Saigon sidewalks go back to business: Why the revolution is failing

The man who led the campaign said it has failed because officials were afraid of conflicts with “leaders” and “interest groups.”

A restaurant puts out 10 tables onto the sidewalk, ready to welcome its evening diners. They arrive quickly and soon the place is packed, with empty beer cans scattering the ground.

Many pedestrians have to step into the street in order to pass, just as they had to before the city's sidewalk revolution.

The restaurant, which is 200 meters from a police station in District 1, was fined VND2.5 million three months ago for encroaching on the sidewalk, and all its chairs and umbrellas were seized.

“Officials have loosened up on inspections, so we're taking a risk,” a waiter said.

In many districts across the city, restaurants, street vendors, motorbikes and many government cars have taken back the sidewalks as the cleanup campaign loses steam.

Businesses say 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.

The city’s Traffic Safety Office said it does not have enough staff to check all the streets. The office said its employees earn VND2 million, or less than $100, a month and already have to work day and night.

A source from the office said the sidewalk campaign has fallen apart due to a lack of cooperation between district and ward authorities.

The sidewalk revolution

District 1 authorities started the sidewalk revolution early in February in a bid to take the sidewalks back for their original purpose.

They have put up barriers and deployed police to stop motorbikes from driving on the sidewalks. They have also been towing vehicles, including government and foreign diplomatic cars, and destroying any invasive constructions that spilled out onto the street, some of which belonged to five-star hotels.

The project has been widely applauded by locals, but it has also raised concerns for being too extreme. Street vendors across District 1 are possibly the unhappiest. Some baguette vendors could be seen crying and yelling when the police seized their shops on wheels, while others have scaled down from a pushcart to a basket so they can run easily.

Doan Ngoc Hai, vice chairman of District 1 who is regarded as the man behind the campaign, 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.

“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 afraid to get into conflicts with their leaders or interest groups,” he said.

Hai did not name names.

But at the same time, the city's chairman Nguyen Thanh Phong is still asking districts remain tough on their mission to take back the sidewalks.

"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 afraid to get into conflicts with their leaders or interest groups," Hai said.

Duy Tran

Comments
Comments