. In some countries, a motorbike can only be used for around eight years or 10,000 kilometers," he said.

An official from the registry department, who wanted to remain anonymous, said motorbike repair and maintenance work in Vietnam has not been properly managed.

"A worker repairing bikes or doing maintenance work on them should be trained and licensed to do so. In Vietnam, they just learn from others or their own experience. A wrong connection of electric wires could lead to a fire or explosion," he said.

Commenting on the case of Quynh, the ill-fated would-be mother, he said many motorbike companies or their authorized agencies in Vietnam might have recruited unqualified workers.

Vi Van Dien, director of Thien Minh Law Office in Hanoi said residents should report all such accidents to the police so that the latter can identify the actual cause behind the bike's catching fire.

"If police find a technical problem, the manufacturer will have to compensate for relevant damages. The insurance company will also be responsible for meeting claims," he said.

He also said relevant authorities have to trace the responsibility of individuals in the factory who approved selling the production batch in this case.

"The registry agency is also responsible for approving unsafe products," he added.


December 13
A SYM Attila caught fire and burned into ashes when a woman was driving on Hanoi's Chuong Duong Bridge. The driver escaped without injuries.


December 12
A Honda SH caught fire when it was being driven on Kim Ma Street in Hanoi. The driver jumped off the bike and quickly fled the scene. Honda Vietnam said the bike was not their product but is willing to cooperate in the investigation. Police have not been able to locate the driver yet.

October 27
A Honda Air Blade caught fire on Quan Su Street in Hanoi. The driver escaped, but local residents' attempts to extinguish the fire failed.


October 12
A Honda Air Blade caught fire at the corner of Khuat Duy Tien and Nguyen Trai streets in Hanoi. On the same day, a SYM Attila caught fire and burned into ashes in the Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu.

August 20
A Honda Air Blade caught fire on a street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 12. The owner of a roadside restaurant managed to extinguish the fire.

March 31
An SYM Attila caught fire on Tran Quoc Hoan Street in Hanoi's Cau Giay District.

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