A Bag Over Troubled Water

You are standing on a river bank. Across the river is your school. You need to get across.

In some parts of the world, that’s the start of a brain teaser. (Here’s an example.) In other parts, it’s an easy problem — cross the bridge. And in some other parts, well, it requires some creativity.




Take, for example, some of the more rural areas of Vietnam — Dien Bien Province, flagged in the map above. With fewer than 500,000 people living there (out of 90 million nationwide) and a population density of only 120 per square mile, there are a lot of infrastructure needs for not a lot of people. That’s a bad thing, because infrastructure requires monitoring and upkeep, and there aren’t a lot of people around to do that. The bridges, in particular, are a mess, both in Dien Bien and nationwide. As Quartz summed up:

More than 50 rivers in Dien Bien need bridges, according to local media. In the southern coastal province of Quang Ngai, an estimated half of 24 suspension bridges are so degraded people believe they could collapse at any time. And in the southern Binh Dinh province, a rickety wooden bridge that crosses the Con River still serves thousands of locals, even though several people [have] fallen to their deaths over the last few years. The ministry of transport said last month that 40% of all suspension bridges in the country need urgent repair.

But people still have to get across the rivers, and when the bridges aren’t suitable, some swim across the waters. But that’s not something everyone can do, especially when waters are rough. For example, children can’t cross the river this way — that’d be way too dangerous, and they’d be soaking wet when they arrived at their schools. The solution? Grown ups transport them across the river in large plastic bags, as seen below via the BBC.




(Yes, that’s a child in the bag.)

It’s a pretty straight-forward yet horrifying solution. Stronger men in the community brave the river, swimming with one arm while dragging a hopefully-floating person-in-a-bag. The practice was brought to the public eye a few months ago when cell phone videos such as this one depicted the practice in action. It should go without saying that a functional bridge would be a better solution, but bridges are expensive to build and maintain, and no one with the political or economic clout to make that happen seemed to care.

But attention tends to beget funding, and this is no exception. In early May, Vietnamese authorities finally built that very-necessary bridge.
Bonus Fact: If you’re in Rwanda and not Vietnam, a plastic bag won’t help you get across a river safely. Why not? Because as Foreign Policy points out, plastic bags are banned there: “Walking down the street with one could cost you more than $150, while store owners found stocking them face six to 12 months in prison.” So you’ll have to build a bridge instead (or tap into the underground plastic bag market).

From the ArchivesWaterfall to Nowhere: Where ping pong balls get lost.

Related: If you liked the bridge-related brain teaser linked to above, you may want to check out this book on puzzles, which may include similar ones and is highly rated (4.6 stars on 82 reviews)