Deadly shocks point up gaps in Vietnam safety rules


Chau Linh Uyen was playing in front of her primary school in Ho Chi Minh City two months ago when she touched a cash machine a few feet from the front gate.

In a flash, as more than 100 volts coursed through her small body, the 10-year-old fourth-grader foamed at the mouth and lost consciousness. She died within minutes.

The accident, caused by a state bank’s ATM that wasn’t properly grounded, was hardly a fluke. An investigation a few days later found that 121 of the city’s 866 cash machines were leaking electricity through their keyboards and other surfaces, many at potentially fatal levels.

As communist Vietnam embraces consumerism and the middle-class dream, more citizens are questioning the shoddy construction and slapdash power system accompanying its headlong rush into the future and lamenting a lost sense of integrity.

“If you bring me these new gadgets related to modern life, that’s supposed to mean everything is safe,” said Chi Mai, a writer. “No one thought ATM machines would kill people. Suddenly you feel, ‘Oh my God, this could happen to me.’”

The girl’s death is the latest in a string of fatal accidents. In April 2009, a 22-year-old woman was sitting in traffic on Au Co Street in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, when a power line fell on her. She died instantly.

In August, a 13-year-old boy rode his bike through a puddle after a heavy rain here and was electrocuted by a faulty lamppost. And a month later, a 10-year-old boy was electrocuted while playing soccer in the rain near faulty underground municipal power lines.

The government has promised to beef up safety standards in an effort to reduce what the Ministry of Industry and Trade estimates are 450 to 500 electrocution deaths each year.

However, the deadly shocks don’t seem to be diminishing the appetite for modern appliances.

At the mammoth Nguyen Kim Electronics Superstore in the city center, electronics pulsate behind several giant “money god” statues on three floors as a legion of blue-vested clerks stalks customers. Nguyen Van Toan, 56, a garment factory engineer, stopped for a rest near the escalator, briefly stalled by sensory overload during his search for a 37-inch TV.

“I’ve got a 29-inch model but need something bigger,” he said. “Sure, I’m concerned about the electricity and the ATM case. But our house hasn’t had any shocks yet, so basically life is pretty good.”

Part of this willingness to accept the bad with the good may reflect the fast pace of change in Vietnam, social observers say. For a nation that barely had electricity two decades ago, a relatively low number deaths may be an acceptable price for such heady progress.

Over the last 10 years, Vietnam’s average economic growth has topped 7% annually, while the proportion of those living in poverty has fallen to 11% of the nation’s 86 million people last year from 58% in 1993. Per capita yearly income is about $1,000, up from $400 in 2000.

“Things are moving so fast, the sociologists can’t keep up,” journalist Lan Anh Nguyen said.

Phan An is a case in point. The 26-year-old freelance IT consultant and five siblings grew up in Danang without electricity or running water, took baths in flooded rice fields and read by oil lamp, sleeping with the rest of the family in a single room and walking three miles to school.

Nowadays Phan sits at his computer listening to digital music files in a building on land that was a field a few years back. The two-room apartment he shares with a friend is stuffed with a fan,washing machine (equipped with “Fuzzy Logic 6.4”), flat-screen television, Sanyo refrigerator and electric guitar.

The way Phan sees it, the ATM electrocution is a tragedy, but the real problem runs deeper: a corrupt system that isn’t safeguarding its citizens or giving them enough voice in how society should be organized.

“The ATM death, the boy in the puddle, these are symptoms of a system that isn’t working,” he said.

For some, the answer lies in harsher penalties.

“If businesspeople knew they faced bankruptcy and years in prison for deadly ATMs, they’d stop ignoring” these safety problems, said a student in Ho Chi Minh City.

Others, including some who remember Saigon’s decadence before the Communists took over, cite the need for better education on ethics and core values.

“The young people are less moral, and society only thinks about money,” said Nguyen Thanh Minh, 56, a former South Vietnamese soldier who spent seven years in a jungle reeducation camp after the war ended in 1975. “It’s worse than the old Saigon.”

In some ways, the ATM case reflects how far Vietnam has and has not come, said Chuck Searcy, a representative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and a Hanoi resident since 1995.

On the one hand, the middle class is prosperous and proud of what it has accomplished, he said. At the same time, luxury apartment buildings are built with too much sand in the concrete and office towers have bricks missing.

“They’re following the same pattern as the U.S., despite being aware of the misgivings,” Searcy said. “I used to admire their family values and real strength. Now there’s so much that’s superficial, so much greed.”

On a recent afternoon, a white sign on the Agribank ATM two doors down from the Nguyen Thai Binh Primary School said it was closed for maintenance. After the accident, a police investigation traced the problem to exposed wiring in a power cord jury-rigged by bank staff to run along a stairway.

The head of Vietcombank’s ATM department told Tuoi Tre newspaper that landlords often balk at letting ATM operators install grounding wires for reasons of cost or appearance, and that operators often cut one of the three prongs off foreign-made plugs so they fit into Vietnam’s two-prong outlets, removing the grounding.

That’s of little solace to parents who feel increasingly insecure.

“I just can’t imagine such a thing,” said Minh Hang, picking up her first-grade son at the school, which has since barred students from playing outside the gate after class. “We’re scared. The kids are scared. The other parents are scared. Everyone’s scared.”