Thousands of motorbikes swerving at high speed and near-misses at every corner can make the roaring streets of Hanoi a terrifying place for the uninitiated. But for Vietnamese teenagers like Trinh Thanh Van, the motorized maelstrom is a party on wheels. It's 8 p.m. on a weeknight, and 19-year-old Van is out with two girlfriends on the back of her red Honda Wave, darting through ever-shifting streams of motorbikes as they look for new friends. It's a typical evening of luon lo (literally "wandering"), the nightly ritual where young Vietnamese cruise, flirt and flaunt their finest fashions.
But there's one traditional biker accessory Van and her stylish friends avoid: crash helmets. They aren't alone: Less than 10% of riders wear helmets in a country where motorbikes make up 90% of road traffic. "For us, helmets aren't fashionable," admits Van's friend Ha, 19, during a roadside chat. Van reluctantly agrees: "If girls have to wear helmets, no one will see their beautiful hairstyles and makeup."
Soon, though, Vietnam's motorcyclists won't have a choice. A new law is to take effect on Dec. 15 that requires motorbike riders and passengers to wear helmets on the road. The law marks a new attempt by the communist authorities to effect a huge societal change a similar effort failed five years ago. But with 13,000 Vietnamese having died in traffic accidents last year alone, 80% of them from head injuries, the purpose of the new law is to save lives.
The motorbike is the symbol of Vietnam's economic transformation over the past 20 years thanks to reforms allowing private enterprise. Often as not, a newly moneyed family's first major purchase was a shiny Honda Dream. Fifteen years ago, the country had only 500,000 motorbikes; today, there are 22 million. But Vietnam's love affair with the motorbike has come with a price: besides the death toll, the non-profit Asia Injury Prevention Foundation reports, a further 23,000 riders each year suffer debilitating brain damage from injuries that could have been prevented by helmets.
Despite the danger, however, most Vietnamese have resisted pleas to wear helmets, dubbing them "rice cookers" and complaining that they're too hot, uncomfortable and even that they block the peripheral vision crucial to navigating split-second swerves. And many doubt the government will be able to enforce its new helmet law. "They may put an officer at every intersection, but for every policeman there are thousands of motorcycles," says Nhung, 20, Van's friend. "How can police catch them all?"
Her skepticism is well founded. Five years ago, the government passed a similar helmet law but backed down in the face of popular opposition. In fact, for an authoritarian regime, Vietnam's government has an awful lot of trouble enforcing its most basic traffic laws motorcyclists regularly ignore red lights and pull into traffic without so much as a glance around. Not only do teenagers talk on mobile phones while driving, they can increasingly be seen sending text messages, eyes darting back and forth between the road ahead and their fast-tapping fingers.
Still, the government insists it means business with the latest helmet law. "We are sure we can do it this time. We hope it will save many millions of lives in the long run," says Bui Huynh Long, chief administrator of the National Traffic Safety Committee. Thousands of extra police will be dispatched nationwide to pull over bare-headed drivers, issuing steep fines of up to 200,000 dong (about $15) about a quarter of the average monthly wage and, significantly, also the average price of a helmet. To underline its "No Excuses" message, the government has also launched a massive TV ad campaign featuring gruesome images of head-trauma victims.
The Asia Injury Prevention Foundation is taking a different tack, promoting helmets as fashion items. The group's commercial arm, Protec, manufactures special "tropical" helmets with air vents, floral designs and racing stripes. Miss Vietnam 2006, Mai Phuong Thuy, has joined the campaign, posing for promotional posters wearing a Protechelmet with a stained-glass motif. Recently, street-side helmet stands have popped up on virtually every corner.
Despite the campaign, attitudes are unlikely to change overnight. Van's friend Ha giggles as she tries on a TIME reporter's helmet, asking "Do I look too stupid?" Still, Van herself looks reflective. She's already been in two accidents, luckily escaping serious injury, and she knows she should be wearing a helmet. She just doesn't want to be the only one. "After the new law, when everyone else is wearing helmets, then I guess I will too," she says. On Vietnam's mean streets, saving lives may depend as much on the fashion police as the new rules of the road.