The things that you immediately notice when you step out onto the street in Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi is the choking fumes and shrill horn noises from the mass hordes of motorcycles and scooters. With 10 million people in the capital, there are estimated to be five million of these two wheeled transports running around the city. This figure is the same in all of Vietnam’s major cities, adding up to a total of over 47 million motorbikes in the country. Many of these vehicles are past their prime and would not pass an emissions test.
The pollution in Hanoi is so bad, their Department of Transport proposed a total ban on motorcycle use by 2030. The Department’s plan is to invest highly in public transport, notably a rapid bus system and a monorail. The bikes are used for people to commute to work and transport their family, but because there are so many, the roads become jammed, and many riders go onto the sidewalks. Pedestrians are forced to walk on the roadside in the midst of more bikes. Nerves of steel are needed if you want to cross the road – even at a proper crossing, you realize what Moses may have felt like when parting the Red Sea.
Vietnam (officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam) is a country in Southeast Asia with an area of 120,348 sq. mi. and a population of 96 million, making it the fifteenth-most populous country in the world. Vietnam borders China to the north, and Cambodia and Laos to the west. It shares maritime borders with Thailand through the Gulf of Thailand, and Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines through the South China Sea. Its capital is Hanoi, and its largest city is Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). The country has a 1,025-mile coastline on the South China Sea and is about 310 miles at its widest point.
Historically, what is now the northern area of the country, was part of Imperial China for more than 1,000 years. An independent Vietnamese state was formed in the year 939 when rebel forces defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Bach Dang. From there, the country steadily grew in size as part of the region known as Indochina. Successive imperial dynasties developed trade and commerce with Vietnam, so the country gained importance in Southeast Asia.
In the 19th century, the modern world witnessed the French colonization of much of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. The region, under French rule, was never calm, and during WWII, the Japanese occupied the northern area, known as Tonkin. In 1945, the newly elected president Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France under the new name of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, the First Indochina War began between France and Viet Minh forces. As the war progressed, the communist countries of China and the USSR allied themselves with the Minh forces, and the French were eventually defeated in 1954.
After the war, the country was divided into two states, North Vietnam, (Democratic Republic of Vietnam), and South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam). After ten years, the hostile relations between the two states intensified and culminated with the start of the Vietnam War in 1965. This was also known as the Second Indochina War. The USA gradually involved itself in the conflict, and President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “The battle against Communism must be joined with strength and determination.” The conflict ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory, then the North and South became unified as one country.
Run by a communist government, Vietnam eventually became politically isolated and totally impoverished. In 1986, the Communist party instituted political and economic reforms that gradually resulted in the country’s integration into the world diplomatic order and developed a much-improved economy. Their growth rate, measured from year 2000, has been amongst the highest in the world. Surprisingly, their main trading partner is the United States, followed by Japan, China, Australia, Germany, and the UK. Exports include things like crude oil, textiles, footwear, fish products, and electronics.
Vietnam is still a Communist run country, however the current government has a relaxed attitude toward capitalism, and thanks to its high growth rate, is seen by many economists as a mini-China. Tourism in Vietnam has been on the rise since around 1995 and is a major factor on the growing economy of the country. But, if you do go, expect to experience horrible air quality, overcrowding, and lots of traffic. Other negatives include high levels of corruption, censorship, and a poor human rights record. The country ranks among the lowest in the international measurements of civil liberties, like freedom of the press and religion, but it also has some beautiful scenery (like Ha Long Bay).
Heavy road transport in Vietnam has its surprises, with old trucks, as well as new ones, running on the packed and, for the most part, tired infrastructure. Vietnam’s neighbor, China, has exploited the Vietnamese big truck market with brands including JAC, FAW, Dongfeng, CAMC, Howo, Sinotruk, Beiben, and C&C. However, the latest news is that sales of most new Chinese trucks have slumped and are now unpopular. Many Vietnamese transport operators consider them to be of inferior build quality and are more attracted to the Japanese brands of Hino, UD, Isuzu, and Fuso.
In Vietnam you will see many US designed Volvos, Freightliners, Sterlings, and Navistar conventionals, along with old Freightliner cabovers, International Eagle 9800s, and even some worn out old Peterbilts. There are also numerous models of the now defunct Asia brand trucks, which were a subsidiary of the South Korean Kia Motors. The Russian manufacturer Kamaz is no stranger to Vietnam, seeing the country as a huge and potentially lucrative market for its products. The Scandinavian, German, and Dutch makes are never far behind, anywhere in the world, and they have now set up dealerships in the country. The South Korean Daewoo and Hyundai also have a very strong presence.
Vietnam also has its own truck assembly plants which are in full swing. One was established in 1997 with the Hyundai company heavily involved. A conglomerate called Truong Hai Auto Corporation (THACO) produces trucks of all sizes, cars, and bus bodies. Asian designed trucks are built at a 1,500-acre site in the central Quang Nam province. The plant also assembles some models of the Chinese brand Auman (Foton), as well as Mazda, Peugeot, Hyundai, and Kia autos in another part of the plant. A similar enterprise, called Cuu Long Auto, operates on a 50-acre site in Hung Yen province. The factory assembles 50 types of TMT Motor branded trucks of all sizes from imported CKD (complete knocked down) kits. This enterprise was formed jointly by Sinotruk of China, Tata of India, and Hyundai.
As Vietnam’s economy booms, more and more trucks are put onto the roads, which is causing major headaches to those who are overseeing the transport industry. Some of the top problems include overloading and speeding, so the country made it their top priority to tackle these issues. In 2013, it was estimated that 90% of the heavy trucks were running overloaded, exceeding their design weight by up to five times. These overweight trucks not only wreak havoc on the roads and bridges of Vietnam, but 95% of the accidents involving a big truck result in death, as well. The country recently built two state-of-the-art weigh stations, in key areas, and a task force was set up in each of the provinces of Vietnam to help tackle overloading with mobile weighing equipment.
Major traffic congestion has led to a lot of construction and modernization of the road infrastructure. To recoup the cost of this work, fees are being charged on certain routes. However, when toll stations are introduced, savvy drivers are avoiding them and speeding to make up for lost time on unsuitable routes for truck traffic. This results in damage to roads near homes and is a disruption with noise and dust. More importantly, there has been a large increase in injury and fatalities caused by road accidents. On average, road accidents claim 30 lives every day in Vietnam. To combat speeding, the country installed speeding cameras and now do frequent roadside checks, carried out by the Police.
Like many of the countries I have visited and written about in the past, Vietnam has a mix of trucks from all over the world, including the United States, but they also manufacture and assemble many of their own brands, as well. But with more cars and trucks being put out on the roads every day, Vietnam’s ongoing issues with bad air quality, traffic, noise, and a failing and tired infrastructure are likely to continue for many years to come.