Mind Your Step in Saigon

Has one tourist’s misfortune opened the doors to improved safety on Saigon’s streets?

by Simon Stanley.

Eyebrows were raised this week after a foreign tourist was awarded $1,000 in compensation by a Saigon-based firm after she tripped over a metal U-shaped fixing — part of a nighttime light installation — embedded in a District 1 sidewalk.

Photos of the victim holding a bloodied cloth to her face were quickly circulated online, leading many locals to point out that such accidents occur on a daily basis as a result of the hooks and other kerbside hazards dotted around the city; the difference being, when they happen to Vietnamese citizens, they don’t make the news, and they certainly don’t invite four-figure compensation cheques.

Like any sensible tourist visiting Vietnam, it’s highly likely that the victim held sufficient travel insurance to cover the medical costs incurred as a result of her injuries, and, possibly, to compensate her for any impact to her travel plans.

Seeing this unprecedented compensation payment dispensed so swiftly after the event, and by a local firm, seems a little excessive and unjust. With her inevitable travel insurance payout, and with a written letter of apology from the company responsible, what exactly was the purpose of the money? Would the same have happened were it a Vietnamese woman in the photos? Maybe, but maybe not.

Perhaps Vietnamese people are not in the habit of pointing the finger when accidents like this happen, but as the country grows ever busier and more developed, health and safety, as an everyday and instinctive culture, is something that needs to be improved.

Just last week, the doors of the elevator in my apartment building slid open to reveal a bucket of water, left by a cleaner, sitting right at my feet. Had I been carrying my baby son on my chest, as I often do, I simply wouldn’t have seen it and we both would have fallen. It’s not the first time this has happened, and whether it’s buckets of water or metal hoops in the sidewalk, the mindset in Vietnam seems so often to lean towards reacting to accidents once they’ve occurred, rather than having the foresight to avoid them in the first place.

Yes, there’s a strong chance that I and everyone else on my floor spotted the bucket and avoided it, but for the one person who eventually doesn’t, the consequences could be disastrous.

Physical injury is one thing, but when that leads to busier hospitals and days off work while victims recover, or even compensation and insurance payouts and the legal battles they can involve, the problem becomes an economic one. In the event of a death, particularly, the knock-on effects, both financial and emotional, are immense.

It’s clear that attracting foreign tourists has become a primary objective for Vietnam’s policy-makers, but should concern for their safety and comfort be so blatantly elevated above that of the local population? How many accidents like this occur each day as a result of poor road or sidewalk maintenance, and how many cause injuries far worse than a bloody nose? Unless a foreigner and camera are involved, it seems, we may never know.

The firm responsible for the hooks has been asked to remove them all by the end of the week, but as the city’s authorities continue their sidewalk clean-up program, intended to make life easier and safer for pedestrians, one cannot help but watch in bemusement as potted plants, steps and overhead awnings are torn up and destroyed, while real, and far more hazardous obstacles, are left untouched.

Be it broken pavements, protruding bolts, motorbikes (either driving down the sidewalk or parked across it), abandoned construction materials, or, indeed, iron hoops just large enough to accommodate a human foot, if the city wants to become a fully pedestrianized, truly modernized city, accessible to all and open for business, these are what we really need to see disappearing overnight.

Racial issues aside, if it takes a random foreigner with a bloody nose and thousand-dollar cheque to make those in power realize this fact, that’s surely a (careful) step in the right direction.

Published in English and Vietnamese by VnExpress, April 2017

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