The Vietnamese love their motorbikes but have long seen helmets as both uncomfortable and uncool. In Vietnam’s chaotic capital, a new push for safety over fashion.
Thousands of motorbikes sweving at high speed and near misses at every corner can make the roaring streets of Hanoi a terrifying place for the uninitiated. But for Vietnamese teenagers like Trinh Thanh Van, the motorized maelstrom is a party on wheels. It’s 8 p.m. on a weeknight, and 19-year-old Van is out on her red Honda Wave, two girlfriends perched on the back. The trio dart through ever shifting streams of motorbikes as they look for new friends. It’s a typical evening of luon lo (literally, “wandering”), a nightly ritual in which young Vietnamese cruise, flirt and flaunt their finest fashions.
But there’s one traditional biker accessory that Van and her stylish friends avoid: crash helmets. They aren’t alone. Fewer than 10% of riders wear helmets in a country where motorbikes make up 90% of road traffic. “For us, helmets aren’t fashionable,” admits Van’s friend Ha during a roadside chat. Van reluctantly agrees: “If girls have to wear helmets, no one will see their beautiful hairstyles and makeup.”
Soon, though, Vietnam’s motorcyclists won’t have a choice. On Dec. 15, a new law will require motorbike riders and passengers to wear helmets on the road. The law marks an effort by authorities in the communist-ruled nation to effect a huge societal change while saving lives. Some 14,000 Vietnamese died in traffic accidents last year alone, 80% of them from head injuries.
The motorbike is the symbol of Vietnam’s economic transformation over the past 20 years, the result of reforms allowing private enterprise to take root. As often as not, a newly moneyed family’s first major purchase has been a shiny motorbike. Fifteen years ago, the country had only 500,000 of the vehicles; today there are 22 million. But Vietnam’s love affair with the motorbike has come at a price. Besides the death toll, 23,000 riders each year suffer debilitating brain damage from injuries that could have been prevented by helmets, according to the nonprofit Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF).
Despite the danger, however, most Vietnamese have resisted pleas to wear helmets–dubbed rice cookers–complaining that they’re too hot and uncomfortable and even that they block the peripheral vision crucial to executing split-second swerves. And many doubt that the government will be able to enforce its new helmet law. Six years ago, it passed a similar decree but retreated in the face of popular opposition. In fact, for an authoritarian regime, Vietnam’s government has an awful lot of trouble enforcing its most basic traffic laws. Motorcyclists regularly ignore red lights and pull into traffic without so much as a glance around.
Still, the government insists it means business with the helmet law. Thousands of extra police will be dispatched nationwide to pull over bareheaded drivers and issue steep fines of up to 200,000 dong (around $13)–about a quarter of the per capita monthly income in 2006 and, significantly, the average price of a helmet. To underline its “No excuses” message, the government has also launched a massive TV ad campaign featuring gruesome images of head-trauma victims.
AIPF is taking a different tack, promoting helmets as fashion items. The group’s commercial arm manufactures “tropical” helmets with air vents, floral designs and racing stripes. Miss Vietnam 2006, Mai Phuong Thuy, has joined the cause, posing for promotional posters wearing a helmet with a stained-glass motif. Street-side helmet stands have recently popped up on virtually every corner.
In spite of the campaign, attitudes are unlikely to change overnight. Van has already been in two accidents, luckily escaping serious injury, and knows she should be wearing a helmet. She just doesn’t want to be the only one. “After the new law, when everyone else is wearing helmets, then I guess I will too,” she says. On Vietnam’s mean streets, the fashion police just might play a larger part in saving lives than the average traffic cop.