Sidewalk campaign, part 2: The man behind Saigon’s cleanup is back

By Minh Nga   June 14, 2017 | 05:11 pm GMT+7
Sidewalk campaign, part 2: The man behind Saigon’s cleanup is back
Doan Ngoc Hai (L) leads the sidewalk cleanup campaign in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 in February. Photo by VnExpres/Duy Tran

Like it or not, Doan Ngoc Hai will soon return to the streets.

Look who’s back.

He was the face and the voice of the sidewalk campaign, but then he sort of disappeared.

And now Doan Ngoc Hai, vice chairman of District 1, has been reassigned to the team to clean up downtown sidewalks and give them back to pedestrians. This time, the team will also be led by the district chairman, Tran The Thuan, according to media reports.

Hai shot into the public eye early this year after he was depicted by local media as the official willing to act tough to take back the sidewalks from vendors, shop owners and drivers.

In a now famous statement, Hai said he was aiming to turn District 1 into a “Little Singapore.”

“I won’t hesitate to get into a conflict,” Hai has said to express how far he was willing to go to make the plan work. “I will retire if it fails.”

But he stopped leading inspection teams in early April, as “requested by district leaders,” he said.

That’s when the campaign began to lose its momentum.

In many districts across the city, restaurants, street vendors, motorbikes and many government cars took over the sidewalks. Businesses said they need to reclaim the sidewalks in order to make money, and that sidewalk dining is part of the city's culture.

A budget shortfall and lack of authority have reportedly stopped officials from doing more.

Hai had his own explanation. “The sidewalks have been taken back because officials are worried what their superiors would think. If we want people to trust this campaign, every single official has to be determined and not balked at getting into conflicts with their leaders or interest groups,” he said, without naming names.

In a controversy move, the city is looking to raise rental costs for businesses and vendors that use its sidewalk, with the proposed costs ranging between VND20,000 and VND100,000 ($4.40).

Now that Hai, 47, is returning after his short break, it will remain to be seen how he can overcome all the challenges.

The campaign has apparently gone back to square one.

But at least everybody knows his face. So they’ll know when to run.