For Vietnamese, infrastructure projects are synonymous with delays, cost overruns and a lack of safety.
Journalist Hoang Phuong
One October morning in 2014 Hanoi resident Nguyen Trong Phong took his wife from the outlying district of Ha Dong to a hospital in Thanh Xuan District less than 10 kilometers away.
When their motorbike almost reached the hospital gate, an iron girder fell from above.
Phong was injured badly and in a coma for a while before recovering, but luckily both survived.
But Senior Lieutenant Nguyen Nhu Ngoc, who was also on a motorbike near them, was not so lucky and died on the spot after being hit by the girder. Ngoc, 33 then and just days from completing his course at the People’s Security Academy, had a wife and two children.
The girder fell from the construction site of Hanoi’s first metro line from Cat Linh in downtown Dong Da District to Yen Nghia in Ha Dong.
I met Phong in his hometown two years ago.
Yen Nghia, not far from where he lived, is the final station on the metro line, which people hope would meet their increasing travel needs and improve traffic in the city’s west.
On the day of the accident, he was 49, and Vietnamese believe that everyone suffers from bad luck at that age.
The team in charge of operating the crane that day had lifted the heavy girder too high, and the crane failed to hold it, causing it to drop.
After the accident the then Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang ticked off the Chinese contractor, China Railway Sixth Group Co., Ltd, at a meeting: “Every time an accident happens you admit it was due to your shortcoming, but then you do not do anything to improve things.”
Too bad the minister later went to jail for economic management violations.
A train of Hanoi’s Cat Linh – Ha Dong metro line run on trial. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.
In 2007 the term “metro rail” had appeared for the first time in the capital’s integrated Urban Development Program for until 2020. Two years later an engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) contract was signed for it with a Chinese contractor.
Hanoians dreamed of traveling by metro, not jostling for space on crowded streets and sitting back and relaxing and having an aerial view of the city.
It was originally scheduled for trial runs in 2014 and commercial operations a year later, but 2014 and 2015 came and went without the slightest signs of completion.
In the summer of 2017 the first batch of coaches meant for the metro was put on display. The public was eager to see them and also heard a member of the project management agency talking about how the metro would work.
But 12 years after it was first envisaged, 10 years after it was approved, eight years after construction began, and four transport ministers later, the 13.1-kilometer elevated route remains unfinished and festering like an open wound.
The State Audit Office of Vietnam announced recently that the transport ministry had begun the metro knowing it would make losses and without any plan to ensure it eventually breaks even.
The ministry had made a series of mistakes in planning and implementing the Cat Linh-Ha Dong line while the forecast of passenger numbers by the Chinese consulting firm was several times higher than that of the Transport Development and Strategy Institute, it noted.
And the Cat Linh-Ha Dong line is not the only one to suffer this fate: there are five other proposed metro routes in the country, three more in Hanoi and two in Ho Chi Minh City that are all well behind schedule and have overrun the budget by VND81 trillion ($3.5 billion) so far.
It looks like “slow progress” has become the new normal for public projects. The Ministry of Planning and Investment had counted 1,609 delayed projects in 2017 and 1,778 last year.
The Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index, which ranks cities and provinces by surveying citizens in all 63 provinces and cities in the country, shows that the national average score for accountability to the public fell from 5.88 in 2014 to 4.89 last year.
But after a myriad cases of tardiness, many of which were exposed by the media, the public has only heard state officials “admitting our shortcomings and learning from the experience.”
There has been absolutely no one resigning or “taking full responsibility for what has happened.”
“It could be a good thing,” Phong used to think about the Cat Linh-Ha Dong metro line when work on it first started. He had also hoped it would change his hometown for the better.
But now “I would never use it even if I have to die,” he said.
In fact, he does not dare go anywhere near the work site. His wife has stopped going out as often as she used to do, and spends much of her time at home watching their grandchildren.
Their daughter works in a hospital not far from the line, and every day after she leaves for work the couple sit and worry.
Phong is not the only one to fear for his family’s safety.
The demand for “being safe” is evident almost everywhere in the country, and somehow socio-economic development seems to have become a threat to that.
People now demand accountability from people in charge of infrastructure and urban development works and other public works.
Projects such as the Cat Linh-Ha Dong metro line, a typical example of tardiness, waste and lack of transparency, are now a burden not only on the economy but also people’s spirit.
In a nation that had been filled with ambitions of industrialization and modernization two decades ago, many people now just want to be safe though that kind of mindset can hold back the nation’s development.
After years of uncertainty how many Hanoians still ride a motorbike on the street every morning, look up and hope that one day they could use the metro line? How many just hope for it to end soon, whatever its outcome, so that they could finally have peace and safety? And, how many wish the project had never started in the first place?
*Hoang Phuong is a journalist. The opinions expressed are her own.