Postcard: Hanoi,9171,1692024,00.html

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.


VIETNAM: US dissident released amid human rights concerns

Yesterday Vietnam deported a Vietnamese-American pro-democracy activist after his arrest last month with a group of other dissidents triggered protests from the United States. Last week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that Vietnam’s overall human rights record remained very poor, and has deteriorated in the last year.

Presenter – Adam Connors  Speaker – Michael Michalak, US Ambassador to Vietnam ; Dr Thong Nguyen, a central committee member of the Viet Tan in Australia; Luke Donnellan, Victorian MP.

listen windows media  listen windows media >

CONNORS: Two US citizens – Nguyen Quoc Quan, a mathematician from Sacramento, and Leon Truong , who operates a catering truck in Honolulu – along with a French journalist, a Thai and two locals, were apprehended in November while circulating petitions produced by Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group promoting peaceful political change in Communist Vietnam. This is just one of the cases that has aggravated the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. So gravely, in fact, that they recommended in May 2007 that Vietnam be re-designated as a ‘country of particular concern’ – a designation which is currently under review.

On Tuesday the US Ambassador, Michael Michalak, said Vietnamese authorities had not given them any evidence of media reports that the group were suspected of terrorism — or in fact any charge.

MICHALAK: We see no information that would support charges of terrorism against these individuals that have been suggested by the local media. We have said if they are detained, we will protest if they have been detained for peaceful expression of political views.

CONNORS: It comes as no surprise then that late Tuesday, the first of the Vietnamese-Americans was released and deported. Vietnam state television reports caterer and activist Leon Truong left Tuesday evening.

Dr Thong Nguyen, a central committee member of the Viet Tan in Australia, says the Vietnamese-American, French, Thai, and their supporters were merely preparing democratic discussion and materials.

NGUYEN: They were arrested while participating in dicussions about democracy with other activists, promoting peaceful democratic changes. They were preparing pamphlets about successful non-violent struggles around the world, and using these lessons to empower the Vietnamese people. This is exactly why the international community has been condemning the Vietnamese government — for arresting these activists and many others this year — for their peaceful democratic advocacy.

CONNORS: They are just a few of the dozens of Vietnamese activists arrested so far this year, most charged with ‘propaganda against the Socialist Republic’ – a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Then there’s Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly – put back in jail last year once President George W. Bush had finished his Vietnamese tour, and the Communist country had all but inked its World Trade Organisation deal.

An MP of the Australian state of Victoria, Luke Donnellan, made a trip to Vietnam himself in March 2006 to meet with Father Ly and noted some of the harsh measures employed against him and his church.

DONNELLAN: The fear in his own Catholic community that if they were seen to be attending his mass they would be seen as troublemakers. The fact that he has to change his email address every 24 hours, every 48 hours. The fact that his computer is monitored in an ongoing basis. He’s raided probably once a month, he loses all his computer equipment, all his printers. It’s obviously very difficult to be a Catholic priest in Vietnam at the moment who’s calling for religious and democratic rights, basic rights.

CONNORS: The commission last week stated to US Congress that these actions were indefensible, among limits set-out in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – which Vietnam has ratified.

Welcoming the release of just one activist Tuesday, Australian Viet Tan representative Doctor Nguyen is calling for Vietnam to do more.

NGUYEN: We call on the international community to continue to pressure the Vietnamese authorities to release other peaceful activists as they did with Mr Leon Truong.

Vietnam releases US couple accused of carrying handgun

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Vietnam has released a US couple accused of carrying a handgun and bullets after being held at the Ho Chi Minh city’s airport, the State Department and US lawmakers who pushed for their release said Tuesday.

The Vietnamese-Americans, Le Van Phan and his wife Nguyen Thi Thinh, who had travelled from Los Angeles, were labeled “terrorists” by the state media on their arrest on November 23, a charge Washington said was unsubstantiated.

“The two plan to return (home) in the next few days,” Steve Royster, spokesman for the State Department’s consular affairs division, told AFP.

Earlier Tuesday, the Vietnamese authorities released and deported to the United States a Vietnamese-American pro-democracy activist after his arrest November 17 with a group of other dissidents.

Leon Truong, a member of the banned California-based Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform) party, was held with five other pro-democracy activists, including one other Vietnamese-American, a Frenchwoman, one Thai and two Vietnamese nationals, also accused in state media of plotting terrorism against Vietnam.

The other Vietnamese American, Nguyen Quoc Quan, “is still in custody and we haven’t received a formal notification of charges brought against him,” Royster said.

US ambassador in Vietnam Michael Michalak had said in Hanoi that he had seen no evidence to support claims in the communist country’s state media that the four Vietnamese-Americans were guilty of terrorism.

Loretta Sanchez, Democratic legislator from California, said “it is appalling to me these arrests ever happened,” and called for the immediate release of Nguyen.

“When will the harassment, the arrest of the US citizens, and the harassment and jailing of the Vietnamese people end,” she asked at a news conference on Capitol Hill, accusing Hanoi of human rights abuses against its own citizens.

Sanchez and 10 other legislators had written to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, saying the arrests “violate the government of Vietnam’s promise to continue to improve its human rights record.”

Vietnam says it does not prosecute political activists, only people who break the law, including provisions that ban anti-state propaganda.

“I have little doubt that the pressure we’re applying on Hanoi is making a difference and this is why it’s essential that we keep up the pressure to ensure the safe release of Dr Nguyen, who remains in captivity, yet to be charged with a crime, for his peaceful promotion of democracy,” said Ed Royce, a Republican lawmaker also from California.

Sanchez has also asked the US Transportation Security Administration to investigate its screening procedures at Los Angeles Airport to check into Vietnamese allegations that Le and Nguyen had passed through that airport’s security with a firearm in the luggage.

Sandisk Moves Into Vietnam

Sandisk on Monday said it plans to start selling the Sansa digital music player, mobile phone cards and USB flash drives to people in Vietnam, citing a growing consumer class in the nation.

The company has teamed up with FPT Corp., a Vietnamese distributor, and Ingram Micro Inc., of Santa Ana, California, to tap into Vietnam’s market.

There are 23 million mobile-phone users and 17.8 million Internet subscribers in Vietnam, Sandisk said, all potential consumers. The nation boasts a population of around 87 million people.

The Southeast Asian country has become a hotbed of investment for global IT makers in recent years.

Earlier this year, Taiwan‘s Hon Hai Precision Industry, which assembles gadgets such as the iPod for Apple, the PlayStation 3 for Sony and mobile phones for Nokia, announced plans to invest US$5 billion over the next five years in Vietnam.

Last year Intel Corp. announced it would expand a chip packaging and testing project in Vietnam into a $1 billion affair, more than triple the size of the original plan.

Vietnam releases detained US pro-democracy activist

HANOI, Vietnam: Vietnam has released a detained U.S. pro-democracy activist and sent him back to the United States, state television reported Tuesday.

Truong Van Ba, whose Americanized name is Leon Truong, was released from jail Tuesday afternoon and later departed from Ho Chi Minh City’s airport to the United States.

Vietnam state television showed Ba leaving jail and checking in at the airport.

Ba is a member of a U.S.-based pro-democracy group called Viet Tan, which Vietnam regards as a terrorist organization. Viet Tan says it supports nonviolent political change in Vietnam, and the U.S. government said it has seen no evidence that the group has terrorist aims.

“My father is on the plane right now and he’s coming back home,” Lauren Truong, Truong’s daughter, said by telephone from Washington, D.C. “I’m very happy and excited.”

Truong was heading to his home in Hawaii, his daughter said.

Truong is one of four U.S. citizens who were detained in Vietnam last month on unspecified charges.

Arrested with Truong on Nov. 17 was U.S. resident Nguyen Quoc Quan and a French citizen, a Thai national and two Vietnamese.

Quan is still being detained in Vietnam, where authorities say he entered the country with a forged Cambodian passport.

Two other U.S. citizens being held in Vietnam were detained at the Ho Chi Minh City airport on Nov. 23 after Vietnamese authorities alleged that they entered the country with a firearm in their luggage.

U.S. officials say they have seen no evidence that the two sets of arrests are related, and Viet Tan says the U.S. citizens arrested at the airport do not belong to their group.

While the Vietnamese government had not issued formal charges against the detainees, the Vietnamese media said Truong and Quan were being investigated for terrorism.

Speaking to reporters in Hanoi earlier Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak said he had seen no evidence linking them to terrorism and called on the Vietnamese government to explain their arrests.

“To date, we have received no formal notification of the charges against these individuals,” Michalak said.

Michalak also said he had seen no evidence that Viet Tan is a terrorist organization.

“If there is evidence that this group is engaged in terrorist activities, I would like to see it,” he said.

Arrested on Nov. 23 were U.S. citizens Nguyen Thi Thinh and Le Van Phan.

During an interview with U.S. Embassy officials, Thinh denied that there was a weapon in her luggage, Michalak said.

Viet Tan says it promotes peaceful democratic change in Vietnam. The group says the six people arrested in Ho Chi Minh City were circulating pamphlets promoting nonviolent political change.

“The United States will protest any actions taken to silence those engaged in the peaceful expression of political views,” Michalak said.

Vietnamese government officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the cases.

Meanwhile, Vietnam sentenced four members of an independent trade union to up to 4 1/2 years in prison for defaming the Communist state, a court official said Tuesday.

The four were members of the United Workers-Farmers Organization of Vietnam, an unapproved union working on behalf of farmers whose land has been taken by the government for development.

Those sentenced were Doan Van Dien, Tran Thi Le Hong, Doan Huy Chuong and Phung Quang Quyen, court official Nguyen Minh Toan said.

The four were convicted of arranging or participating in interviews with foreign radio stations in which they accused the government of repressing strikes and arresting demonstrators, he said.

They were convicted of “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe on the interests of the state,” Toan said.