In 1989, on a return trip to Vietnam, Vietnam vet Raymond Monsour Scurfield came across his first set of traffic lights in the country. “Our sixth day, in three cities, and our first traffic light in Vietnam is here in Hue,” he wrote in his work, A Vietnam Trilogy.
Four years later and Scottish development worker James Moran arrived in Hanoi. According to his book, Vietnam in a Changing Time: “When we first arrive there are roughly eight traffic lights in the entire city centre of Hanoi yet in our first few weeks we do not see a single accident. By some process of give and take, the traffic wends in and out like spaghetti in perpetual motion.”
Speak to long-term expats and they remember this period — a phase when there were no taxis or public buses, an era before traffic lights where the streets were dominated by bicycles and pre-1975 scooters.
Twenty-five years later and the transportation system in this country is unrecognizable. Traffic lights are the norm, public bus systems — urban, suburban and national — are well set up, taxis roam city centres and two metro systems are being built.
Yet, with the country’s major cities expanding well beyond their post-war, urban boundaries, there is a new phenomenon; the commuter. As it stands, commuters — particularly those from out of town — are badly catered for. The metro will certainly help at some time in the future, but at present you’ve got two options. Drive, face the traffic and the danger of the roads, or take the bus.
Saigon to Bien Hoa
Go to almost any major city in the developed world and an urban metro system is complemented by a suburban rail service. Such is the thought behind the new expansion of train services between Ho Chi Minh City and Bien Hoa, 30km to the north of Vietnam’s largest metropolis.
Created not to make profit but, according to the Vietnamese language website Phap Luat, “to reduce the congestion in the inner city suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City and the two adjacent provinces of Binh Duong and Dong Nai,” the initial fare will be VND10,000 for passengers travelling the full route and VND5,000 for those travelling part way. In addition, motorcycles and bicycles can be brought on the train free of charge.
Calling at six stations — Sai Gon, Go Vap, Binh Trieu, Song Than, Di An and Bien Hoa — 10 trains a day will run initially between Di An in Binh Duong and Sai Gon Station in District 3. In July it will extend to Bien Hoa. The full journey will take 55 minutes.
But two questions remain. Will people use this new service? And will it help reduce congestion? With the number of vehicles on the roads increasing by between 8% percent and 12% a year, the likely answer to the latter question is ‘no’. But this pilot scheme provides a new and far safer option for travelling in and out of the big city, an option we can only hope people take advantage of.
If they do, then it’s possible that Hanoi may get the suburban railway service nod as well. At present the capital has two main railway lines. One travels south towards Ho Chi Minh City. The other heads to the Chinese border close to Lang Son.
Look at the stations along the way and you can see how this may work. The Reunification Line going south could take in seven stations before finishing up at Phu Ly, the main city in Ha Nam. The service to Dong Dang on the border could end up at Bac Ninh stopping at Long Bien, Gia Lam, Yen Vien, Tu Son and Lim en route.
While residents of the capital may decry the possible increase of non-Hanoian workers entering the big city, as in Ho Chi Minh City, this will provide a new option for those struggling with the daily commute in and out of town. And with motorbikes taken off the roads and placed on the train, it’s far safer, too.