The traditional full-wrap motorcycle helmet has been streamlined and equipped with cooling vents to more closely resemble a bicycle helmet, then adorned with all manner of decorations. In a land that once relegated everyone to frugal, androgynous apparel, what better way to strut your stuff than to turn the humble necessity into a raging fashion statement?
Of course, with most helmets costing less than $10, it’s not clear how solid their safety credentials are, even if they bear the requisite certificates. And then there’s the foldable helmet with air pockets in the ribbing that inflate and deflate like travel pillows to better fit in a purse or briefcase.
“People didn’t wear them before because they looked stupid, a bit like Gazoo in ‘The Flintstones’ on their smaller Vietnamese frames,” says Ralf Matthaes, managing director at Ho Chi Minh City-based TNS Vietnam, a market analysis firm. “Now the helmets are personalized, with stickers, you name it. It’s a really good indication of what’s happened with youth culture here. People really want to stand out in a crowd.”
With so many motorcycles on the road, more than half of Vietnam’s 13,000 annual traffic fatalities are from head injuries — twice as many as in the United States. Fortunately, the figures are edging down with the new law.
There’s an $8 fine if police catch you without a helmet, a pretty serious disincentive in a country where low-end helmets cost $2. Then again, who would be caught dead in a low-end helmet?
“It’s money for the police, although there’s generally too few of them to catch you,” Nguyen says, showing off his black helmet. “With helmets, safety is definitely an afterthought. It’s really about fashion … and not getting caught.”