by Thu Huong Le
Taking a snapshot of HCM City's District 1, the downtown area with western-style coffee shops, boutiques and young people in trendy clothes, one could mistake it for Orchard Road in Singapore.
However, zoom in to the Old Quarter and you'll be back to reality – thousands of motorbikes criss-crossing the streets and cars and bikes jammed on the footpaths. One thing that Viet Nam's biggest city and its capital lack in terms of transport compared with other Asian urban hubs is a metro train system. But that is about to be put right.
Talk about building a train system for Ha Noi and HCM City started decades ago, with officials and authorities and the public envisioning that one day an underground and overhead railway would be the answer to our severe traffic congestion, caused by an outrageous number of motorbikes, overcrowded and polluting public buses, street flooding and an unfortunately high number of traffic accidents.
So recent news about ground-breaking events and other progresses on various underground metro projects in both cities have been welcomed.
In late August, Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang and HCM City authorities turned the first sod on the construction of the country's first metro line, costing US$2.2 billion with the first secion to become operational in 2017.
It is the "backbone" of the city's Mass Rapid Transport system, and the section is expected to transport 186,000 passengers per day in 2017 and 620,000 per day by 2020. It will consist of a 2.6km underground section with three underground stations.
In Ha Noi, the city's Planning and Architecture Department also announced that metro route No. 2 will have a total length of 11.5km, 8.5km of which will run underground in the Old Quarter. It will have 10 stations, including seven underground.
The project will cost VND19.56 trillion ($931 million), using Japanese ODA and local government capital. By 2020, trains on the route are expected to transport 535,000 passengers daily, with the figure expected to rise to 777,000 by 2030.
The capital plans to build eight metro lines in its transport development plan by 2020.
These figures are impressive but we would expect the public to have some concerns. We're borrowing billions of dollars for construction of these metro lines, five years after a bribery scandal regarding the Japanese-funded East-West Highway project in HCM City and continued urging by international donors on the need to eliminate corruption in the management development funds.
The mismanagement of funds by State-owned enterprises has been constantly brought up at National Assembly meetings and in June Denmark's embassy in Viet Nam announced a temporary halt to three ODA-funded projects due to suspicions of corruption.
Over the past 15 years, Viet Nam has received nearly $30 billion in ODA, transforming every sector and many lives. However, improving transparency and clarity in these development projects has not reached a sufficient level to prevent donors mentioning the problems at every consultative meeting they attend. If mismanagement does continue in the development of the metro lines, the consequences could be disastrous, affecting the safety of underground constructions and increasing the financial burden to debts already being carried.
The public also has reason to wonder whether the underground systems will be patronised, based on past experiences where projects were built without surveying residents' needs, only to find them unused and abandoned.
Take an example in Ha Noi. A few months into 2012, the ministry implemented a series of solutions to ease traffic congestion: changing work and school hours, dividing lanes and banning parking on 262 main streets but there are no signs the measures have been effective.
Several flyovers have been built at busy intersections. Dao Ngoc Nghiem, former head of the city's Planning and Architecture Department once told a local media that flyovers were just a "temporary" solution to the city's chronic traffic issues.
"In 2008, when we decided to expand Ha Noi, we needed a comprehensive development plan that outlined our transportation system, not the current patchy plan," he was quoted as saying.
In addition, experts also warn that future construction of above-ground metro lines will conflict with the constant building of flyovers, while a shortage of electricity could also pose problems in running the trains safely.
There are also issues of people's awareness. Take our bus systems: complaints are legion of drivers abusing handicapped passengers, buses not stopping at required stations, pickpocketing, overcrowding, polluting the environment and violating traffic rules.
Would people stop using their motorbikes if underground services did not offer reasonable ticket prices, well-maintained stations, welcoming staff attitudes and protection from trashing and spitting and other anti-social behaviour?
In 2003, the Government issued coins for currency but while accepted in many countries abroad, the project failed in Viet Nam. Lesson learned: sometimes people's habits are hard to change.
While I can't dream that our subway system will include well-lit shopping malls, such as those in major western cities, I can dream of taking my first subway ride soon and forgoing my motorbike.
With their long-term vision, let's hope our transport planners and managers get it right and we end up with an efficient and well-patronised metro system that reduces congestion on our roads, is safe and makes commuting a pleasure. — VNS