Someday, someone will sit down and chronicle the staggering array of stranger-than-fiction law proposals that have been introduced to bring order to Vietnam’s world-renowned traffic and those who rule over it. That will be the day irony lovers scream in glee because, in all fairness, some of the laws we have seen in recent years are of purely top-notch real-life amusement.

Remember the national hee-haw in 2008 when legislators proposed a regulation banning anyone with a chest under 28 inches from driving a motorbike? The proposal quickly earned ample wisecracks about the need for breast implants and padded bras for the country’s mostly petite women, and no shortage of jibes about policemen pulling over female drivers to measure their chests. In 2011, a regulation in Hanoi’s Plan 20 banned the city’s traffic officers from wearing dark sunglasses, and hiding behind tree trunks while on duty. More recently, in March 2013, Hanoi banned short, fat, unattractive officers from traffic duty — only months after announcing the introduction of female traffic officers in order to “beautify” the capital’s streets. The list goes on, and will probably continue doing so, providing comic fodder for Vietnamese and bewildered visitors for years to come.

Vietnamese police perform breathalyzer test (Source: WHO Viet Nam)

The latest move by Ho Chi Minh City’s traffic police force received its own share of commentary — surprisingly much of which has been kudos. Since the campaign launch in early June, Vietnamese netizens have been immersed in debating the merits of a novel public safety campaign: traffic officers ambushing patrons outside beer houses to conduct breathalyzer tests on them as they leave.

Despite questions about the seemingly dodgy act of “preying” by the police on citizens who’ve not yet broken a law, the campaign seems to make sense to many, even most, commenters, and has been received with hurrahs. A prevailing number of online remarks resembles that of LaoChanVit, who wrote: “I am a man, and I drink like a fish. But I’ll show both my hands to support this.” Natalie_mos dittoed: “This time, the cops score.” Thousands more have concurred.

That should take nobody by surprise when “drunk drivers are responsible for up to 70% of traffic accidents” in HCMC, according to Mr. Tran Thanh Tra, HCMC traffic police chief on thanhniennews.com. Thanh Nien also presented official figures of 2,060 road accidents that have occurred in HCMC so far this year (up to June 17, the published date of that article) with 310 people killed and 1,716 injured.

On the other hand, a nationwide poll published by World Bank and the Government Inspectorate in November 2012 revealed that the Vietnamese consider traffic police “the most corrupt officials” in the nation. That may explain the speculation on the part of many commenters that the campaign’s primary objective may not be preventing drunk driving accidents: “This just opens a new way for those brothers to snort up tolls from restaurateurs” (vohungvi7); “Once again, the cops’ll get their palms greased.  This time, it’s a giant jackpot” (maxpayne).

Straightforward bribery is not the only issue in question for commenters. Others include questions of integrity (“Who’s gonna check on the cops drinking?” – ; “Cops who don’t drink are rare to see.” – Long Tran Van), sustainability (“Everything will soon be back the way they used to be. Look at how they fail to clear the pavements from food stalls and drink vendors“ – Nguyen Dung), feasibility (“There are countless beer houses in Saigon, while traffic force is limited. Are they gonna stop everyone coming out of a beer house?” – Chitaiart).

Then there are the possible shenanigans on the beer house owners’ side. Many have noted firsthand accounts of proprietors assigning diversionary stunt driver teams, creating backdoor exits for patrons, and merging their parking lots with those of other night facilities so their customers can blend into crowds of non-drinkers as they depart.

An awareness raising poster on drinking and driving. (Source: WHO Viet Nam)

Unsurprisingly, the force’s new move displeases those who drink alcohol and the business owners who depend upon them. Here and there on the web, laments are heard: “Now even the last resort for our work-wearied souls is taken away.” (congly). Others offered up a variety of workarounds: “Easy pie. Before leaving, rinse your mouth with fish sauce”(Ma làng); “Hold Listerine mouthwash in your mouth for 30s after drinking. Beats all breathalyzers. Pro clubbers’ trick” (ho bao truong mau giao).

On 700,000-plus-membered vozforums a joke has been passed around, which goes: “A group of men walked out from a beer house. The worst wobbler of them struggled in vain with his keys and motorbike. Eagerly, the cops rushed over, grabbed the man and plunged the breathalyzer to his face. But it showed no alcohol content in his breath. The other men escaped. Enraged, the chief finally had to let him go but not without insisting on an explanation. “Because I didn’t drink a drop,” the man grinned. “Why then were you walking like a drunk?” “Well, it’s my turn to be the stool pigeon today.”

Previous to this campaign, in May, Ho Chi Minh City’s police twice proposed early curfews on the sale of beer and liquor — first at 10p.m, then, after a huge outcry, an hour later at 11p.m. Both were ultimately dropped. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, backed by Vietnam’s National Traffic Safety Committee, launched the nation’s first public safety campaign on the issue, featuring several highly polished TVCs to raise public awareness.

Japanese Kirin Institute’s 2012 report recently concluded Vietnam ranked among the world’s 25 largest beer-consuming nations.  Last year Euromonitor International dubbed Vietnam the top beer-drinking nation in ASEAN. As Global Post’s blogger Emily Lodish amusingly stated, “people are getting wasted all over Vietnam.” In real-life context, beer houses appear the most popular choice for adult social occasions, from after-work refreshment to any kind of celebration.

It is worth noting that the large majority of alcohol consumers in Vietnam are men. In the country, an old proverb is still widely used in the modern day. ‘A man without a drink is like a flag without winds’, it says. A handful of online commenters turned to the old saying as they voted against the new campaign. But with “more than 30% of road traffic fatalities and up to 60% of hospitalized road trauma patients are estimated to have a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit”,* according to the World Health Organization, Vietnam may soon have to find a new way to assert its masculinity. The dominating response from Vietnam’s online communities to the campaign in question shows that most are ready to do so, and that for once, though still skeptical, the people’s response to a new police initiative seems to be “Cheers.”

* By Vietnam law, a driver’s blood alcohol content must be under 50mg/100ml – equal to one can of beer or 30 milliners of brandy – to legally operate a motorbike. The threshold for those who drive cars is zero.

— Chi Mai