HANOI—Villagers along the banks of the rugged and turbulent Po Ko River in Vietnam have devised a new means to travel across deep ravines using precarious cable pulleys, with babies and young children carried on their parents' backs.
Photos of storm-damaged bridges surfaced in national newspapers just as the country's parliament was debating a high-speed rail link from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and may have contributed to the rejection of the proposal.
"Storms damaged the bridges, so people have to use the rope to cross the river like that," said Cuc, a resident of Ngoc Hoi district in the central highlands province of Kon Tum.
"The hurricane washed the suspension bridge away," he said.
After national media drew attention to the potentially dangerous rope-swinging, a private firm offered to build a bridge instead, with construction beginning this month.
Local people who live in the agricultural communes of Dak Nong, Dak Duc, Dak Ang, and Plei Can townships need to cross the river several times a day to go to work in the fields or to attend school, residents said.
"They must cross the river to start their farm work," said a teacher in the Po Y commune primary school in Ngoc Hoi, identified only as Anh.
"Households that have children need to cross the river every day for school. Parents carry children on their backs," he added.
Anh said that the suspension bridge had been "made by the people in the village, not the local government."
"They used to go across the river by that bridge, but now they use the rope," he said.
While Anh still encourages students to go to school, he is aware that their journey is now much harder.
Villagers said that the rope bridges consist of two stakes set up on both banks, with a rope strung between them bearing a pulley.
The elderly, teenagers, and children have to use this to cross the river since everybody has things to do on the other side of the river, they said.
Accidents are common. According to local sources, a local commune police officer and his son narrowly escaped drowning after they fell into the river when the rope broke.
Funds for new bridge
Local people have been raising funds for a new bridge, in the absence of a clear signal from central government in Hanoi that help is on the way.
The rope bridges drew national attention after a local reporter snapped photos of an entire village crossing the Po Ko River by rope, leading to questions in the country's parliament, the National Assembly, which was meeting to debate a U.S. $50 billion high-speed railway project.
The atmosphere in the usually quiescent Assembly became tense over the issue of rope bridges in a question session on June 10.
Transport minister Ho Nghia Dung said that local authorities are responsible for local river routes. However, local governments say they lack the funding to build bridges.
Kon Tum’s Party provincial secretary said she had applied to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for funds, a claim the transport minister has denied.
Newspapers quoted the minister as saying in reaction to the story, "It’s hard to believe [that they are so smart]!"
The National Assembly voted down the proposals for the 1,570-km (975 mile) bullet train, which was expected to travel at speeds of up to 300 kms (190 miles) per hour last month.
Vietnam is developing rapidly, but roughly half the population are still farmers with a per capita income of about U.S. $1,000 a year. The lowest-paid government official earns just U.S.$38 per month.
Ho Chi Minh City's modern shopping malls and fast-food restaurants contrast with poverty-stricken rural areas, and critics say that modernizing the current train system and further developing maritime transport and roads would be more efficient.
Vietnam's budget deficit reached 8.4 percent of GDP last year, a proportion considered very high by the World Bank.
Original reporting in Vietnamese by Khanh Anh. Vietnamese service director: Khanh Nguyen. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.