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Drowning on Tet: very bad luck

 Yesterday a ferry overloaded with Tet holiday shoppers overturned in a river in Quang Binh province. At least 40 people drowned, most of them girls and women.

I saw this on the Internet yesterday afternoon and tried to call the provincial police to get confirmation and more details. (I'm currently hundreds of miles away in Nha Trang.) But I couldn't anybody on the line, because it was...the Tet holiday. Actually the eve of the first day of Tet, to be more specific.

My news assistant, up in Hanoi, had better luck. He managed to get a few officials on the phone, late at night. But they refused to talk or confirm anything because it's extremely bad luck to discuss such a horrible accident as the first occasion of the new year. On Tet, everything is supposed to go perfectly, to assure a wealthy and prosperous new year. Vietnamese go through elaborate planning to ensure that the first person who steps over the threshold of their house in the new year is someone who augurs well — someone of high status or wealth or otherwise auspicious character. And you get discounts for making the first purchase from a merchant in the new year, if you look like someone who would be a high-value buyer.

The transportation situation in Vietnam on the eve of Tet is a miniature version of the madness that overtakes China, as GlobalPost correspondent Josh Chin recently reported. Train and plane tickets are sold out long in advance; even bus tickets can be hard to come by, as seemingly every urban resident in the country scrambles to travel back to their ancestral villages to visit the graves of their ancestors and touch base with their extended family. So it's not surprising that disasters like the ferry sinking in Quang Binh happen. It's also a part of an extremely high overall drowning rate in Vietnam, a country where fast-moving rivers coming out of mountain ranges onto flat rice plains create risky water situations, and where many people don't know how to swim. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children; government statistics show 10 children under 15 drown in Vietnam every day. (Though according to the WHO, teaching kids to swim isn't necessarily a good approach to the problem, as it just leads them to be more daring in dangerous water situations, and leads parents to be less cautious.)

There are a couple of tentative lessons one might draw. One is: there's a foreign aid line in Vietnam called "disaster mitigation," which is one of the least sexy titles for a foreign aid program one could possibly imagine. People in rich countries tend to want to fund programs on big scary threats, like AIDS, rather than such dull-sounding issues as "disaster mitigation." But if you're a kid in Vietnam, you're much more likely to drown than you are to get HIV. So it might be better if we were spending more money to help Vietnam build retention walls along flood-prone rivers, improve inspection of water transport and train water rescue teams, etc.

And the other thing is, forget about getting any news out of Vietnam for the next week or so. Everybody's at home visiting their families, and if anything bad does happen, you won't hear about it because it's bad to luck to mention it.