Without a paddle

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Nhat Quang's quick trip to a beach town last weekend became a protracted ordeal when the hydrofoil he was traveling on broke down.

On Saturday (March 12), Quang and 74 other passengers packed into one of the high-speed boats in Ho Chi Minh City.

They expected to arrive in the coastal town of Vung Tau in Ba Ria- Vung Tau Province following a brief, 90-minute trip.

But the high-speed vessel's engines gave out just ten minutes after departure, leaving the panicked passengers adrift in the heavily trafficked Saigon River.

"They told us that the cruise would resume in five minutes, then in 15 minutes before the captain announced that the engine was broken down and they couldn't repair it," Quang told Thanh Nien Weekly. "It was horrible. No one knew what was happening. The vessel just floated freely and shook violently whenever a large ship passed by."

Eventually, the ship's owner, Dong Song Xanh (Greenlines) Company in HCMC, dispatched another vessel to the site.

Another passenger onboard, Phan Hoang, described the scene on the vessel as "chaotic."

"The adults were in a panic," Hoang said. "The children were crying. No one knew when a rescue boat would arrive."

Quang claims there were just ten life jackets onboard and has demanded that the company compensate the passengers for their terrible experience. At the very least, they're hoping to recoup the price of their tickets.

No big issue

RECENT HYDROFOIL ACCIDENTS

- March 12, 2011: A hydrofoil broke down ten minutes after departing Ho Chi Minh City, leaving 75 passengers afloat for nearly two hours.

- December 6, 2010: A hydrofoil broke down three times within 20 minutes after it left HCMC for the coastal town of Vung Tau. All passengers were transferred to another hydrofoil which departed the scene with 125 passengers. The maximum capacity on each boat is 75 people.

- April 8, 2009: A hydrofoil collided with a mooring buoy on the Saigon River. All 79 passengers were rescued by three Saigon Port boats and several other local boats.

- November 25, 2009: Eight people were injured when two hydrofoils collided near a bend in the Saigon River.

- September 29, 2008: A hydrofoil collided with a boat as it traveled through Dong Nai Province, 35km to the northeast of HCMC. A man onboard the boat was dismembered in the accident. On the same day, a passenger from another hydrofoil was injured after the vessel collided with a barge on Dinh River, which flows through Dong Nai Province.

Greenlines has pledged to compensate the passengers but said that the incident was simply the result of a minor technical glitch.

"A high-pressure oil pump system broke down," the company's chairman, Le Huy Thao, told Thanh Nien Weekly. "It was just a minor issue. We certainly feel responsible for our customers' experience. Those who suffered from the delay have a right to demand compensation."

However, he said that unexpected breakdowns are just part of any transport operation. The hydrofoil, he said "is just like a bus"”tires blow out after thousands of hours driving."

Thao dismissed Hoang's claims that there were not enough lifejackets onboard to accommodate everyone.

He numbered the Greenlines B5 (the boat Quang was on) among the company's three best vessels. Thao also insisted that the hydrofoil was outfitted with more than enough life jackets to accommodate everyone on board.

Four months ago, one of the company's hydrofoils broke down halfway to Vung Tau. The company transferred a full boatload of passengers (75 people) onto a hydrofoil that was already carrying 55.

The captain locked his cabin to ignore request from the passengers to stop the cruise.

The panicked passengers called the authorities who later discovered that the captain has no license and the vessel was not equipped with enough life jackets.

Passenger Quang says that he has yet to receive any direct offers for compensation. He and his fellow passengers plan to keep their ticket stubs as evidence.

Better route vs. aging vessels

The HCMCBa Ria-Vung Tau hydrofoil route opened in 1993 and quickly became a popular alternative to bus travel.

Currently, three hydrofoil companies operate on the waterway with a total of nearly 15 vessels.

A hydrofoil leaves every 30 minutes during business hours, carrying nearly 800,000 passengers per year.

Many continue to prefer the hydrofoil even though the tickets are nearly three times higher, VND200,000 (US$9.6) for a one-way ticket by hydrofoil compared with VND70,000 ($3.35) for a bus trip.

However, most of the hydrofoils were produced in Russia in the early 1990s and have not been replaced following nearly two decades of constant operation.

A number of breakdowns have occurred in recent years. In 2010 more than 2,200 hydrofoil trips were canceled, mostly due to technical problems.

Son, an official from the HCMC Department of Transport, said that there is no regulation that bans the use of aging hydrofoils, except for a statute that requires an annual assessment by the registration agency.

He said that the transport departments in HCMC and Ba Ria- Vung Tau have already asked the Ministry of Transport to ban aging vessels from operation but they haven't received any response.

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