At 10 p.m on Tuesday night, more than 50 people from Yen Quang and Phuc Tien communes in Ky Son District near Hanoi gathered with eight cars and dozens of motorbikes, completely blocking all the toll lanes at the Hoa Lac station on the Hoa Lac – Hoa Binh highway connecting Hoa Binh and Hanoi.
These cars and motorbikes belong to households in the villages nearby. Locals claim they cannot accept any charge as they travel through the booth several times a day.
They even took shifts to ensure the toll station could not operate. They only left open the two toll-free lanes on the extremes meant for non-motorized vehicles.
All vehicles had to take the free lanes, but were happy to do so, with their occupants even helping the protesters by giving them food and drinks.
“We’re doing this because we want to be free from the toll, instead of paying 50 percent. We did not mean to cause traffic obstruction,” a local named Nguyen Van Luong said.
Luong, whose house is 300 meters from the tollgate, said locals have agreed to continue protesting like this until the issue is satisfactorily resolved.
The Hoa Lac tollbooth opened in early May following the construction of the highway under build-operate-transfer (BOT) mode.
The builder, Hoa Binh-based BOT National Highway 6 – Hoa Lac – Hoa Binh Ltd. Co, has set the rates at VND35,000-180,000 ($1.5-7.7) per vehicle. The toll will be collected for 27 years for the VND2.7 trillion ($116 million) highway.
The fees are halved for more than 100 vehicles owned by those living within a radius of 5 km (3 miles).
On May 7, four days after it started collecting fees, the Hoa Lac booth had to shut down for several hours in the afternoon after many drivers protested against the toll and demanded to use the highway for free. On Monday alone it had to be closed three times due to protests.
Bui Quang Bat, director of the BOT National Highway 6 – Hoa Lac – Hoa Binh, said the company has called on the Ministry of Transport and Hoa Binh authorities to hold talks with local residents to resolve the issue. “Severe punishment should be given to those who intentionally cause trouble.”
There are 88 toll stations across Vietnam, 73 managed by the Ministry of Transport and 15 by local districts.
Protests at toll stations have been a feature since last year, with recent hotspots being Soc Trang Province, Can Tho City, Binh Thuan Province and other parts of southern Vietnam.
Drivers often cite three reasons for their protests: unreasonably high fees, the locations of the stations and too many tollgates on a highway.
According to the National Assembly, Vietnam’s standard distance for toll stations is 70 km (43 miles), but in reality there are stations every 62 km (38.5 miles). On National Highway 1 alone, there are more than 40.
Last year protests in Cai Lay District, the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang, garnered national headlines after days of traffic chaos forced the prime minister to step in and order the temporary closure of the station while the issue was reexamined.
Drivers have come up with various ways, some novel, to protest, from blocking the road to paying the toll in small notes.