Vietnam’s Battle of the Metros

Construction News Vietnam
A train for the Japanese-built Ho Chi Minh City Metro Line No 1. As construction of metros in Vietnam’s two largest cities continues, comparisons have been made between the workmanship of the Chinese and Japanese-led projects. Photo: Facebook@HCMC Metro

Vietnam’s Battle of the Metros

In Vietnam’s Battle of the Metros, Chinese-led Hanoi project delivers an operational line as Japan’s Ho Chi Minh City system inches towards opening

As construction of Vietnam’s Chinese-built Hanoi and Japanese-led Ho Chi Minh City metros continues, safety issues with the former have fed into stereotypes

But at least it has a line running, unremarkably in the most positive sense. And safety issues haven’t deterred the many Hanoians who’ve already taken a ride

There has been a development in the Chinese vs Japanese, Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City Battle of the Metros in Vietnam.

In July 2017, the South China Morning Post ran an article under the headline “ Vietnam’s Tale of Two Metros …” that explained, “For the first time in their histories, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are both in the middle of desperately needed major metro-system projects that aim to transform their cities.

Construction work under way on a section of Ho Chi Minh City Metro in 2015. Photo: Shutterstock

“Both are facing delays, but a series of high-profile accidents has already cast a larger shadow over the Chinese-led effort in the capital.

“In contrast, the metro project led by Japanese conglomerates in Ho Chi Minh City has been accident-free. This feeds into long-standing assumptions in Vietnam about the perceived superiority of Japanese workmanship and engineering.”

Since then, the race to get an urban rail system up and running hasn’t been so much “tortoise and hare” as “tortoise and not-quite-so-slow tortoise”.

Eventually, though, Hanoi was the first to get the rolling stock rolling, with the 13.1km (8-mile), 12-station Line 2A going into service in November 2021, a mere five years behind schedule.

Railcars for use on Ho Chi Minh City Metro Line No 1, which is set to open for public use in 2024. Photo: Facebook@HCMC Metro

The city’s Line 3 – which has been held up by “a sluggish bureaucracy bordering on ineptitude”, according to the Nikkei Asia news site – is now expected to be operational in 2027 while the other eight envisaged lines – including No 1, which doesn’t appear to have ever been intended as the first – remain but twinkles in the urban planner’s eye.

One day, perhaps, Hanoi’s network will cover the full 417km that have been drawn with colourful pens on hopeful plans.

Down south, meanwhile, testing is coming to an end on the first line of Ho Chi Minh City’s metro system, more logically called Line No 1, which has three underground and 11 elevated stations.

On August 29, the first test run along the whole of Line No 1 took place. The trial marked the first time a train had operated along the entire 19.7km-long route, the VnExpress news site reports.

It hasn’t even gone into service yet, but workers are having to clean graffiti from a Ho Chi Minh City Metro railcar. Photo: Facebook@HCMC Metro

Nevertheless, Line No 1 and its Japanese trains are still not expected to be in commercial use until 2024 – despite initially having had 2018 as a start date.

Ho Chi Minh City has another seven lines planned, although, according to a different VnExpress article, it could take 100 years to have the whole 220km-long network operational, because of funding issues.

Budgetary and bureaucratic hold-ups aside, having Chinese backers (led by the China Railway Sixth Group) for the Hanoi network and mainly Japanese counterparts (including the Japan International Cooperation Agency) in Ho Chi Minh City was bound to trigger some kind of rivalry.

And a series of accidents during construction seemed to support the idea that the Chinese system was inferior: in 2014, steel reels fell from the construction site of a Line 2A flyover, killing a motorbike driver; the following month, a section of scaffolding fell from the same flyover, trapping three people in a taxi; in 2015, a steel bar fell from a rail construction site onto a car, nearly killing the driver; in 2017, a government inspection team detected rust on sections of the track that hadn’t been covered in protective paint.

An entrance to Ben Thanh station on Ho Chi Minh City Metro Line No 1. Photo: Facebook@HCMC Metro

Nevertheless, Hanoi’s trains are at least running, taking passengers from A to B, or in this case, Cat Linh, in Dong Da district, to Yen Nghia, in Ha Dong.

And they’re about as good as you should expect from any new metro system, according to James Clark, of the Future Southeast Asia blog: “On my first ride, it felt so familiar that I forgot the significance, I was on the first metro system in Vietnam. It felt so normal it was like I’ve always been riding on the Hanoi Metro.

“Perhaps that is a good thing. Like flying, the best flights are the most unremarkable ones.”

Efficient, free of advertising and offering views of the city from the track, all of which is above ground, the 13 trains that service Hanoi’s Line 2A carried 2.65 million passengers in the first quarter of 2023, according to the Railway Pro website.

On August 29, 2023, the first test run of the whole of Ho Chi Minh City Metro Line No 1 took place. Photo: Facebook@HCMC Metro

It seems Dr Phu Viet Le was correct.

In 2017, the senior researcher at the Lower Mekong Public Policy Initiative think tank told the South China Morning Post: “Some people may be pointing [out] that the line in Hanoi is built by China, so it must be of inferior quality relative to [the] Japanese one elsewhere. I find this preposterous.

“I don’t think people will be afraid of using public transport if it is convenient.”