Anybody who visited Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s will no doubt have romantic memories of streets heaving with no more than bicycles carrying graceful Vietnamese in their trademark conical straw hats. Today it is no less interesting but very different. Though pushbikes are not yet entirely a thing of the past, the streets of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) and elegant Hanoi now teem with scooters carrying everything from tiny babies to building equipment. These are, of course, quicker and less energy sapping than the bicycle and also cheaper and niftier than the car – especially important in densely populated cities like Ho Chi Minh. This year the City Mayors Foundation ranked Ho Chi Minh the 26th biggest city in the world by population density.
So, after a whirlwind trip which began in Ho Chi Minh City, your guest correspondent headed south to smallholder rice farms in the Mekong Delta and then north to vegetable farms in the Red Delta and ended dodging scooters on the streets of Hanoi. En route to the airport she asked a journalist from Xinhau, China’s state-owned news agency, how Vietnam compares to China. This is China ten years ago, he said. Now China is the world’s biggest car market with over 4 million cars on the road in Beijing. And sales continue to rise according to this story in China’s English Global Times. In the second week of December the number of new vehicles rose to 20,000 in Beijing, a growth rate higher than usual, according to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.
So one only has to look to China’s traffic-choked roads to imagine how congested Vietnam’s cities might be when the youthful aspiring population move from scooters to cars (dead fish found in Hanoi’s lakes earlier this year has already highlighted pollution as one of several unfortunate consequences). And if China is the measure then this will be within ten years. But is this progress? Well it would appear that bicycles are very much back in vogue: from London’s Barclay’s Bank-sponsored cycle hire scheme to Beijing’s renewed vigour for the old-fashioned push bike, according to this story.
So here is a thought: is there a way for Vietnam’s policy makers to think very seriously right now about how to get people back on their bikes instead of into cars? By doing this they might short circuit what otherwise will undoubtedly be the road to even greater pollution and worse congestion.