Mission Diary – Tour of Rural Road Innovations in Vietnam

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The Northern mountainous Vietnamese town of Lao Cai on the Chinese border is asleep at 4:45 in the morning, except for a large crowd gathering at the railway station. I am arriving, with a small World Bank rural transport mission, on the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi. It is the most effective way of travel to Lao Cai.

Day 2
At 7:00a.m., I am eating, with my team, a tasty breakfast -- Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup. The World Bank team is ably led by our TTL, Phuong Thi Minh Tran, who having been on the sleeper many times before , wisely turned in the earliest of us. We are assisted by Sombath Southivong, the Senior Transport Specialist from the WB office in Laos, who brings with him the Laos innovation and experience. Breakfast finished, we leave to meet with the provincial transport department to learn more about their innovative program, hiring women’s groups to manage and maintain select road lengths.

The Provincial Department of Transport, Lao Cai Women’s Union, DFID and the World Bank are working together on introducing innovation for rural road provision and maintenance to lower the cost of supplying increasing demand. The women have formed a group to undertake the routine maintenance tasks in keeping roads and tracks in good condition, and the trial is about to be extended to other provinces. Key to success factors has been the training received on good maintenance practice and receiving supplies of maintenance material.

In no time it is 7 p.m., and we return to the station, exchanging each other’s learning experiences, talking about the day’s events, the field visits and the transport department’s meetings in those reinforced concrete buildings that always take on a sense of anonymity. I talk about my experiences with preparing three key messages for each meeting, the most important points that we wish to emphasise, more points than three tend to be forgotten. We will put it into practice tomorrow at our next regional transport department meeting. Getting on board the train, I know the routine now -- my team automatically selects the same sleeper car bunks that we had the night before. Its four to a compartment. This time, I am keen to turn in early, now that I know our next day will begin at 4 a.m.

Day 3 in the Morning
Transferring from sleeper train to road car, we are now on the road South East of Hanoi, we have reached Hung Yen , where we investigate a  series of recent rural road studies on improving cost-effectiveness of roads by designing them for all-season accessibility, as well as finding innovative ways to adopt local resources to form road materials. One local team is attempting to use a waste product from the electricity generating industry to strengthen plastic soils to form a sub-grade with a higher bearing capacity, before being sealed with bituminous emulsion and local aggregate. It seems to be effective, but our team would like to know more about expected life -- is it longer life than a concrete road that the locals prefer?

Day 3 in the afternoon
We then set off to further South to Ninh Binh, where we are shown some interesting work with stone sets, rock chiselled to rectangular shapes usually around 150mm in length – rather than use traditional asphalt paving, which requires petroleum imports and specialized training and equipment, locals are using stone pavers – cobblestones – to create all-weather road surfaces. The technique is labor-intensive and generates local employment opportunities, while at the same time reduces overall costs per kilometre of road length. Our team will plan to revisit this initiative, looking at the benefit-costs analysis of this initiative, road performance over time compared to asphalt (given local weather conditions), as well as the unusual selection of standard road-width – 2.5 metres versus 3.5 metres. We advise that additional width could be appropriate if non-motorised road users are at higher risk with narrower roads.

Day 4
Further South to Thanh Hoa now, the scene of new trials attempting to innovate to get more value-for-money and sustainability from the rural access investment. There is much debate about location of the trials, should they be more remote? As well as how much risk they should be taking, can we try new locally resourced solutions?
Day 5
Soon I am returning to Hanoi and the journey home, having spent around $40 on hotels for the entire rural journey – the glamorous life! The long journey back gives me an opportunity to compile my report -- as well as this diary (!)


Peter O'Neill

Chief, Transport Policy and Development, UN ESCAP

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