Viet Nam's New DUI Law: Thank You, National Assembly!

Bạn trẻ uống bia tại một bữa tiệc – ẢNH: QUANG ĐỊNH (Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre News)

1 January 2020 was the dawn of a new era in a society in which excessive drinking is considered to be a sign of masculinity and part of doing business. Before that auspicious day, Viet Nam was a country in which friends let friends, wives let husbands, and girlfriends let boyfriends drive drunk. This is not something I say lightly but I believe Decree 100, as it’s known, will be a game changer in terms of fewer accidents, injuries, and deaths, less domestic violence, a cleaner environment, and healthier people who perhaps make the fateful decision to drink less.

(Regarding accidents, there were over 4,000 traffic accidents in Viet Nam in the first quarter of 2019, leading to 1,905 deaths. Drunk driving was to blame in 274 of them. In the nearly 15 years I have been living in Viet Nam, I have witnessed a number of accidents in which alcohol has played a role.)

Here’s a story from a recent article: Bac, a woman who lives in Hanoi’s Old Quarter near a lot of bars and clubs, said that her family has “been liberated from the smell of urine and vomit since the beginning of the year. Decree 100 saved my family much torment.” A retired police officer, she’s even seen drunks defecate in front of her house. “Since I can’t talk sense into drunkards, I have no choice but to clean up after them,” she added.

Other related problems include noise pollution and people swearing, plus motorbikes and restaurant tables and chairs taking over public sidewalks. “Every time a restaurant turns up its speakers to advertise beer or wine, I have to take my 90-year-old mother-in-law to a friend’s house on Minh Khai Street. The glass doors in our home cracked because of the loud noise,” she added. Ms. Bac hopes a new law could permanently “shut down the sidewalk clubs and bars.” (Zoning restrictions are new to Viet Nam and beginning to change for the better.)

Businessmen who negotiate deals after too many toasts, a common practice, will have to arrange for drivers. (The demand for ridesharing services such as Grab or Be, not to mention taxis, has skyrocketed during certain times.)

Cyclists and electric bicycle riders face fines of VND400,000-600,000 ($17-26) for drunk cycling, while motorcyclists and car drivers can be fined up to VND6-8 million and VND30-40 million ($1,300-1,725). Car drivers can have their license suspended for 22-24 months. And, yes, the law is being enforced with by traffic cops breathalyzers in hand. Even spot-checks for Vietnamese, as well as foreigners. The tolerance level borders on zero, which means, if you have a beer, you better wait a while before getting behind the wheel or hopping on your motorbike (or bicycle!) and heading to your next destination.

All of this has put the fear of God into motorists who used to have one, two, three, or many more drinks, and then get on their motorbikes or into their cars for the alcohol-hazed drive home. Oh, and the police can impound your for a certain period of time. Some people even want fines for drunk walkers (!). There have been complaints of drunk men urinating and even defecating in public, including near people’s homes.

The number of customers at beer clubs and restaurants in which drinking is the prime activity has dropped precipitously. If you owned shares in one of these establishments, you should have sold them by 31 December 2019. This includes the ubiquitous bia hơi (fresh beer) places.

The bill, which was passed last June, was approved by 84.3% of the 450 voting members of the National Assembly, Viet Nam’s national legislative body. One provision, which includes a “strict ban” on “operating vehicles while having any level of breath or blood alcohol concentration” (my italics), was approved earlier by 374 out of 446 members.

The law also bans advertising alcoholic beverages on television and other media platforms between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., with the exception of programs from foreign broadcasters. Advertising alcoholic drinks to persons under 18 years of age or employing underage actors in alcohol advertisements is strictly forbidden under the new law. No advertisements are allowed for drinks with an alcohol content of 15% or higher.

Decree 100 is a great example of legislators addressing an urgent problem quickly and effectively. While one can blame them for not addressing it sooner, the point is they did and with positive results for all, except maybe the owners of establishments that sell large quantities of alcoholic beverages. Public pressure also played a role, another positive sign that Viet Nam is coming of age.

A Vietnamese woman smoking in a scene from a local TV show.

Postscript: Next up, doubling or tripling the cost of cigarettes and other tobacco-related products and cracking down on sales of said products to minors. Anecdotally, I have seen an increase in the number of young women smoking, the tobacco’s industry’s dream and final consumer frontier. If you check the stats, you’ll find that about 50% of all Vietnamese men smoke while that figure is just 5% for women. The mixed picture is that the former may very well be decreasing and the latter increasing.

Shalom (שלום), MAA