- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON) Millions of scooters, dozens of helmets.

An informal count through 14 stoplight cycles at the busy intersection of Bong Khai and Ly Tu Trong streets turned up exactly three protective safety helmets among the riders of an estimated 5,000 motorcycles, motorized scooters, bicycles and pedicabs.

Two of the helmets were pink models on the heads of a fashionably dressed mother and daughter. The third was worn by a construction worker with a coil of wires in his bicycle's wheelbarrow-like front basket.

Everyone else from elegant grandmothers riding side-saddle on the back of massive Hondas to families of four sandwiched on tiny Vespa-like motorbikes negotiated the city's terrifying rush-hour traffic bareheaded.

Western expatriates, many of whom take a daredevil thrill in matching the natives' road antics, are guilty as well. The 20 Western scooter operators who passed during the observation period all were without helmets.

Anyone observing the mesmerizing choreography at this intersection a block from City Hall would have to conclude that capitalism and democracy will prove a much easier sell in this communist country than mandatory helmet laws.

"The first helmets they shipped over here were bulky and heavy and just didn't fit the lifestyle," said John McAuliffe, executive director of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a nonprofit group that works on debt-relief issues here.

Mr. McAuliffe, an otherwise respectable-looking 40-something professional in coat and tie, admits he never wears a helmet when he motors around the city.

U.S. investors, working with U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Douglas "Pete" Peterson, have taken up the cause and enlisted President Clinton for a media event yesterday to publicize the value of helmets. Advocates say the blase Vietnamese attitude has led to horrific head injuries and avoidable trauma.

Ford Motor Co. and American President Lines (APL), a cargo fleet shipper, have co-sponsored a "Helmets for Kids" initiative, with APL donating container space to transport a shipment of motorcycle helmets to Vietnam.

Children often ride on the backs of motorcycles driven by older family members.

Following a speech at an APL-run container port yesterday, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Peterson mingled with a group of Vietnamese schoolchildren in navy-blue jumper uniforms, red neckerchiefs and electric-blue safety helmets.

The children unfurled a multicolored banner in crayon that proclaimed: "Mr. President, we promise to wear our helmets."

Trying on one of the helmets himself, Mr. Clinton exhorted the children always to wear their helmets and to urge others to do the same.

Two- and three-wheeled vehicles of all sorts outnumber cars, taxis and trucks on Ho Chi Minh City's teeming streets by more than 100 to 1, and the ratio is even more lopsided in the capital, Hanoi, and poorer provincial cities.

Parking is one problem this developing country does not have, even in the hectic downtown areas. Sidewalks are lined with parked motorbikes, and there are numerous sheds where up to 1,000 bikes and scooters stand in neat rows awaiting their owners.

Vintage, gearless bikes manage tasks that would require full-sized vans in the United States. A quick 20-minute walk through downtown revealed cyclists toting two large cages of doves, a shipment of garden hoses, even an office credenza.

None of the haulers was wearing a helmet.

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