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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