Ho Chi Minh City has shut down the use of all hydrofoils in the city after one such vessel caught fire 15 minutes into a journey to Vung Tau.

At an unusual meeting city authorities held on January 21 to discuss the incident, HCMC mayor Le Hoang Quan ordered a halt to all hydrofoil use in the city and immediate safety inspections of all the vessels.

The suspension took effect immediately. It is not clear yet when it will be lifted.

The accident reflected the dangerousness of the city’s aging hydrofoils and the lax management of the waterway vessels connecting HCMC and the beach town of Vung Tau.

It has also prompted questions as to whether the boats are even necessary anymore as a new expressway has significantly shortened the distance between the two destinations by road.

Worsening situation

The Vina Express 1 was carrying 85 passengers and seven crew members – 37 of them foreigners – when it caught fire after departing Bach Dang Wharf in downtown HCMC on January 20.

Although the scene was chaotic with people jumping ship into the water and shouting for help, no one was hurt as the captain managed to pilot the vessel to shallow waters near the shore.

Before the latest accident, hydrofoil companies were already concerned that their business was shrinking after the HCMC-Long Thanh – Dau Giay expressway opened on January 2, shortening the driving time from HCMC to Vung Tau by more than an hour.

Le Huy Thao, director of Vinalines – one of the three hydrofoil companies on HCMC-Vung Tau route – told Sai Gon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) newspaper that the number of hydrofoil passengers was declining.

Previously, it took three hours to go to Vung Tau by bus, but this has been halved by the expressway, which now takes almost the same time as a hydrofoil while bus tickets are only half of the hydrofoil fare (VND200,000 or US$9.4), he said.

Nguyen Huu Nguyen of the Southern Economic Research Center said the new expressway had removed the competitiveness of hydrofoils.

“Hydrofoil companies have to improve their services or should shut down in the near future,” he said.

Thao said he had tried to cope with the situation three years ago when he planned to buy new vessels.

“However, it is easier said than done in current economic difficulties.”

Dangerous vessels

The HCMC–Ba Ria-Vung Tau hydrofoil route opened in 1993 and quickly became a popular alternative to bus travel.

Three companies are supplying hydrofoils on the HCMC–Vung Tau route with a total of 17 vessels operating 19-26 trips every day.

A hydrofoil leaves every 30 minutes during business hours, carrying nearly 800,000 passengers per year.

Many continue to prefer the hydrofoil even though the tickets double those of bus trips.

However, most of the hydrofoils were produced in Russia in the early 1990s and have not been replaced following nearly two decades of constant operation.

Tat Thanh Cang, director of the HCMC transport department, said there were no relevant regulations on hydrofoil safety despite the fact that he has repeatedly asked the transport ministry to only allow the vessels to operate for a maximum of 10 years.

Quan, the city mayor, also ordered the city police to investigate why rescuers did not take action early as they supposed to.

He asked the transport ministry to inspect agencies tasked with conducting periodical inspections – a compulsory process to ensure that means of transport are safe – of the boats.

“The ministry needs to clarify why the incident happened only a few days after it Vina Express 1 was inspected on January 17,” he said.

According to a report by Vietnam Registry, the hydrofoil Vina Express 1 was built in the Ukraine and has been in operation for 18 years.

At a regular meeting of the National Traffic Safety Committee on January 20, transport minister Dinh La Thang instructed the Vietnam Registry to coordinate with the police to identify the cause of the hydrofoil fire.

Thanh Nien News - February 5, 2014