Category Archives: Transportation

Tom Gets Scribd

I’ve just uploaded seven of my greatest hits from my tenure at AsiaLIFE HCMC. (Or at least my mom says they’re my greatest hits.) Check them out at my new Scribd account or click right to the articles below.

Scooter Madness: How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. April 2009.

I Want My VNTV: Local audiences remain critical of Vietnamese television, but it’s hard to deny the demand for homegrown content. Industry insiders speak about delivering better programming in Vietnam. June 2010.

Primates on the Rebound: On a small island in Cat Tien National Park, a group of conservationists has big plans to counter the trade in endangered primates through rehabilitation, research and education. April 2010

Work in Progress: Over the past decade, the contemporary art scene in Ho Chi Minh City has quietly flourished. But limited infrastructure, lack of funding, and the enduring challenges of working within the confines of state oversight have presented obstacles to providing services to artists and attracting collectors. An overview of the scene and a look at some of the art being created in the thanh pho. April 2010.

Wildlife in Jeopardy: Vietnam is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, but it has also suffered from decades of deforestation and habitat loss and remains a hot spot for wildlife trade. Today, conservationists face an uphill battle to save Vietnam’s beleaguered wildlife. March 2010

The Next New Battleground: Local and international businesses have found an alternative to shrinking export markets in the last place anyone expected: rural Vietnam. November 2009

Solving Saigon’s Congestion Question: The way we drive now and a look at the plans and problems that lie ahead for Ho Chi Minh City. November 2009.

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Filed under Art, Conservation, Culture, History, Ho Chi Minh City, Pop Culture, Television, Transportation, Vietnam

Cutbacks at Qantas

Qantas announced this weekend a series of measures meant to keep out of the red in the face of sky-rocketing global fuel costs. On the chopping block are 22 of its 228 plane strong fleet, as well as Jetstar’s pilot and cabin crew base in Adelaide. The route, however, will remain in service, with flights manned by staff based out of Sydney and Darwin. Some routes will see capacity reductions, but no routes are currently slated to be cut outright.

Despite its most recent fuel woes, Qantas says it will go ahead with plans to replace older crafts with more fuel-efficient A380s and B787s, roll out new customer service initiatives and launch its direct service from Sydney to Buenos Aires in November.

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Filed under Australia, Flights, Transportation

British lend insight to Saigon Subway

The British came to town last week to pinpoint possible areas for cooperation on Saigon’s main railways and the future metro system, the Word HCMC reported in their latest issue. Turns out the Brits are on a public transportation world tour of sorts, stopping by developing nations to lend their rail expertise. Add the British to the growing list of international partners helping to develop the Saigon subway.

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Filed under Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation, Vietnam

Jetstar: Hue Routes Axed, Highlands and Dalat Delayed

Jetstar Pacific recently confirmed my suspicions: the delay on the Hanoi – Hue route missed its simultaneous launch with the Nha Trang and Danang routes due to rising global fuel costs. Now, the Ho Chi Minh City – Hue service has been axed, as well. Add to the list of bad news that the HCMC – Buon Ma Thout (Central Highlands) and HCMC – Dalat routes will miss their scheduled first flights originally slated for August.

In related news, Airbus announced that increased production on its A380 line will be delayed, which will likely complicate Jetstar’s plans to get wheels up on thirty A380s in Vietnam by the projected 2014 deadline.

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Filed under Flights, Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation, Vietnam

Jetstar: Turbulence en route to Vietnam expansion?

Oz Traveller recently posted on Qantas Group’s reduced and cut Australia routes, as well as on the grounding of one of its recently acquired Airbus A320s. The first A320 is due to arrive in Vietnam in August and is slated to support additional service between Ho Chi Minh City – Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City – Buon Ma Thuot (Central Highlands). No word yet on whether Jetstar’s Airbus woes will affect the HCMC increase, but Jetstar is behind schedule on the new Hanoi – Hue direct route.

Qantas cited high global gas prices for the reductions on low-demand routes. The price of gas products in Vietnam will remain fixed until June 30 in order to combat inflation, but hoarding in the lead up to the cap’s expiration is already becoming a problem. Here’s hoping that fleet of fuel-efficient A320s makes it here before the shaky economy goes haywire.

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Filed under Flights, Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation, Vietnam

Three New Vietnam Routes on Jetstar Pacific

Jetstar Pacific is scheduled to expand its domestic route map today to include three new direct routes connecting Hanoi to Danang, Hue and Nha Trang. However, as of this morning,‘s booking engine yields no results for the Hanoi-Hue route. Meanwhile, wheels are up on the Danang and Nha Trang flights. A JetSaver Light (carry-on only) ticket starts at $35, while a full-priced boarding pass costs about $47. JetSaver Light tickets to Cam Ranh Airport, 28 miles (45 km) from Nha Trang, average $52 for weekday travel and $72 on the weekends. Regular fares hover at $82.

Jetstar Pacific is poised to corner the market on cheap flights in Vietnam. The partnership between Quantas Group’s Jetstar and Pacific Airlines, which launched Jetstar Pacific on May 23, has introduced the nation’s first budget airline.

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Filed under Flights, Transportation, Vietnam

International Aid Fuels Saigon Subway

There’s been lots of nay-saying floating around since ground broke on the long-anticipated Ho Chi Minh City metro system this past February. But cynics can’t deny the initial foreign investment is there. Three lines have international support, and two Japanese companies and one French firm are vying for rights to outfit the system with the latest railway technology.

The Japan Bank for International Co-operation will pump $905 million into the already-started first line in the six-line system, which will run from Ben Thanh Market to Suoi Tien Park in Thu Duc District. This flagship line will run underground between three stations in District 1 before emerging to connect the next 11 stations. Completion is set for 2014 to the tune of $2 billion total.

On the same day construction began on Line 1, the German government pledged $86 million to the estimated $1.2 billion price tag on Line 2, which will connect Districts 2 and 12. China Shanghai Corporation for Foreign Economic and Technological Cooperation has stepped in to conduct the feasibility study on a third line following what the Vietnamese government calls inadequate progress on the part of a Russian development consortium.

Over the first six years, the HCMC Urban Railway Authority expects 162,000 commuters to utilize the system, inclusive of six subway and three monorail and/or lightrail lines. The next decade-long phase of development between 2020 and 2030 aims to accommodate 635,000 passengers. 800,000 are anticipated to be riding the rails by 2040.

Whether or not the metro will coax the Vietnamese away from their motorbikes is yet to be seen, but the potential environmental benefits to this smog-choked city are encouraging.

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Filed under Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation, Vietnam

Hanoi Takes on Traffic Congestion

Viet Nam News recently reported on Hanoi’s experimentation with traffic congestion problems. With more cars than ever on the road, Vietnam’s streets, accustomed to more fluid motorbike traffic, are in a state of shock. Hanoi’s answer? Designate lanes for car and motorbike use.

Cars that trespass across lanes will pay a VND 400,000 ($25) fine, while deviant motorbike drivers will suffer a less severe VND 80 – 100,000 fine ($5-6). Jay walkers will also be penalized to the tune of VND 20 – 40,000 ($1.20-2.50).

This sounds easy enough, but the motorbike culture in Vietnam is a rootless, unwritten negotiation between motorists based on split decisions and tacit understandings. Traffic is a fluid, amorphous phenomenon. The problem is that the motorbike culture, inculcated because few Vietnamese could afford a car throughout decades of privation, didn’t anticipate the economic booms in Hanoi and Saigon. The culture simply can’t accommodate these vehicular status symbols.

But proof of the culture’s entrenchment is the fact that Hanoi has only implemented the measures on a single 1.635 km-long road. The plan is to roll out the policy on additional streets later in the year. In Saigon, the roads in District 7 are designated for car and motorbike usage, but the district’s rational planning is the result of ambitious land reclamation and redevelopment. Indeed District 7’s roads look absolutely Martian relative to the cramped motorways across the rest of the city.

Another sign that traffic departments have their work cut out for them: a few years ago, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency came to Hanoi to implement the same plan, but the joint international venture failed.

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Filed under Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation, Vietnam

Saigon Moto Traffic: Dodging Noodle-Bearing Ghosts and Olive-Drab Whales

Sarah balls my shirt in her fist. Over the groan of the motorbike, I hear her suck in air, the sound of her heart leaping into her throat. I keep the motorbike aimed forward, my foot teasing the brake. Having played passenger for the first two days after we purchased the bike, I know how she feels.

Sarah sees dead people.

Driving a moto in Ho Chi Minh City is an exercise in cooperative chaos. “Scooters” are for more civilized destinations. Here, there are virtually no rules, so driving becomes a perpetual, moving negotiation. The most basic understanding is that what’s ahead of you dictates what you are doing at any given second. Forget the people behind you; they’re operating on the same principle.

The second-by-second bedlam is alleviated by a fact that becomes apparent after a few days in HCMC: the Vietnamese are exceedingly helpful. Pull over to phone for directions and someone will stop to offer them. Show the slightest difficulty in a turnaround and a compatriot appears to guide you out of the quagmire. Even laying on the horn here is not a malicious act; it’s a necessary fact of driving, most often used to warn that you’re coming up the rear.

And just when you’ve gotten in sync with the sights and sounds of driving in HCMC, out come the ghosts. From the blur of break lights and multi-colored helmets, a body suddenly materializes amid traffic. Pedestrians operate without rules, as well, so they seem to manifest out of the ether of electric blue and fire engine read moto bodies. Sometimes the ghosts are even shepherding steaming noodle bowls through the mass of motorbikes.

The influx of cars and SUVs — most of them taxis — has only complicated matters. Rising wages explain a portion of the increase, but a look at the changing face of downtown District 1 (Louis Vuitton, skyrocketing menu prices) presents a simple explanation. Try getting high-spending, boutique-shopping tourists on the back of a xe om during rush hour.

The introduction of any job-producing industry in a developing country, so long as its good outweighs its bad, is generally cause for celebration. But these behemoths, symbols of a more secure, ordered transportation experience, simply clog up the entropy. And entropy was doing just fine.

Taxis, even the SUVs, are insignificant enough. Most times the lilliputian motos simply swarm the helpless, impotently honking Gullivers. The new olive-drab city buses, however, present a less navigable obstruction, at least for the sane-minded driver. For an object lesson on their influence on Saigon’s traffic, go introduce a sperm whale to your local minnow stream and see how well that works out.

Worst of all, the buses, cars, and SUVs violate the horn culture, honking out of mad futility.

While development in District 7, with its massive traffic lanes that swallow the typical motorbike, surely anticipates increased car and SUV consumption, it’s unlikely the moto will face extinction on the cramped streets of less-developed districts. Wages aren’t rising fast enough to make cars widely affordable, so for the time being, the body traffic will remain a mobocracy.

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Filed under Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation

On the Edge along Hong Kong’s Peak

Hong Kong Skyline from the Peak

My girlfriend Sarah and I were not happy. We arrived at the Peak Tram boarding station to find the scenic track closed for maintenance. Adding insult to injury, an apologetic agent pointed us around the corner to the #15 bus. We had expected to make the 1200-foot ascent to the Peak, one of Hong Kong ‘s main attractions, in the iconic tram car. Instead, we were taking public transportation.

But soon after the bus began to ascend the twisting roadway, our discontent vanished. Even on the double-decker’s lower level, the views on this scenic route are astounding. The towering impossibility of Hong Kong’s skyline was soon far below us, and the luxury residences of Hong Kong’s most exclusive neighborhood began to reveal themselves from their mountainside perches. At one point, a sprawling, tiered cemetery clung above a sheer drop, an eerie but spectacular sight.

The only thing as enthralling as the view on the #15 bus is the feel of it. The bus pings around tight corners on a tightrope artery, oncoming traffic to the right, vertigo-inducing height to the left. Somewhere along the way, you realize what the swerving, curving sensation reminds you of: a nervous game of Pac-Man in the final level.

I’m sorry to have missed the Peak Tram, but the #15 rates on the list of rides of my life. My suggestion: take the Peak Tram to the summit and return on the #15. Make sure to snag a seat on the bus’s upper level, where the experience is more acute.

Back at street-level, the 15 travels towards Central along main roads in SoHo and astride the double-decker tram line. Bus 15B travels between Causeway Bay and the Peak. Check the morning route on the 15 if traveling before 10 am.

The Peak Tram resumed service on March 8, 2008

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Filed under Hong Kong, Transportation