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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Vietnam's Wheels of Change

Masami Ukon

Feb. 10, 2016

Police departments in Vietnam are using a low-tech method to build bridges with the public. It is a socialist state, and as such citizens sometimes feel that law enforcement agencies are corrupt and their officers too strict. But police are trying to change that perception by becoming more friendly and accessible.

Traffic jams are a fact of life in the capital, Hanoi, and it is difficult to get around the city by car. Sometimes the traffic prevents police from reaching a crime or accident scene quickly. But by bicycle, officers are more mobile. They are riding old-style two-wheelers that allow them to weave in and out of traffic.

Hanoi police started riding bicycles last year, and people are happy to see officers using pedal power. "They have an eco-friendly image,” notes a female resident. “Bicycles don't emit exhaust, so they really help to protect the environment,” says a man.

Traffic congestion and environmental concerns are not the only reasons for the new approach. Police used to patrol the streets by motor vehicle, but sometimes they had a hard time getting people to co-operate. The vehicle itself created a barrier, and the officers inside were often seen as heavy-handed and dictatorial.

Reports of police officers wearing sunglasses when they questioned people, and driving official vehicles in street clothes without a helmet, did not help their reputation. Neither did clips on video-sharing websites of what looks like police officers taking bribes.

To address the problem, Vietnam's government launched a reform drive about five years ago. Women started playing a more visible role, and drinking and smoking on duty were strictly banned. Putting police on bicycles is one of the latest ways to soften their image.

Hanoi's police force asked a well-known bicycle maker to come up with a custom design. The bicycles are the same color as the officers' uniforms, and feature a detachable flashlight and an easy-to-carry bag.

“We were asked not to install many gears, just like a regular bike. Hanoi police wanted to present a friendly face to the citizens, not one of chasing and arresting,” explains Nguyen Huu Son, Thong Nhat bicycle company chairman. More than anything, the design is intended to promote a friendly image, and there are now more than 3,000 police officers on bicycles throughout the country.

The chief at Hanoi's Dong Xuan police station, 34-year-old Vu Quoc Toan, has seen promising results. He oversees 33 officers and says that in the past, his team had difficulty getting along with people. “We used to ride in cars, barking out orders from loudspeakers. But we've come to realize that it's not friendly. We couldn't get any feedback with that method to help us understand what was really going on,” he says.

Toan instructs his charges to be sensitive in their dealings with the public. Six months ago, the station took delivery of 12 bikes that officers use on their morning and evening patrols. If they notice something, they can speak directly with people instead of through loudspeakers.

Toan says his officers are getting better results from face-to-face interactions. The bicycles give officers better access because they can go where cars cannot. “Everyone in the neighborhood listens to what the police have to say, because the officers are riding bikes, going around town talking to the people,” says a local shopkeeper.

Residents are more comfortable talking to police now, and Toan says his officers arrested a bank robber thanks to a tip-off from the public. “Citizens are more willing to listen to and understand us. It's much more effective than before,” he says. “We are also trying to listen to their opinions and review our ways of doing things."

Police on bikes are becoming a welcome sight in the bustling, fast-changing city of Hanoi. Bicycles remain a popular mode of transportation despite the rapid pace of urbanization, and they are also helping police do a better job.