Motorbike races, Vietnam style

by AFP/Le Thang Long, Nov 11, 2003 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Should you be walking around the streets of Vietnam's major cities late at night, don't be surprised if you are nearly bowled over by a pack of youths speeding past on motorbikes.

Over the past decade, Vietnam's younger generation have satisifed their rebellious streak and quenched their frustration at living in a controlled communist society by taking part in death-defying high-speed races. Sometimes racing in pairs or as part of a larger group, they reach terrifying speeds on their Japanese motorbikes as they tear around city streets that during the day are usually gridlocked with slow-moving traffic.

Crash helmets are shunned, fawning girls often ride pillion, and brakes are sometimes deliberately disabled to add spice to the proceedings. Gambling stakes on the races can reach thousands of dollars, and not surprisingly, accidents, when they occur, are often fatal. Racing has grown hand-in-hand with rising disposable incomes, particularly in Vietnam's big cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City where fast motorbikes have become a status symbol among well-to-do youths wanting to show off their wealth and virility.

"Apart from girls, music and karaoke, they have nothing to do in their free time," said a Ho Chi Minh City-based diplomat. "They feel a strong need to get rid of their energy in the face of high-pressure school and university studies... and the suffocating closeness of the family. There comes a time when it is necessary to burst," he said.

Last month, seven men aged between 18 and 22 were given 10-30 month prison sentences for taking part in a race around the streets of Hanoi to cap a day of celebrations marking the communist nation's September 2, 2003 National Day. In the lead up to the Southeast Asian Games, which Vietnam is hosting in December for the first time, authorities have launched a nationwide campaign to stamp out the phenomenon.

"The fight against illegal motorbike races is part of a plan by the city's police force to restore order and road safety during the SEA Games," said Lieutenant-Colonel Nguyen Duc Chung, deputy head of Hanoi's police investigations department. But the fight is far from being won as information on where races are going to take place often comes too late for police to stop them. Even then, the participants are sometimes able to speed off, leaving exasperated policemen trailing in their wake. This escape often provides part of the buzz for racers, particularly in a country where "police can hold individuals to ransom over minor infractions or arrest anybody, anywhere", the diplomat said.

To address the problem, the deputy director of Hanoi police, Colonel Nguyen Duc Nhanh, has recently said that discussions were underway about equipping police with special South Korean-made guns that fire rubber pellets. When fired, racers and their motorbikes would be daubed in a special chemical, traces of which can only be removed by police, he said.

Motorbike races in the usually staid political capital Hanoi are growing in frequency, but the more affluent Ho Chi Minh City still remains the most affected. In October last year, police arrested four people and confiscated over 100 motorbikes from their fleeing owners, some of whom were carrying large knives, after breaking up a late-night race meeting.

But as Vietnam's elite grow wealthier, a new alarming trend has begun to emerge in the southern city -- high speed car races. In May, seven young scions of wealthy Vietnamese businessmen were arrested for taking part in a race using luxury German and Japanese cars. In September, one of them was jailed for three years while his six co-racers were given suspended prison sentences. Their lenient punishments were decried by many Vietnamese, even those familiar with the country's corrupt judicial system.

"Is this inequality due to the fact that all the racers are sons of rich families?" asked one concerned mother, Pham Hoai Thu, in a letter to the state-run Tien Phong newspaper.

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