Vietnamese motorcyclists learn to love the ‘rice cooker’

Battling an alarming road toll, Vietnam is launching a new push to make motorcycle riders wear crash helmets and change attitudes about the device widely derided here as the “rice cooker.”

From Saturday, thousands of additional police will swarm out nationwide and impose stiff fines to enforce the new law on communist Vietnam’s surprisingly anarchic roads which are choked with 22 million motorbikes.

A similar road safety drive buckled under public pressure five years ago — but this time the government has made clear it’s serious, spreading the word on propaganda banners, state television and over neighbourhood loudspeakers.

Many Vietnamese, sensing the change is for real, have rushed to new shops that have cropped up across the country and are stocked with millions of shiny new helmets, many from China.

“The people are finally ready to accept it,” said Greig Craft, whose non-profit Asia Injury Prevention Foundation has campaigned for nine years to get Vietnamese motorcycle drivers to protect their heads.

“They’re not happy to do it, but they’re ready to face the facts.”

Vietnamese traffic is a sight to behold — motorcycles carrying entire families, bicycles, cyclos, cars and smoke-belching buses pour through cities and make crossing streets a perilious exercise.

To Craft, it’s a war that claims over 30 lives day.

“It’s a war from the standpoint that people are being slaughtered,” he said.

“It’s the innocents who are dying — young people and children. The hospitals are full 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In some ways even more tragic are the number of head injuries and cases of brain damage.”

Vietnam has fallen in love with the motorcycle, a symbol of its post-war economic development, but they have been far less happy to adopt helmets.

“That rice cooker is bad for my look,” complained Nguyen Linh Tam, a 21-year-old student with a trendy scooter and a bright blond mop of hair, the latest in South Korean-inspired urban hip.

“If the police don’t get too tough, I won’t wear a helmet. Let’s see what other people do.”

Craft has heard it all before.

“Vietnamese have a million reasons not to wear a helmet,” he said. “It messes up my hair. It makes me look like I’m from the countryside. I’m not going very far. I can’t hear. I can’t see. It’s too hot.”

To change attitudes, Craft has lobbied government leaders, organised pop concerts, had Miss Vietnam 2006 Mai Phuong Thuy put on a helmet, and launched hard-hitting advertising campaigns with graphic images of road victims.

It’s starting to pay off.

Craft estimates the ratio of riders wearing helmets has risen from three percent half a year ago to a respectable 10-15 percent in the cities this week, and up to 80-90 percent in some rural areas.

His group manufactures a tropical standard, bicycle-style helmet that is cooler and frees up peripheral vision. Daily sales have shot up from a few dozen a year ago to 3,000-5,000 today, he said.

Craft has watched the last-minute rush with satisfaction.

“What we have seen in the past 48 hours is almost unbelievable,” he said. “The population has now given up on the notion that the government is going to change their mind at the 11th hour.”

Not everybody is on board just yet.

In the remote northern Son La province, ethnic Thai communities — whose married women traditionally grow their hair several metres long and tie it into enormous buns — say no helmet on the market fits their hairstyles.

In Hanoi, Tran Van Tuan, a veteran motorcycle taxi driver, has bought two helmets already but is enjoying the last days of the wind blow through his hair as he ducked and weaved through thick urban traffic.

Asked why, he gave a reason not even Craft has heard before.

“When everybody starts to wear rice cookers on their heads,” he said, “we will look like we all come from another planet. We’ll look like we’re living in the 25th century.”

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Hawaii man jailed in Vietnam vows to continue democracy fight

HONOLULU (AP) – A Hawaii man who spent almost a month in a Vietnam jail after he was found preparing to distribute pro-democracy pamphlets said Wednesday he’s happy to be back in the islands and vowed to campaign for the release of colleagues left behind.

About 30 supporters met Leon Truong at Honolulu International Airport and piled his neck high with flower lei.

Truong, who is called Truong Van Ba in Vietnam, said he thought he might be stuck in prison for months, if not years. He spent 24 days in prison before being released Tuesday.

The activist said he endured hours of interrogation day after day, including weekends. And though he wasn’t physically abused, he said the relentless questioning “terrorized” him mentally and psychologically.

Truong said he had to risk getting thrown into jail because Vietnamese are being denied their basic rights.

“While living in America, I appreciate the freedoms and the rights that we have here,” Truong said through an interpreter in his first interview since returning to the U.S. “I cannot turn away when the people in Vietnam are living absolutely without dignity and freedom that we enjoy here. When you know that it is the right thing to do, you have to take the risk.”

Truong and five colleagues were arrested at a house in Ho Chi Minh City on Nov. 17 when authorities found them preparing to circulate pamphlets on behalf of Viet Tan, a California-based pro-democracy group that Vietnam considers a terrorist organization.

Viet Tan says it promotes nonviolent political change in Vietnam. The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam has said he’s seen no evidence that the group is engaged in terrorism.

Viet Tan said Wednesday the Vietnamese government released one of the others, French journalist Nguyen Thi Thanh Van, after holding her for 25 days. Nguyen is expected to arrive in Paris on Thursday.

Nguyen Quoc Quan, a mathematician from Sacramento, Calif., has yet to be released. Somsak Khunmi, from Ubon, Thailand, and two Vietnamese citizens, Nguyen The Vu and Nguyen The Khiem, also remained in custody.

Truong said he persevered in prison by exercising and meditating. He also thought of his friends and supporters around the world who he knew would fight to get him out.

A strong belief in his work also gave him strength, he said.

Truong, who has lived in Hawaii for 28 years, said his interrogators pushed him to admit that he was a terrorist. He said he finally signed papers his captors drafted for him, but now disavows them.

“They forced me to sign statements. Therefore I deny anything that I said or signed in prison,” Truong said.

He vowed to continue campaigning for democracy in Vietnam.

“I would like everybody to continue putting pressure on the Hanoi regime to help free my friends, colleagues who are working peacefully to democratize Vietnam,” Truong said.

VIETNAM: 240 workers strike at Hai Phong

There has been another large-scale strike at a Vietnamese footwear plant, with workers demanding better pay and working conditions.

Yesterday morning (11 December) all 240 workers at a shoes cap workshop owned by Vietnam’s Hai Phong Footwear Company stopped working, and held a strike for rising salary and an upgraded working environment.

Khuc Ngoc Quang, a trade union official of the company, said that the company asked employees to work under high pressure for a net salary of VND600,000-700,000 (US$37.5-$43) per month.

Workers at the plant petitioned to leaders of the company for higher salaries and environment improvement a month ago, but little has been done, added Quang.

Hai Phong yesterday agreed to increase lunch allowance but is still deciding on a potential salary increase. The company, currently doing outwork for Taiwanese partners, is the biggest footwear producer of Hai Phong port city, with annual capacity of 10m pairs of shoes.

The strike follows news in Vietnam last month that around 10,000 workers at Tae Kwang Vina shoe plant, which makes shoes for Nike, had gone on strike for an increased salary amid rising inflation in the country.

There have been 71 strikes in Hai Phong city since the turn of the millennium, and 27 in 2007 alone.

By Ngo Tuan. just-style.com

VIETNAM’S CAN THO CITY WELCOMES 1.7 MLN VISITORS THIS YEAR

CAN THO, Dec 12 Asia Pulse – Can Tho city in the Mekong delta welcomed more than 1.7 million tourists, including 150,000 foreigner this year.The city will host the National Tourism Year 2008 themed the Mekong Delta Countryside, which is expected to help Can Tho attain its target of 2 million visitors and a tourism turnover of 1 trillion VND by 2010.

The organizing board announced on December 11 that preparations have completed for a busy calendar from February to December next year, which include an ethnic Khmer cultural and sports events, the Mekong tourism-cum-trade fair and gastronomy festival and a national traditional boat race.

Can Tho is investing heavily in several major tourist attractions, human resource training and tourism promotion campaigns with the aim of becoming a tourism centre of the Mekong delta.