Sunday, 31 May 2009

Reader Travelogue: Visiting Vietnam

A taste of this fascinating country will leave you longing for more.

It's not often that you can visit a city that is 999 years old. But that was the case during our trip to Hanoi in March.

The city is preparing to celebrate its 1,000-year anniversary next year, and we took a trip to see old Hanoi before the inevitable changes come.

If you're going to fly to Vietnam, you'd better be prepared for some serious air time. Our itinerary took us from Memphis to Los Angeles, then to Taipei, Taiwan, and on to Hanoi. Total travel time including layovers in LAX and Taipei: 26 hours.Flying from Chicago, our daughter, Jaime, and her fiancé, Ron, were to meet us in Hanoi.

Ron had booked the hotel for us; a small one in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The Rising Dragon hotel was a perfect fit. It is small (17 rooms), very clean and located in the Old Quarter, which is by far the most charming part of Hanoi. And, the price per night (breakfast included) was $27.

Stepping outside the hotel was to be thrust into the daily life of tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Because almost all of the shop owners live above their shops with

extended families and because air conditioning is very rare in those old buildings, most of the daily life is lived on the streets. This means cooking, eating, reading the newspapers, and especially, chatting with neighbors and family members. Throw in an unbelievable number of motorbikes, cyclos (bicycle cabs), bicycles and cars, and you have what can only be described as chaos. But it works. People shop, prepare their meals, eat, clean up, etc, all in the streets and on the sidewalks in an amiable atmosphere.

A fascinating aspect of the Old Quarter is the system of streets catering to a specific commodity to sell. For example, the Rising Dragon is located on Hang Be street. Hang means market and Be refers to what is sold, in the case, shoes. Tens of thousands of shoes in hundreds of shops. Other streets specialize in jewelry, electronic gadgets, flags and banners. There's even a street specializing in counterfeit goods, many of which are made to be burned by mourners at funerals to send the deceased off with some of the amenities they had enjoyed in their earthly life.

Another feature of the Old Quarter are the restaurants that offer only one item on the menu. The one we visited, Cha Ca La Vong, billed itself as the oldest restaurant in Vietnam. Its only offering is monkfish. The fish is cut into small chunks of meat and brought out to the table sizzling in an iron pot over red hot coals, It's placed on the table with greens and rice noodles. Mix these in the pot to your satisfaction and continue cooking until you're ready to eat. It was excellent. Other restaurants specialize in pork patties with noodles or pancakes stuffed with pork, as well as other dishes.

One breathtaking activity is crossing a busy street on foot. The traffic never stops, but the locals nonchalantly step off into the street. The key is to keep moving, albeit slowly, and constantly eyeing the traffic.

Of course, must-see sights in Hanoi are the water puppet theater, the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh lies in state. Lines are long, but move quickly under strict supervision. And of course there's the Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain and other U.S. pilots were held after being shot down. The museum displays his flight suit and shows hundreds of pictures detailing the bombing campaigns and how the people suffered under the American bombardment (and the French occupation prior to that) and lays it on pretty thick that, in contrast, the Vietnamese treated the downed fliers well. No mention is made of the torture the pilots suffered .

Many people ask if there's any residual bitterness toward the U.S. over the war which in Vietnam is referred to as the "American War." The answer is no. The primary reason is one of demographics. To visit Vietnam is to see first-hand the demographic revolution that has swept the country in recent years. At the end of World War II the population of Vietnam was approximately 20 million people. Today it is 86 million. The median age is 27 and this is evident everywhere you go. The number of young people is staggering. You see relatively few older Vietnamese (over 50). This means there is little interest in rehashing past conflicts.

There are many side trips to take from Hanoi. The one we chose was to Ha Long Bay about four hours by bus. It sits not too far from Haiphong Harbor and is the site of some spectacular scenery with stone peaks protruding from the sea. This is also where people live in floating villages, complete with banks and stores.

We continued our trip by flying from Hanoi to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the jumping off point for Angkor Wat. It's a small town almost wholly dedicated to serving tourists. It has an area jammed with Western-style restaurants and bars called Pub Street. There is a large market next to this area dedicated to selling wares produced by local craftsmen.

Many tourists plan to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise. The departure time was 5 a.m., which allowed for the trip to the ruins (approximately 4 kilometers) and then getting processed for a visitor's pass. The price of the permit depends on how long you stay. Our choice was the one day permit, which was $20.

The ruins are huge, covering 38 square miles. They are truly awe-inspiring. One of the more popular sites is one in which the forest has reclaimed much of the ruins. Giant trees have grown on top and down into parts of these sites.

Everywhere, you're accosted by hordes of ragged kids selling knickknacks, postcards, T-shirts, etc. The poverty of this area is staggering. One third of the entire population of Cambodia lives on less than $1 per day. But along the route from the airport there are scores of first-class hotels catering to tourists. The contrast is striking.

From Siem Reap we flew back into Vietnam, heading for Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. Saigon is where the money and most of the economic activity appears to be. The streets and buildings look more prosperous. The number of motorbikes and the traffic has to be seen to be believed.

In Saigon, there are relatively few historical sights, other than the Rex Hotel (the home of journalists during the war) and the War Museum, as well as the former presidential palace.

We decided to travel to the Mekong Delta and after a 4-hour journey south of Saigon, we arrived where we immediately boarded a small boat to travel to an island in the Delta. From there, we visited the obligatory coconut candy factory, the snake wine facility, etc. We also took a sampan trip down the canals that divide the islands. It was both interesting and enjoyable.

We're aware that traveling to Vietnam and visiting Hanoi and Saigon and saying you've seen Vietnam is a bit like hitting New York City and Los Angeles and maintaining you've covered the U.S. The diversity in the country is amazing. It's more than 1,000 miles in length from North to South.

We did not visit Hue or the Central Highlands or any of the hundreds of fascinating sites between these two major cities. But getting a taste of this marvelous country is enough to whet the appetite for more.

Philip Newsom is an international sales manager for FedEx. He has traveled extensively throughout the world. He and his wife Susan live in Memphis.

The Commercial Appeal

New Vietnam port heralds US service

HANOI (AFP) — The first deepwater container shipping terminal serving Vietnam's southern commercial hub has opened, allowing direct service to the United States to begin next week, a shipping firm said.

The APL Alexandrite on Friday became the first container vessel to call at the new Saigon Port-PSA facility on the Cai Mep River in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, the global container shipping firm APL said in a statement.

The port is southeast of Ho Chi Minh City.

APL said the vessel "was undertaking a trial voyage ahead of the beginning on June 4 of the industry's first direct container shipping service linking Vietnam and the west coast of North America".

Another APL ship, the Denver, is to depart from the new port on Thursday for Seattle, the statement said.

"With this port, the first direct shipping service from Vietnam to North America is possible," Vietnam's deputy transport minister Tran Doan Tho was quoted as saying in the Vietnam News on Saturday.

The US and Vietnam fought a war in the 1960s and early 1970s but economic ties have been restored and grown since the US lifted a trade embargo in 1994 and diplomatic relations were normalised a year later.

The Washington-based US-ASEAN Business Council, which represents more than 100 US companies, said on a visit to Vietnam recently that the US is on track to become the leading foreign direct investor in Vietnam within three years.

APL is unit of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines, while the new port is a joint venture between Saigon Port, Vietnam National Shipping Lines and PSA Vietnam, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore's port operator PSA International.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Vietnam makes for a quirky family holiday

Vietnam is fun for kids, as they unearth Vietcong hideaways, roadside roast dog and a very nasty fish, says Janice Turner.

In the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City, along with a real guillotine and photos of the My Lai massacre, is a mock-up of the infamous “tiger cage” cells in which untold Vietcong prisoners died. As we peered gingerly inside, reading the grim notes about torture and privations, our guide remarked that Con Son island, home of the cages, now has a sensational five-star spa hotel.

And so it has. An Evason Hideaway in fact, sister of the gorgeous eco-complex in Ninh Van Bay, where we had just stayed, enjoying our own hilltop infinity pool and a pillow menu. That indolent visitors might ponder whether to rest their heads on buckwheat, lavender or goose feathers while staying on a notorious penal colony sums up much about tourism in Vietnam.

Here history doesn’t whisper in temples or ruins. It prods you in the ribs on a backwater of the Mekong Delta, where suddenly you are a terrified American GI, fearing a sniper in every clump of reeds. It accosts you drinking a cocktail in the Saigon-Saigon rooftop bar, where the American military held its press briefings. Or when you are eating sticky rice-flavoured ice cream by a boating lake in Hanoi and learn that it was where John McCain splash-landed after his bomber was shot down.

History here is raw and so very recent. And yet, without rancour, Vietnam is doggedly focused on the future, the monoliths to Motorola and Honda already muscling into the skyline. Indeed, Vietnam attracted us for a family holiday because it retains the quirkiness that you fear won’t last long when it properly joins the homogenised modern world. Vietnam has a great multi-zeroed comedy currency, the dong: my sons, aged 13 and 11, were delighted to learn that their £40 of holiday money made them dong millionaires. And it is one of only a handful of Communist states left in the world. Hammer-and-sickle banners proclaim “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam will live forever” while pictures of a smiling Uncle Ho himself garland every street.

But since the government loosened control of the economy and allowed foreign investment a decade ago, quality of life has soared. Vietnam is vibrantly entrepreneurial: we acquired so many silk pyjamas and lacquered bowls that we needed an extra suitcase. Even the state carrier, Vietnam Airlines, is unexpectedly efficient and well-run.

Since the country is a narrow ribbon, which runs down a 2,000-mile coastline, we headed north to south, starting in cool, drizzly Hanoi. As the communist capital before reunification it is quainter, less bustling than Ho Chi Minh. But you still need a lesson in crossing the road.

Our guide explained that, since the streets are a TT rally of motorbikes and no one stops at the lights, the pedestrian must progress slowly and deliberately into oncoming traffic so that riders swerve around you. Stop and you are dead; run and you’re dead too. It is, as my younger son remarked, like being a human video game.

In Hanoi we filed past the embalmed Ho Chi Minh in his chill-cabinet mausoleum and learnt a little about Vietnam’s extraordinary tenacity. This is a country which, within living memory, has repelled occupation by France, Japan, China and the US — superpowers with modern military hardware trounced by peasant farmers.

Yet the Vietnamese today are unguarded and charming to foreigners: my sons were mobbed by a class of red neck-tied Young Communists keen to take their picture. The boys reckoned that on the international smile scale, if the beaming Indians of Tamil Nadu are a 10 and the surly Czechs a 2, the Vietnamese score a creditable 8.

From here we travelled to Ha Long Bay, where we took a junk on a night’s cruise around the astonishing limestone rock formations, saw a floating village where fishermen live and die without ever stepping on land and took a t’ai chi class on the beach. And then it was an hour’s internal flight to Hue, a tranquil and cultured city just south of the DMZ.

I regret that we had only a day here, staying in La Résidence, the former French colonial governor’s mansion, an elegant Art Deco palace on the Perfume River. I would have loved to cycle around the countryside and linger in Hue’s famous citadel. Its courtyards and formal gardens, once home to Vietnam’s emperors, are still flecked by bullet-fire from more recent events.

It was here the Vietcong launched the Tet offensive, surprising the Americans and holding Hue for 21 days of vicious fighting. Our guide, a child at the time, recalls his uncle carrying away a US bomb that had landed but not exploded outside his house.

Hue is also famous for its cuisine — but then Vietnamese food was our trip’s most glorious surprise. How did the Thais get to be the Far East kings of the high street? Vietnamese food is subtler, healthier and, since they serve chillies on the side to add according to taste, never too hot.

We loved pho, a restoring noodle soup available on every street corner. And I ate fresh hand rolls – a rice pancake of shredded salad and prawns to be dipped in piquant sauce – every single day. On my birthday, while in the pretty resort of Hoi An, we all learnt how to make them at the Red Bridge Cookery school. “You very messy lady – start again!” was the chef’s verdict on my sticky gloop.

Besides, it helps if a country’s former colonial master was France, leaving behind a talent for patisserie and fine bread. Vendors sell baguettes along the highway. And Vietnam is the world’s second-biggest exporter of coffee. Who knew that? It is excellent quality, too, served in individual drip-filters on to ice and a glug of condensed milk. The best stuff, with a deep, almost chocolatey flavour, is made from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a weasel. My sons, of course, were gagging to try that.

Strange that our nose-wrinkling British suspicion of Vietnam stems from the single fact that they eat dog. The omnivorous boys were anxious to sample roast puppy, but our guide told us that it sits heavy in the stomach, like Christmas lunch, and when we came across it in the street market, a small roasted corgi-sized leg, the meat had an unappetising denseness, like compressed ham. Neither did we try snake nor the very popular duck’s eggs containing almost-hatched chicks, eaten crunchy beak, feathers and all. But we did eat sparrow and so much seafood that it will be a long time before I want to look at another prawn.

From Hue we drove for three hours, high over the Cloudy Pass, along excellent American-built roads to Hoi An. Here you turn up at a tailor’s shop at noon with your favourite dress or suit, choose fabric, return at 4pm for a fitting, suggest improvements, then, as you head out for cocktails by the river at dusk, you collect your new duds, usually better than the original. My 11-year-old had a bespoke winter coat made, with his choice of groovy silk lining, which sounds very Little Lord Fauntleroy, but was a bargain at US $40 (£25).

An hour farther south by plane, Nha Trang is the Vietnamese Blackpool, a long neon strip of restaurants and funfairs where flirting teenagers zip about on mopeds. But mostly we just lounged about, gazing at the glistening bay on the private beach of the Ana Mandara, one of those super-luxe hotels where after two torpid days you can barely scratch your own nose.

Then we were whisked by motor launch to Ninh Van Bay, where Prince Andrew once stayed in the presidential suite and ordered chicken sandwich for lunch every day. Here my sons had a go at paddling a coracle, snorkeled off the private coral reef and, fishing off the quay, caught an odd creature that turned out to be a thrillingly lethal stonefish.

We were glad to be back in the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, with its elegant inner district of French buildings. But I am glad that we ended our trip in probably the most boy-pleasing tourist site I’ve visited anywhere, the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour out of the city. Everything you need to know about the resourcefulness and indomitable spirit of Vietnam is contained in this 250km-long warren.

Here the Vietcong hid, lived and plotted against the American invasion up to ten metres beneath the surface. Creating lethal Temple of Doom-style traps from abandoned US weapons and bamboo, conducting blood transfusions in a subterranean hospital using a bicycle pump, venting smoke from their secret kitchens deep into the forest, they would scurry to a lower level of tunnel if the GIs broke in.

Visitors are allowed to walk in part of the tunnels specially enlarged for wide Western shoulders but after a few minutes bent double in humid blackness we begged to get out. Then my sons were allowed to climb a US tank and watch their father fire off live rounds on an AK47. They’d looked forward to this, but they recoiled from the ear-shattering gunfire. If nothing else in their tour of ’nam they learnt to avoid war: it’s too damn noisy.

Getting there You can’t fly direct to Vietnam; you’ll need to change in Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong, so the journey can end up 24 hours each way.

Janice Turner travelled to Vietnam with Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000 /, which offers a private ten-night tour that takes in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon and the Mekong Delta from £2,695 per person. Four-night extensions at the Evason Ana Mandara resort in Nha Trang cost from £660. Children’s prices are available on request.

More information Take some US dollars, the favoured currency in many shops, which can get you a better deal than paying by dong. Buy coffee to take home — it is good value for fine quality. The King brand is particularly good.


Wondrous Seasons of Vietnam

HANOI — There is an old Vietnamese proverb: “Anywhere you find two women and a duck, you have a market.”

From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An to Dalat, my husband and I swept through the country’s colorful markets, snacking on freshly and exquisitely fried spring rolls stuffed with minced pork, sweet turnips and young papaya, then dipped in the omnipresent sauce of lime, garlic, chiles, fish sauce, rice vinegar and sugar.

We stopped for a feast of the popular and populist pho, a bowl of spicy, beefy broth designed as a make-it-yourself meal — we added to taste and whim fresh bean sprouts, minced hot red peppers, rice noodles, tiny fried onions, bits of salty preserved cabbage, and the essential, colorful and crisp tangle of herbs.

In snacks, as in meals, bite after bite, one can only smile in amazement at how the Vietnamese eke complex flavor combinations out of deceptively simple techniques with utterly basic cooking equipment. From modest market stall to upscale dining rooms, flavors were vibrant, refreshing, wholesome.

Vietnam offers an omnivore’s cuisine of varied soups, the freshest of fish and shellfish, an avalanche of fresh vegetables, and a bit of fried fare to soothe our cravings for crunch and fat.

There were welcome discoveries and new flavors. Having grown pumpkins in my garden for years, little did I know that one could blanch the tender young green pumpkin tendrils and sizzle them over high heat with a healthy dose of fish sauce and crushed garlic.

The Vietnamese grow delicious avocados, but consider them a dessert: In Dalat we snacked on surprisingly creamy and sweet avocado ice cream churned with condensed milk. And after sampling the mild, tangy and crunchy water-spinach sprouts, I wanted my own rice paddy just to enjoy the omnipresent green — often called morning glory sprouts — that grows joyously in the paddies.

Our palates were rewarded each day with a perfect-pitch balance of salty, sweet, spicy, crunchy and soft, whether with an expertly seasoned fish paste wrapped around a stick of lemon grass; a cool, refreshing drink of green onions, basil, ginger, mint, lemon, salt, fish sauce and fresh coriander; or a restorative mousse of avocado and artichoke.

Over a period of 10 days, markets and meals filled the hours, and three in particular stand out.

La Vertical Our last meal in the country was with Didier Corlou, a Frenchman who runs the amazing restaurant La Verticale, housed in a tall, narrow 1930s villa in Hanoi. A colorfully decorated space, the restaurant features five colors — green, yellow, black, white and orange — symbols of the five seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter and “the transition season,” a 21-day period between each of the other four.

It is a happy, vibrant, personal space, where Mr. Corlou offers a superb cuisine that fuses the best of French and Vietnamese culinary culture with utmost respect for the seasons, quality and locality of ingredients. His food is straightforward, totally spontaneous and unselfconscious.

While so many of his combinations are brand new — a cold tomato soup served with a scoop of black peppercorn sorbet; lamb chops coated with a golden crunch of bee pollen; a vibrant escabèche of sea bass and sea greens; crab and mushroom wrapped in rice paper and deep fried — everything on the plate or bowl is identifiable.

So much of the pleasure of food is in memory, and though we may not have memories of Mr. Corlou’s creative combinations, we know a mushroom from a tomato and can relish the pleasure of each ingredient.

Mr. Corlou, a longtime chef at the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, is now on his own as chef and chief alchemist with a ground-floor spice shop that is unique. He searches out the best cinnamon, turmeric, red chiles, ginger, and black and white sesame from all over Vietnam and creates his own curries, salt mixes and myriad other blends for his boutique.

Cha Ca La Vong Whether one is a dedicated gastronome or a first-time visitor to Hanoi, chances are one has had the Cha Ca La Vong experience. Unique in the world, and a delight that can equal the high of that first croissant in Paris, a perfect risotto in Milan, pork barbecue in the Carolinas or amaThe restaurant on Cha Ca street in Hanoi’s old quarter has been at the same location since 1871, and serves only one dish, a fragrant, herbal mélange of turmeric-coated fish cooked in oil over an open flame in the center of the table. At your table, you add all the wondrous fresh ingredients of Vietnam.This is a place you visit with a crowd, making for a festive table boisterous with laughter, sips of local Halida lager beer, and great hits of herb and spice. Guests tumble up a rickety staircase to enter a series of thoroughly unadorned dining rooms. It’s the single dish that makes the theater here.

Once you are seated, waiters deliver a parade of accompaniments — an empty bowl, chopsticks, communal bowls of vermicelli rice noodles, platters of scallions, grilled peanuts, Vietnamese coriander, bowls of sauce garnished with fresh chopped chili peppers and the platter of fresh dill. Next, a waiter arrives with a charcoal-fired brazier, tops it with a battered aluminum frying pan filled with sizzling oil and tiny, golden morsels of turmeric-dusted white fish. He showers all with slivers of scallions and handfuls of dill, and the dish sizzles on.

Then you season your own bowl to taste with all the trimmings. (It was here I realized, after a week in Vietnam, that I had become totally addicted to the crunch, salt and fat of the lowly peanut, an addiction that continued for weeks upon my return to Paris.)

Guests are offered seconds and thirds, and it is doubtful that anyone leaves Cha Ca La Vong anything other than sated and satisfied.

Quan an Ngon While our last meal in Vietnam, La Vertical, offered the best tastes of the trip, a close second was one of our first meals of the tour, a glorious lunch at the indoor-outdoor, theater-like restaurant Quan an Ngon in Ho Chi Minh City.

The sprawling, family restaurant attempts to recreate the open-air markets of Vietnam, with individual cooking stalls set up along the perimeter. Diners can stroll from stand to stand, watching as one woman deftly wraps rice paper around spring rolls filled with fresh shrimp and generous amounts of greens and scallions; examining the talent it takes to make a perfect portion of grilled tender squid to be seasoned with a combination of spicy salt and lime salt; or wonder in the ability to cook perfect, lacey rice crepes from a thin batter, filling them with expertly seasoned minced shrimp and pork.

The menu, like the voluminous, always packed restaurant, is large, but you are assured of up-to-the-minute freshness, because everything is cooked to order in front of you. The best tastes of the meal included fiery grilled shrimp; raw rice paper filled by diners with herbs, slices of tangy star fruit, spicy fish paste and bean sprouts, and dipped in a chili-laced sauce; and ultra-crispy fried spring rolls served with a mountain of bright-flavored herbs.

At the end of our stay, as we boarded a flight from Hanoi back to Paris, our suitcases carefully packed with a bubble-wrapped bottle of the top-quality Phu Quoc nuoc mam (fish sauce), we heard our name over the airport’s loudspeaker. Officials had examined our checked luggage, removing the bottle with a simple judgment: “Fish sauce no fly.”zing tapas in Spain, the turmeric-laced white fish meal in a bowl is an event.

The New York Times

Vietnam says ready to ratify UN corruption charter

HANOI, May 29 (Reuters) - Vietnam will soon ratify the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, one of the country's top graft fighters said on Friday, a milestone in tackling an endemic problem that threatens investment and aid.

"It is on the desk of the Prime Minister already," state Inspector General Tran Van Truyen told reporters, adding that it would soon go to President Nguyen Minh Triet for approval.

The document, which Vietnam signed in December 2003, is binding and according to Ran Liao, senior programme coordinator for East and Southeast Asia with Transparency International, would make it criminal for Vietnamese officials to accept bribes from foreign companies or pay bribes overseas.

"It is a very big deal," Liao said on the sidelines of a half-day anti-corruption dialogue in Hanoi between the government and the international donor community.

But several participants in the dialogue on Friday said legislation was not the problem for Vietnam, which already has a robust anti-corruption law.

"The real challenge, or maybe one should say the real problem, is implementation," Swedish Ambassador Rolf Bergman said.

Corruption is rife in Vietnam, from contractors skimming funds off large-scale infrastructure projects to traffic cops extracting money from motorists. The country ranked 121 out of 160 included in Transparency International's corruption perception index for 2008.

In the first quarter of this year, the number of new legal cases, prosecutions and trials for corruption all fell compared with the same period last year, a report by the Office of the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption said.

It was unclear whether the decline was because there was less corruption or the problem was being monitored less effectively, Bergman said.

Last year, Vietnam's biggest single official development assistance (ODA) donor, Japan, suspended aid over a corruption scandal at a Japanese-funded project. It has since agreed to resume new aid commitments and also established measures with Vietnam to avoid future problems.

The problem, however, still runs deep.

"The issue of corruption is a serious concern for the Asian Development Bank as well as for the government, because if there are problems we will have difficulty to continue assisting Vietnam's development process," Ayumi Konishi, the ADB's Vietnam representative, said.

"For us, it's really the issue of our raison d'etre, so to speak."

Movie Review: Owl and the Sparrow

A Plucky Orphan Playing Cupid

If “Owl and the Sparrow” were any slighter, it wouldn’t exist. Stephane Gauger’s debut feature is a charming little movie, nothing more, but he brings a tonic freshness to his simple, even simple-minded tale of a plucky orphan, Thuy (Pham Thi Han), playing cupid in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

Mr. Gauger was fortunate to discover his unassuming lead; young Ms. Pham brings a humble, winning charisma to the role of a provincial girl who ditches her hardships to eke out a living selling postcards and flowers in the big city. But it’s the filmmaker’s infectious love for the metropolis — bustling and bright, whimsical and idealized — that gives “Owl and the Sparrow” its mellow vibrancy.

The story finds Thuy befriending a kindly flight attendant (Cat Ly) and a melancholy zookeeper (Le The Lu) — did I mention whimsy? — and trying to set them up. This cutesy premise is staged on the fly, guerrilla-indie style, with lots of background street energy jostling into the drama.

Mr. Gauger, who also served as cinematographer, keeps his camera close to the actors, a strategy that minimizes pedestrian gawking at the camera while also enabling an intimacy of look and gesture well handled by his cast.

“Owl and the Sparrow” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested) for the mildest of adult themes.


Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Stephane Gauger; director of photography, Mr. Gauger; edited by Ricardo Javier and Ham Tran; music by Pete Nguyen; produced by Mr. Gauger, Nguyen Van Quan and Doan Nhat Nam; released by Wave Releasing. At the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. In Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes.

WITH: Cat Ly (Lan), Le The Lu (Hai), Pham Thi Han (Thuy), Nguyen Hau (Uncle Minh), Trong Hai (the Captain) and Nguyen Kim Phuong (Phuong).

The New York Times

US doubles funds for Agent Orange cleanup

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The United States government has doubled its funding for dealing with the environmental and health consequences of its wartime use in Vietnam of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, the embassy said Friday.

President Barack Obama recently signed a bill increasing the funding from $3 million to $6 million, embassy officials said. Most of the money is being used in Danang, where U.S. troops used to mix and store Agent Orange at an Air Force base before loading it onto planes.

During the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975, the U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons (75 million liters) of Agent Orange and other herbicides across the country to strip Vietnamese guerrillas of ground cover and kill their crops.

Agent Orange contains dioxin, a highly toxic substance that remains in soil and sediment for years and poses a serious health threat to anyone who touches it.

Vietnam believes as many as 4 million people have suffered serious health problems from the herbicide, such as cancer, spina bifida and other birth defects. The U.S. says the actual number is probably far lower and that further scientific study is needed to understand the health impact. The U.S. and Vietnam only began working together in 2007 to address the consequences of Agent Orange after years of disagreement.

The embassy said in a statement that one third of the $6 million is being used for health programs to serve people in the Danang area. The rest will be used to remove dioxin from the soil and sediment near Danang airport.

The first $3 million in U.S. funds was allocated during the administration of George W. Bush. Some of that money was used to contain dioxin at the Danang site to prevent it getting into the water supply.

Friday's People's Army newspaper quoted Lai Minh Hien, a Vietnamese environmental official in charge of Agent Orange issues, as saying that Vietnam needs additional 1 trillion dong ($57 million) to clean up dioxin in Danang as well as at former U.S. air bases in Bien Hoa and Phu Cat.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Vietnam honours Russian embalmers of Ho Chi Minh

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam has presented awards to Russian scientists who have helped preserve the body of founding president Ho Chi Minh for the past 40 years, the foreign ministry said.

Valery Bykov and Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky each received Vietnam's Independence Order, third class, at a ceremony in Moscow on Wednesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

It said they were honoured for "great services for the past 40 years to the embalmment and preservation of the body of President Ho Chi Minh as well as the construction of mausoleum for him."

The Independence Order is the country's third-highest national honour.

Colonel Nguyen Van Cuong, commander of the Mausoleum Protection Command, said the former Soviet Union, and now Russia, had helped train a team of Vietnamese scientists and bio-medical experts working on the preservation of Ho's body, the foreign ministry said.

White-jacketed guards protect the grey stone mausoleum, surrounded by parkland in central Hanoi's embassy district, where tourists line up to see the body of Vietnam's revolutionary leader who died in September 1969.

In 2007 on the 90th anniversary of Russia's Bolshevik Revolution, Nguyen Thi Minh Hien, deputy secretary of the Vietnam-Russia Friendship Association, said that each year Russian experts "come to Hanoi to maintain (his) embalmed corpse."

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

All five species of marine turtles occurring in Vietnam nearing extinction

Paper protection not enough for Vietnam's marine turtles

May 2009. Marine turtles are vanishing from Viet Nam's waters and illegal trade is largely to blame says a new study by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Large marine turtles are now virtually absent from Viet Nam's waters
An assessment of the marine turtle trade in Viet Nam, launched to mark World Turtle Day found that large marine turtles are now virtually absent from Viet Nam's waters except for Green Turtles around the Con Dao Islands National Park.

Government owned souvenir shop selling turtle products
A government-owned souvenir shop found selling illegal turtle products was a potent symbol of how a national ban on turtle products enacted in 2002 has been undermined by a lack of enforcement. Traders in all Viet Nam's coastal localities reported that catches of local marine turtles, especially Hawksbill Turtles, were becoming rare, and even the few caught were smaller than in previous years.

"Without effective enforcement of the laws, the future for marine turtles in Vietnamese waters looks very bleak." says Tom Osborn, Acting Director of TRAFFIC's Greater Mekong Programme.

Large scale exports
A 2002 TRAFFIC study found that trade in marine turtles had extended into a large-scale wholesale export market and a Ministry of Fisheries report estimated the combined take across the entire Vietnamese coastline at 4,000 marine turtles annually.

Exploitation of marine turtles banned - But continuing
Shortly after these surveys, the Viet Nam Government prohibited the exploitation of marine turtles but the current TRAFFIC survey finds the trade has continued, though at a reduced rate. Government enforcement of illegal marine turtle catching, processing and trade has been uneven at best-evidenced by a great decrease in the number of outlets and marine turtle products on display in some areas and an increase in others, particularly in some newly developing tourist areas.

In Ha Tien and Ho Chi Minh City, traders cited Indonesia and Malaysia as their main sources of turtles and raw scutes (the large scales on the turtle's carapace or shell). All international trade in marine turtles is banned under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Totally unsustainable
Already threatened by habitat degradation, accidental or opportunistic capture by fishermen and the direct take of nesting females and their eggs, whole turtles are also stuffed and, in the case of Hawksbill Turtles, their shells turned into jewellery, fans and handbags, known as bekko.

According to the report, a lack of product more than law enforcement explains the steady downturn in the number of outlets selling marine turtle products.

Green Turtle meat was rarer than in 2002, and its price had increased significantly compared with those recorded during a 2002 TRAFFIC survey. In a Ha Tien market, after allowing for inflation, its price had more than doubled by 2008, pushing it into the luxury meat category. However, in some towns, the study found bekko workshops and stores, including a government-owned souvenir shop, selling hundreds of marine turtle products operating in plain view of authorities.

The study found that businessmen in some areas were aware that it was illegal to capture, process and sell marine turtle products but there had been no action taken to confiscate or destroy the illegal items on sale. The study said that most indicators pointed towards a falling demand, but vendors continued to report good sales for most marine turtle products indicating that the trade still posed a serious threat.

The study recommends that authorities look into finding alternative sources of income for communities dependent on the sale of marine turtle products, expand existing awareness programmes and confiscate and destroy all marine turtle products that remain on sale.

Wildlife Extra

South African Manqoba Ngwenya Off To Vietnam

Former Mamelodi Sundowns midfielder Manqoba Ngwenya is the latest player to move to Asia after he departed on a loan agreement to Vietnam club Hai Phong FC.

The attacking midfielder-cum-striker was loaned to the northern coastal side for three months with a view to regaining match fitness, according to Sundowns club official Sudesh Singh.

Ngwenya missed much of the last PSL (Premier Soccer League) campaign due to injury and only recently returned to training.

The move is also aimed at expanding Sundowns international relations, said Singh, who previously worked for several Vietnamese clubs.

“By the time 'Shakes' comes back to us in mid-August the season here would have started, and he would be match-fit," Singh explained to "It’s a good opportunity for him to get some competitive game time now in the three months that are left in the V League.

“We are also looking at building partnerships across the globe. Our juniors will go to Spain soon, and this is all part of our international relations. Possibly in the future we could send more players and vice versa.

“The experience the players gain of different styles and performing under different conditions also helps their personal growth, and when Shakes comes back he’ll hopefully be an even better player.”

Should he struggle to adapt, Ngwenya will be able to lean on ex-Orlando Pirates midfielder Philani Kubheka for advice. Kubheka is into his fifth consecutive season with Binh Duong FC.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Vietnam adds its voice to denunciations of North Korea test

Hanoi - Vietnam's government Monday joined those of Sweden, Japan and others attending the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Hanoi in denouncing North Korea's second nuclear test. A statement released by Vietnam's Foreign Ministry Monday evening said Hanoi was "deeply concerned" by the North Korean nuclear test. It said the test "only complicates the situation, and does not serve the interests of peace and stability in the region."

Vietnam is one of the few countries that still maintains cordial relations with North Korea, and officials from Pyongyang visit here on a yearly basis.

The Vietnamese statement added to growing support at the ASEM Foreign Ministers' meeting for a strong response to the North Korean test.

Earlier in the day, Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kazuo Kodama said his country would press other ASEM governments to issue a separate statement criticizing the North Korean move.

Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt issued a statement decrying the North Korean efforts to "provoke the international community."

Chinese and South Korean diplomats reportedly met with their North Korean counterparts at a location separate from the conference, but they issued no public comments.

The ASEM meeting had intended to concentrate on ways for Europe and Asia to cooperate in fighting the global financial crisis and engendering economic recovery. But the meeting appeared increasingly derailed by the North Korean move, which clearly occupied much of the diplomats' time on Monday.

Earth Times

World Bank: To Hold Consultative Group Meeting For Vietnam

HANOI -(Dow Jones)- The World Bank said Monday that its Consultative Group for Vietnam will begin an informal mid-year review meeting on June 8 in Buon Ma Thuot City in Dak Lak province.

The two-day meeting will focus on the country's economic growth forecast for this year, the social impact of the economic slowdown and policy response, governance, anti-corruption and climate-change issues, the World Bank said.

Representatives from the Asian Development Bank and government officials from around 50 countries, including the U.S., Japan, Britain and France, are expected to attend the meeting.

At last year's consultative group meeting held in Hanoi in December, donor countries and international development organizations committed over $5 billion to support poverty reduction and Vietnam's development agenda.

Dow Jones Newswires
Copyright (c) 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Vietnam Football: Da Nang Looking Good

SHB Da Nang are looking like strong candidates to clinch their first league title in 17 years.

Da Nang, who are being led by former international striker Le Huynh Duc, are five points clear of second place Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and six points ahead of Military Zone 4 on third.

Out of the 13 games they have played thus far, Da Nang have won eight matches, drawn three times and lost twice.

Their latest was a 1-0 victory they scored over The Cong at their home base of the Chi Lang Stadium.

“I want to give it my all for my team and expect we will take the top spot in the V-League,” said Hunyh Duc, who has maintained strict discipline in his team.“I hope to keep the team in top form.”

Da Nang’s squad include five foreigners led by Jose De Emidio Almeida who was the top scorer last season and where he has continued his form with nine goals thus far this year.

Apart from Almeida, there’s also team-mate Merlo Gaston, Molina Gaston Eduardo, halfbacks Rogerio Machado Pereira and sweeper Rafael Marquez.

1. SHB Da Nang 27 2. HAGL 22 3. Military Zone 4 21

Vietnam's inflation eases to 5.58 percent in May

A decline in transportation and telecommunication costs have eased Vietnam's inflation rate to 5.58 percent in May after a year of skyrocketing prices, the government said.

The country's consumer price index fell to 9.25 percent last month, the General Statistics Office reported in a statement late Friday. The figure is down from 11.25 percent in March and 14.78 percent in February. In 2008, inflation rose to nearly 23 percent, the highest since 1991.

Transportation and telecommunication costs drove inflation down, with prices down 5.13 percent and 7.43 percent respectively from the same period last year.

However, prices still surged this month for food, medicine, beverages, home appliances and garments and textiles, said the government, which issued the data ahead of the month's end based on estimates.

Overall, food costs were 6.5 percent higher compared to last year, while beverage and textile prices both rose nearly 10 percent. Prices for medicine increased by 8 percent, it said.

Last month, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung predicted that the inflation rate would fall to 6 percent in 2009.

The government also lowered its growth rate target to 5 percent from 6.5 percent. The economy expanded 6.2 percent last year, the lowest level in nearly a decade and down from 8.5 percent in 2007, but still one of the world's fastest growth rates.

Business Week

Forged art legacy of Vietnam war

How many of the paintings displayed at the Vietnamese National Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi are originals and how many are copies?

That question has been a topic of hot discussion in Vietnam for quite some time.

It is well known among Vietnamese artists that the museum has been hanging works of art that are in fact copies of very famous Vietnamese paintings as some of the originals were either sold or lost.

The leading art historian and Vietnamese painting expert, Nora Taylor, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, believes that about half of the paintings displayed at the museum are in fact copies.

According to Nguyen Do Bao, the former chairman of the Hanoi Fine Arts Association, the practice began with the best of intentions.

"The practice started during the war (between North and South Vietnam) in the 1960s. Copies were displayed at the museum while the originals were taken away to avoid being damaged during bombing raids," he explained.

At the time it seemed a great idea, but the problem was that nobody seemed to be in control.

Not all of the original paintings were returned to the museum after the war.

Now no-one is certain what has happened to the originals, but it is thought that some were sold by officials and are now in private hands or in galleries around the world.

Artists themselves were asked by the museum to copy their own paintings, and now no-one knows for sure which are original and which are copies.

To make the matter worse, the demand for Vietnamese art means that "young painters who have not made names for themselves, and even undergraduates who need money, make copies to sell", according to Nguyen Do Bao.

Going downhill

One very famous example of a copied painting on display at the museum was "Playing the O An Quan" by Nguyen Phan Chanh.

According to Nora Taylor, "the purported originals of 'Playing the O An Quan' are now in galleries in both Singapore and Japan".

One of the most copied painters is Bui Xuan Phai, who is best known for his paintings of the streets in Hanoi's old quarter.

His son, Bui Thanh Phuong, was upset to hear that one of the faked paintings described as Phai's work was sold for $120,000 (£76,000) at an international auction.

"I would be very glad if the painting was done by him. No paintings by Bui Xuan Phai have reached that price in Vietnam," says Phuong.

"I feel very upset about it, because any painter who knows about Phai's style can see at a glance that it is not his, it is a fake. The painting technique is so poor."

The fake is in lacquer which according to Phai's son was "very unfamiliar" to his father, whose original work can be seen in the National Museum, painted in oil.

Analysts say the practice of copying original works has damaged the reputation of Vietnam's art in the international market.

"People are complaining that the Vietnamese art market, which once used to be so hot, is now going downhill badly," says Nguyen Do Bao.

The biggest loss, according to Nora Taylor, is that prestigious museums around the world do not want to borrow works from the Vietnamese National Museum of Fine Arts.

Now there is growing pressure from the Vietnamese art community for the museum to sort out the genuine works from the copies.

The Vietnamese Culture Ministry has said it would like to set up a panel to clear up the confusion.


IBM Expands Presence in Vietnam

Dan Nystedt, IDG News Service

IBM opened a new technology center and announced two research pacts with universities in Vietnam on Friday, saying it sees promise in the developing nation.

IBM's first Innovation Center in the Vietnam aims to help local developers create new technologies for digital infrastructure projects in banking, telecommunications, energy and government, the company said in a statement. It will offer training workshops, consulting services and assistance to researchers working to bring new technologies to market.

There are incredible opportunities in information in Vietnam as the country embraces technology in its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial nation, IBM said.

Vietnam last week unveiled a US$8 billion government stimulus package, most of which is targeted at infrastructure and development projects.

The new innovation center is located in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

Technology multinationals often build such technology centers in developing countries to encourage local innovators to create software using their developer kits and attract business from governments and local companies.

IBM runs 43 Innovation centers worldwide.

IBM said it will also launch the first Vietnamese language version of IBM developerWorks, a part of its Web site that provides resources to software developers and other IT professionals.

The company signed two agreements to work with Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi on separate technology projects. In Ho Chi Minh City, IBM will work with academics to establish a new university cloud computing center and cloud curriculum, while in Hanoi, IBM will help with the establishment of a new department aimed at improving various segments of the services industry called service science management and engineering.

The initiatives are partly a "response to accelerated IT growth in Vietnam," IBM said. Internet use is already widespread and continues to increase in Vietnam, IBM said, while the country's IT sector has grown at 20 percent annually in recent years.

There were nearly 21.2 million Internet users in Vietnam at the end of April, 2009, according to the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center.

PC World

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Vietnam PM pledges economic reform

TOKYO (AFP) — Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung promised Thursday to push economic reforms and invited more foreign investment as Hanoi tries to limit the global slump's impact on the communist country.

Addressing a private economic forum in Tokyo, Dung also called for further aid and investment from regional powerhouses, particularly China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia, to sustain growth in the rest of Asia.

He urged regional nations to continue coordinating their economic stimulus measures and boost trade and investment to maintain regional strength.

"Deeper regional integration and increased intra-regional linkages at different levels will be the key for Asia to be not only the first continent to overcome this crisis, but also to maintain its position as the world's most important economic locomotive," he said, speaking through a translator.

Although Asian nations, many of which rely on exports to the United States and Europe for growth, have been hit by the global financial crisis, intra-regional trade had softened its impact, he said.

Dung added that Vietnam would continue to restructure its economy, promote infrastructure programmes, push for administrative reforms, and put more emphasis on environmental protection.

In Vietnam, "we believe that the current crisis is... an opportunity to speed up restructuring, improve management and build the foundation for sustainable development," he said.

Vietnam enjoyed 3.1 percent growth in the first quarter and expects five percent growth this year despite the global crisis, he said.

Despite the downturn, he said: "We believe that Vietnam will still be a dynamic economy and a reliable destination for investors."

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Vietnam govt seeks to lower growth target

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam's lawmakers should lower the country's economic growth target to around five percent in the face of an economic slowdown, a senior official said Wednesday.

The government asked the National Assembly to agree to reduce this year's target from the previous goal of 6.5 percent, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung said at the opening of the legislature.

A lower target is required "to create momentum for better and more sustainable development in the following years," he said, urging legislators to make the economy's health their top priority.

The communist country's economy expanded by 6.18 percent last year, its lowest level in almost a decade, and Hanoi said first-quarter growth was 3.1 percent, the worst on record.

But Vietnam was one of the few countries with growth in the first quarter of the year while the world's major economies battled recession.

Hung said the global financial and economic crisis is difficult to forecast and continues to have a negative impact on Vietnam.

"Our difficulties remain numerous", he said, although "there have been signs that we have got out of the most difficult period".

The global downturn has hurt Vietnam's exports, tourist arrivals, and private sector investment, Hung said.

The World Bank has estimated 5.5 percent growth for Vietnam this year and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts 3.5 percent.

"It's still going to be a tough global environment that Vietnam faces," the IMF's country representative, Benedict Bingham, told AFP.

Hung said that because of the downturn, state revenues have fallen while spending demands have risen, particularly for demand stimulation and social security expenditures.

The National Assembly will be asked to approve a maximum eight percent budget over-spending in 2009 to allow for the needed expenditures, Hung said.

In December the government announced a stimulus plan worth about one billion dollars.

During its 28-day sitting -- almost all of which is behind closed doors -- the assembly is expected to revise tax law as part of its effort to stimulate demand, officials said previously.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Cu Chi tunnels one of Vietnam's most popular tourist attractions

VIETNAM | War's reality closes in when you take plunge into underground passageways

BY LORI RACKL Travel Editor

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The sound of gunshots pierce the thick jungle air. I'm on my hands and knees, crawling through the subterranean darkness, sweating in places I didn't know I had sweat glands.

"Keep on coming! Keep on coming!" urges a wiry Vietnamese man in fatigues, waving me forward.

We're in the infamous Cu Chi tunnels, the Viet Cong's network of secret underground passageways that proved to be one ginormous thorn in the side of the American military during the Vietnam War.

The claustrophobic tunnel system -- dug by hand -- at one time measured more than 120 miles, stretching from the Cambodian border to the outskirts of what was then Saigon. A virtual city, the web of tunnels was home to local villagers seeking shelter from bomb raids, plus thousands of Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese Army-backed guerrillas who battled South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. Here, right under the boots of American GIs, is where the Viet Cong ate, slept, hid and launched deadly surprise attacks.

It's also where a select group of American soldiers -- a k a tunnel rats -- engaged in what has to be the world's scariest game of hide and seek. These tunnel rats inched their way through the cramped, dark passageways, trying to find the enemy before the enemy found them. Something to think about this Memorial Day.

For obvious reasons, not a lot of soldiers wanted to set foot in these booby-trap-filled hell holes. But these days, the Cu Chi tunnels are one of Vietnam's most popular tourist attractions. Some 1,000 visitors flock daily to the site, located about 45 miles from downtown Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Only a few short sections of the tunnels are accessible today. They've been expanded a bit to accommodate Westerners' super-sized bodies, but that didn't keep me from struggling to hunch low enough so my back wouldn't scrape against the dirt ceiling.

"Are there snakes in here?" I ask my Vietnamese guide, who seems almost comfortable in these ridiculously confined quarters.

"Not anymore," he answers with a big grin, followed by a few more rounds of "Keep on coming!"

Tourists can make their way through three sections of tunnels ranging from 150 to 650 feet in length. If you're claustrophobic or have a bad back or knees, you're probably better off staying above ground -- at least when it comes to the longer tunnels.

And don't worry: There's plenty to see above ground. A display of horrific spiked contraptions once hidden under trap doors in the jungle floor, craters left by bombs dropped from B-52s, abandoned U.S. tanks you can climb in, mannequins of North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas -- it's like the Disneyland of Death and Destruction.

The whole experience gave me a better sense of what American soldiers went through. It's one thing to stand in front of a war memorial or monument; it's another to get down and dirty in the proverbial trenches, especially with the eerie sound of assault rifles blasting in the distance.

"If you want to shoot gun -- AK-47 or M16 -- you can do it ... $13 or $14 buys 10 bullets," says Nguyen Cao Van, my above-ground tour guide at Cu Chi. "If you don't want to shoot gun," he adds, "you can buy ice cream next door."

Just like Disneyland.

Nguyen's uncle was a colonel for the South Vietnamese army. After the war ended in 1975, his uncle spent seven years in a re-education camp.

"And he was a quick learner," Nguyen says.

Nguyen's wife is from North Vietnam. They tied the knot in 2005. Marriages between people from the North and South have become more common in the last few years, Nguyen says, now that animosity between both halves of the country has finally started to die down.

Before I arrived in Vietnam, I was a little worried that I might face lingering animosity over the American War, as they call it. When you carpet bomb a country and spray its landscape with Agent Orange, people might hold a grudge.

But the only accosting this Yank got was from overeager Vietnamese street vendors desperate to sell their bamboo bowls and other tchotchkes.

Chicago Sun Times
"What happened has happened," Nguyen says, adding that most people in Vietnam are too young to even remember the war. Some 55 million of the country's 87 million residents were born after Saigon's fall in 1975.

"We don't look to the past," he says. "We look to the future."

Concern rises in Vietnam over fiscal deficit

By John Ruwitch and Umesh Desai

HANOI/HONG KONG, May 20 (Reuters) - Vietnam's state treasury has failed to raise much money through bond issues this year, sparking concerns about how Hanoi will fund a budget gap which could widen to a tenth of gross domestic product (GDP).

In an attempt to dig the country out of an economic hole that caused first quarter GDP growth to stumble to its slowest pace in a decade, the state has unveiled a string of economic stimulus measures that the government says will cost around $8 billion.

But the economic slowdown has staunched the flow of its main revenue sources -- proceeds from crude oil exports and taxes -- raising questions about how the shortfall will be met.

'It's a really big question, if not the biggest one for the economy,' said Vu Thanh Tu Anh, director of research at the Fulbright School in Ho Chi Minh City.

Parliament, which opened on Wednesday, will take up the budget deficit when it meets over the next month, and state media have already reported some debate among members over how much of a deficit is acceptible.

The government projects the 2009 budget shortfall at 8 percent of GDP, although the Asian Development Bank estimates it will be closer to 10 percent. The fiscal deficit was at 4.7 percent in 2008 and 5.5 percent in 2007.

Other Southeast Asian countries also face ballooning budget shortfalls due to increased spending and falling revenue, but they still compare significantly lower than Vietnam.

The Philippines and Indonesia, which have tapped the global bond market this year to secure funding for their budgets, have both forecast a shortfalls of 2.5 percent of GDP.

'In our view, some adjustments to the fiscal strategy for 2009 are needed to contain the size of the deficit and safeguard macroeconomic stability,' said Benedict Bingham, the International Monetary Fund's senior resident representative.


So far this year Hanoi has sold about $236 million in dollar- and dong-denominated bonds, a fraction of what the Communist Party's newspaper Nhan Dan said in March was the government's fundraising target of 55.2 trillion dong ($3.11 billion).

On Wednesday, the government asked parliament to approve the sale additional bonds worth 20 trillion dong ($1.13 billion).

In latest bond auction last week, the Treasury failed to sell 2 trillion dong worth of three- and five-year bonds with bidders seeking yields that were 70 and 80 basis points higher than the state was prepared to go.

The series of unsuccessful auctions come as state revenues fell 20 percent to 86.27 trillion dong in the first quarter from a year earlier.

'The tricky part is how long can they sustain this shortfall. Clearly, they are in need of money,' said Khalil Belhimeur, fixed income strategist with Standard Chartered Bank.

'Eventually they will have to raise their stop out rates and that's what will happen in the near to medium term.'

Analysts say the government may be wary about accepting higher yields as it may go against its current easy monetary stance, while banks themselves are reluctant to park funds in bonds as interest rate subsidies from the stimulus package have boosted demand for loans.

But not everybody is convinced that the government faces a budget crisis.

Ratings analyst Kim Eng Tan of Standard & Poor's estimated that about a fifth of the $8 billion stimulus price tag was either already budgeted for or did not require upfront cash.

ADB's country director for Vietnam, Ayumi Konishi, told Reuters the state could also raise an additional $1 billion-$1.5 billion by asking donors to pony up more money, or accelerate disbursements already in the pipeline.

He added that most of the stimulus measures were temporary fixes and that they would not have much impact into the future. ADB expects deficit to narrow to around 5 percent next year.

'We aren't really worried too much,' he told Reuters. 'But of course it's certainly cause for very careful fiscal management.'

($1 = 17,780 dong)

(Editing by Kazunori Takada)

((; +84 4 3825 9623; Reuters Messaging: Keywords: VIETNAM ECONOMY/BUDGET

(If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to


Copyright Thomson Reuters 2009. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Vietnam reports first death from recent cholera outbreak

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam has recorded its first cholera death during an outbreak that has spread to 11 out of 63 provinces and cities across the communist nation, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

The 50-year-old victim from northern Ninh Binh province died on May 12 a few hours after hospitalisation, said a Ministry of Health website report.

The victim was an alcoholic who tested positive for vibrio cholera bacteria. He had diarrhoea and serious dehydration, the ministry said.

It added that a total of 53 patients have been confirmed with cholera since April 20, while more than 500 others had acute diarrhoea.

In March and April last year the country battled cholera outbreaks which hit Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and 16 other provinces. More than 100 people were infected but no fatalities were reported.

Vietnam has a long standing problem with food safety and hygiene.

Authorities in Hanoi have temporarily closed at least a dozen dog slaughterhouses -- where the popular meat is prepared -- over fears their unhygienic conditions may help spread cholera bacteria to people, an official said Monday.

Cholera is an acute intestinal infection transmitted through water or food contaminated with the bacteria vibrio cholera. It causes diarrhoea and dehydration and can lead to kidney failure and death if untreated.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says cholera can be easily avoided through good hygiene, especially by washing hands with soap after using the toilet.

The WHO on Tuesday referred to a 2006 survey of rural sanitation that found only 12 percent of people washed their hands before eating, 15.5 percent washed after urinating, and 16.9 percent cleaned their hands after defecating. The survey was carried out by Vietnam's Department of Preventative Medicine and Environment.

Bacteria from the faeces of a contaminated person are one of the main sources of cholera contamination, the WHO says.

As part of its joining the World Trade Organization two years ago, Vietnam's food safety needs to adapt to international standards, WHO said.

"Coordination of activities to ensure safe practices into the entire food chain is a challenging task for Vietnam's government," it said.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Vietnam plans ban on dancing to karaoke

HO CHI MINH CITY (AFP) — It is early evening and another night of singing has begun in earnest at Style Karaoke, a plush club where high-flyers in Vietnam's commercial capital come to let off steam.

Music blasts from behind the glass doors of the small rooms where groups gather to sing and, as the rhythm takes hold, to dance.

And that, the communist government says, is the problem.

It wants to ban dancing at karaoke bars in what reports have said is a bid to limit drug use.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism posted the proposed ban on its website last month and invited public comment on the move, its latest attempt to clamp down on lawlessness at the popular singing venues.

But at Style and other neon-lit clubs on Su Van Hanh street, the heart of karaoke entertainment in the city formerly known as Saigon, the proposal is dismissed as unworkable.

"I think it's not feasible because these people who go to karaoke want to relieve their stress," says Dang Duy Thanh, the gel-haired manager of Style.

"If we just force them to stay there singing without feeling comfortable, that's not right".

Le Anh Tuyen, head of the culture ministry's legal department, reportedly sees things differently.

Tuyen, who five years ago warned that karaoke was linked to prostitution, was quoted by the VietnamNet news website last month as saying the drug ecstasy would be used in karaoke rooms if dancing was not banned.

"Ecstasy always goes with wine and music," he said. "In my opinion, karaoke is a cultural activity which is always latent with social evils."

Tuyen did not respond to AFP's requests for an interview.

Ecstasy became popular around the world at "rave" dance parties.

Tuyen told VietnamNet the government has statistics about the use of ecstasy at karaoke bars, but the report gave no data.

"I'm sure the real number of cases is higher than in our statistics. Evils will not be prevented without banning dancing," he was quoted as saying. "In our country, karaoke often goes with ecstasy and prostitution."

Karaoke workers on Su Van Hanh street said ecstasy could be found in some clubs -- but not theirs.

"Not all karaokes allow the use of ecstasy," says Thanh, whose club targets middle to higher-class customers and charges about double the room rate of nearby singing clubs like Karaoke K-T.

"This is what we call 'family karaoke'," said Pham Ngoc Khanh, 40, a staffer at K-T.

He said the business, open for several years, has a loyal following of civil servants, students and workers.

"It is not karaoke with what we call 'social evils'."

Clubs in other parts of the city might be more prone to vice, he said.

"It's not right to ban us from dancing in karaoke clubs," said one K-T customer, who arrived with a laptop bag on his shoulder. "Maybe they should ban dance bars where they have prostitutes. If they just make a general ban on dancing in karaokes, it's not reasonable."

The customer declined to give his name.

Khanh, the K-T worker, said karaoke was a popular form of entertainment and a ban on dancing would be "a bit strange" for customers trying to relax.

Karaoke was introduced to Vietnam in the early 1990s. The bars are now found throughout the socially conservative nation, even in remote mountainous villages.

"It's impossible" to ban dancing, says Dang Duc Han, standing in a T-shirt, his arms folded, outside the Karaoke 64 club he manages.

If people feel in the mood they will dance, Han says as customers ride up on their motorcycles, and a child with a toy bicycle brushes against his leg.

In 2006 Vietnam banned alcohol in karaoke bars -- but in practice drinking continues -- while a year earlier it stopped issuing licences for bars, karaoke parlours and dance halls.

Earlier draft legislation even called for karaoke clubs to be shut down, after Tuyen said many served as brothels.

In his interview with VietnamNet, Tuyen admitted inspectors were not able to check karaoke clubs very often and said "people themselves must obey the rules".

Khanh, of Karaoke K-T, said officials have lost touch with reality.

"They have been sitting in a high position for quite some time," he said. "They are not realistic."

Ngo Thi Bao Ngoc, 28, a black-stockinged staffer at the Style club, said that as the number of karaokes proliferates, authorities have a hard time controlling them.

"They get confused and they don't know how to deal with it," she said.

Serious business owners will not want ecstasy on their premises because it damages their reputation while bringing no benefit, and banning dancing would not work, Ngoc said.

"Dancing is understandable. There is no reason to ban it," she said.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Hanoi pol seeks to silence noisy wartime relic


HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Each day at around 4 p.m., Hoang Thi Gai tries to lull her five-month-old grandson to sleep so that she can prepare supper. About 15 minutes later, a loudspeaker starts blaring just outside her Hanoi home.

"He starts screaming and crying and his face turns purple," said Gai, 61. "My dear boy hasn't been able to adapt."

As signs of the Vietnam War fade away in this rapidly modernizing country, one relic is hard to miss: a nationwide network of loudspeakers from which the communist government blasts propaganda at dawn and dusk, 30 minutes at a stretch, whether the public likes it or not.

Now a Web-savvy Hanoi politician wants to silence the head-rattling messages and put them on the Internet, where people can read them at their leisure.

During the Vietnam War, the loudspeakers aired crucial warnings about bombing raids. Today, they broadcast an odd mix of local news, bureaucratic trivia, communist ideology and patriotic songs.

"I must admit, for people who live near the speakers, it's a disaster. It hurts their ears," Pham Van Hien said in an interview.

Hien, 38, is chairman of the People's Committee in Hanoi's Khuong Mai commune, one of more than 500 such elected officials in the capital. And, like any good politician, he has his finger on the popular pulse. His campaign against the loudspeakers has received resounding support in Vietnamese chat rooms, blogs and newspaper Web sites.

"Imagine if you lived near a loudspeaker and someone in your family was terminally ill and had to keep hearing a song like 'There Has Never Been Such A Beautiful Day As Today,'" Hanoi resident Tran Hung wrote to the Tien Phong newspaper's online edition.

"It's cruel," he continued. "If my neighbor made that kind of noise, I would take him to court. Why does the government give itself the right to create noise pollution?"

At the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which oversees the system, officials declined to comment on Hien's effort.

Hien says his idea has received warm reviews from some of his higher-ups in the Communist Party who are eager to embrace technology and update their party's image. But he is also careful not to push his plan too hard lest he annoy party bosses. Instead he is showing how the system can be modernized, hoping that officialdom will get the message — that people should be allowed to "choose to listen rather than be forced to listen."

Thousands of wards across Vietnam make loudspeaker broadcasts, including 577 in Hanoi alone. They tailor the content to their needs, but incorporate lots of information from the Ministry of Culture.

In Hien's ward of 20,000 people, 60 loudspeakers on utility polls broadcast messages from a tiny guard house.

On a recent day, the reader was Tran Anh Tuyet, a 33-year-old state employee. She read from a government pamphlet called "Happy Family," offering information about an upcoming national census. Then came exhortations to people to "enrich their spiritual life" by skipping TV and attending cultural events instead.

"Let's make Hanoi beautiful in the eyes of international friends," she read, urging citizens to create a "polite, cultured environment."

The broadcasts often urge listeners to follow the example of Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnam's communist revolution: "Live virtuously, work hard, and give your heart to the people."

Hien's Web site, The Khuong Mai News, offers everything the loudspeakers deliver, plus extra coverage ranging from floods to a Russian fortuneteller predicting Barack Obama's future.

Hien says more than half the households in his district have access to the Internet at home, and there are also several Internet cafes in the area.

He says the site has received over 800,000 hits since it went online last year. VietNamNet, an online newspaper, wrote a story about the site, and then state-run television did a story.

When the 7 a.m. loudspeaker broadcasts come on, Nguyen Thi Oanh, 23, buries her head under the blankets.

"Who cares about the news they read?" she said. "The sound is so bad, they all sound like they have a stuffy nose."

At 68, Nguyen Thi Phuong is old enough to remember the speakers in wartime.

"Whenever they warned us about air raids, we rushed to the bomb shelters," she said. "Those speakers saved many lives."

But now they're simply annoying, Phuong said. "Putting that information on the Internet is a wonderful idea."

Associated Press Writer Vu Tien Hong contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Talks begin on new deal with Vietnam over adoption laws

Children's minister Barry Andrews is bidding to thrash out a new agreement after Irish couples are left in limbo.

The Irish government will ask Vietnam to re-open international adoptions on an interim basis after coming under intense pressure from prospective adoptive parents.

About 275 Irish couples who have been approved to adopt from Vietnam have been “left in limbo” after a bilateral agreement between the countries lapsed on May 1.

Barry Andrews, the minister for children, is trying to negotiate a new, stricter, agreement with Vietnam which protects children, while placating the hundreds of couples whose plans to adopt have been thrown into disarray.

Politicians from all parties are being lobbied by couples and adoption support groups to put a new deal in place.

A well-placed source said Andrews, who has been criticised for not beginning negotiations sooner, has come under pressure from senior cabinet members to get a deal in place.

The source said a legal issue dating from 2002 meant that there were concerns over the compatibility of Irish and Vietnamese law, which meant that adoptions might not be allowed to be registered under an interim arrangement. The issue has been referred to the attorney-general.

New figures released by the Adoption Board show that 182 out of 397 international adoptions registered in Ireland in 2008 were from Vietnam.

Russia was second, with 117 adoptions, while Ethiopia was third, with 26. Adoptions from Vietnam came under renewed scrutiny when America and Sweden suspended them last year, after discovering discrepancies.

The American embassy in Hanoi had detected the use of fraudulent documents and found that some orphanages offered financial incentives to workers for children made available for international adoption.

“We sent a delegation to Vietnam to inform the government about what to do next,” said Andrews.

“When we got that report, we were satisfied that there were enough distinctions in the way we operated and the way the Americans have been doing it to allow us to negotiate a new bilateral agreement.”

Andrews said Irish parents, through the Helping Hands agency in Vietnam, usually adopted relinquished, rather than abandoned, children. This made it easier for the state to establish whether the mothers had given the correct permission. “We are trying to improve standards all the time,” he said.

The government plans to enact new adoption law later this year that will ratify the Hague Convention on International Adoption. Irish couples will be able to adopt only from countries that have have ratified the convention or have state-to-state agreements with Ireland. Andrews confirmed that negotiations with Russia began several weeks ago.

Times Online

Vietnam Coach Lauds Players After Olympiakos Win

It was another night to remember in Hanoi for local fans...

Vietnam coach Henrique Calisto paid tribute to his players after watching the team defeat Olympiakos 1-0 in a friendly in Hanoi.

Neither team was at full strength for the match and it was an open and exciting game at the My Dinh Stadium.

The match looked to be heading for a goalless draw until Quang Hai intervened with just seven minutes remaining.

The midfielder’s shot took a deflection off a defender to leave substitute goalkeeper Pavel Kovac with no chance.

“The Vietnamese team played very well in this match. I am very pleased with their performance and spirits. We should be proud because we have seen the national team with national pride in their hearts,” Calisto told reporters.

“The team attacked a lot, but it is a pity that there was only one goal,” the Portuguese tactician added.

“I would like to thank everyone because they all deserve to be praised. Each player satisfied my expectations. The team will have more outstanding players and it will be stronger.”

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Vietnam Boss Blasts Preparation Ahead Of Olympiakos Match

The gaffer wants better facilities for the national team...

Vietnam coach Henrique Calisto has is less than happy with the state of the training ground ahead of Thursday’s friendly match against Olympiakos.

The Portuguese tactician has been told to use the practice field at the My Dinh Sport Complex in Hanoi.

“It turns out there are two kingdoms here – one kingdom, the Vietnam Football Federation, wants it, but the My Dinh Stadium kingdom that doesn’t allow it. It’s strange!” Calisto said, according to the Thanh Nien News.

“The team has only six training sessions before the match with Olympiakos, and just two of the sessions are major ones. That is not enough. Why don’t they create good opportunities for us?

“The My Dinh Sports Complex belongs to the nation; the My Dinh Stadium belongs to the nation; the team is the national team. Why don’t they get the best possible conditions?”

Calisto, known for his quick temper, had a whole list of complaints about what was on offer to his players.

He said, “Look at the field. It is very rough and hard for the players to practice their skills because the ball bounces too much. It’s very dangerous to practice on such a field because players can suffer injuries at any time.

“It’s strange some amateur teams can come and rent good fields here to practice on.

“I am not speaking for myself. I am speaking for the good of the national team. I will meet the manager of the My Dinh Stadium to talk about it. Why do they do this to the national team?”

Calisto has told his players to be on their guard against the Greek giants.

He added, “Playing against such a rival, you must run to your half of the field immediately when you lose control of the ball.”

US on track to be top investor in Vietnam

HANOI (AFP) — The United States is on track to become the leading foreign direct investor in communist Vietnam, more than 30 years after the end of their war, the head of a US business delegation said Wednesday.

"I'm willing to wager... that within no more than three years -- and perhaps a good deal less -- the United States will be the largest foreign direct investor in Vietnam," Matthew Daley, president of the US-ASEAN Business Council, told reporters.

"I think the trend lines are clear."

He said that in the first quarter of this year, Vietnam registered about six billion dollars in foreign direct investment, more than half of which, about 3.86 billion dollars, came from American firms.

The Washington-based US-ASEAN Business Council represents more than 100 US companies. Representatives of 15 of them have joined Daley on a three-day mission that began Wednesday to explore opportunities in Vietnam.

Following the war which ended with Vietnam's reunification in 1975, the US did not lift a trade embargo until 1994. Diplomatic relations were normalised a year later.

Daley says the United States is either the sixth or 10th-ranked foreign investor in Vietnam, depending on which figures are used.

"American interest, as evidenced by investment in Vietnam, has been growing dramatically," he said.

The delegation will meet with government leaders and executives from state-owned enterprises during their mission, which is an annual event.

Daley said the presence of 15 US companies during a global economic downturn says much about their perceptions of Vietnam's potential. It also speaks to "the frame of mind of the country and the government regarding participation in these activities by the foreign business community."

Stuart Dean, regional president of GE, said his firm got "great support" from Vietnamese authorities to allow quick construction of his company's first manufacturing investment in Vietnam. The firm broke ground in Haiphong on Tuesday for a plant to build wind turbine components.

"We're excited about doing more here, particularly in the infrastructure area," he told the press conference.

Foreign businesspeople have expressed concern about the state of Vietnam's roads, utilities and other infrastructure, as well as corruption, and the extent of reform at state-owned businesses.

Hank Tomlinson, president of Chevron Vietnam, said at the same briefing that his firm and partners had already invested more than 300 million dollars towards a gas project in southern Vietnam.

The company was in the final stages of negotiations with state-owned PetroVietnam before final approval to begin engineering work, he said.

The project would then require another four billion dollars' worth of investment, 2.5 billion of that from Chevron which would make the US company "the single largest investor in Vietnam," Tomlinson said.

In June last year the US and Vietnam agreed to begin talks for a bilateral investment treaty.

Daley said he believed those negotiations would go forward under the administration of US President Barack Obama, who took office this year.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Remembrance and reconciliation 55 yrs after Dien Bien Phu

HANOI (AFP) — He has a full head of dark hair. His glasses are slightly tinted, and he wears a silver chain around his neck. Retired colonel Pham Xuan Phuong carries his 80 years well.

"I am lucky to be as strong as this," says Phuong, one of a dwindling number of Vietnamese war veterans who on Thursday will mark the 55th anniversary of their victory over French colonisers at Dien Bien Phu.

The 56-day battle in a northwestern Vietnamese valley ended on May 7, 1954 and was the critical event in Vietnam's emergence as an independent nation.

During the battle, artillery boomed across the valley and there was hand-to-hand fighting. Dien Bien Phu and its surrounding hills were filled with the rotting corpses of soldiers from both sides.

Now it is a small city where celebrations are planned at a stadium to mark the victory.

Phuong said he expected other ceremonies in the capital, Hanoi, but many among the small band of survivors lack his energy and would not attend.

"Maybe most of them will stay home and watch TV," says Phuong, whose own life reflects the reversal in French-Vietnamese relations over the past 55 years.

A fluent French speaker, Phuong says he befriended one of his former enemies, General Marcel Bigeard, who returned to the battlefield 15 years ago.

Phuong is also the Vietnamese representative for Le Souvenir Francais, which maintains the graves of French war dead at home and abroad.

In Dien Bien Phu, the graves were in the thousands.

The battle started the collapse of France's colonial empire but cost an estimated 10,000 Vietnamese lives. About 3,000 soldiers of various nationalities who fought under the French flag died or disappeared.

"We won, but the price we paid was also very high," said Phuong, who commanded a company of more than 100 men throughout the fight.

All but 27 of them had died or were wounded by the time the guns suddenly fell silent and "a forest of white flags" went up from the thousands of troops from the French side who were still alive, recalled Phuong.

France's defeat led to Vietnam's division into the communist North and pro-US South, setting the stage for two more decades of war, in which Phuong also fought.

The battle against American forces and their surrogate regime cost at least three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives before it ended on April 30, 1975 when the country was reunified.

"I am still alive. That is unexpected luck," said Phuong, an amiable man whose eyes lock onto those of his interviewer.

Another survivor was the paratroop commander Bigeard, whom Phuong accompanied on the Frenchman's return to Dien Bien Phu.

"He was 80 when he returned. I was 65.... We were joking all the time," says the retired officer, displaying French press articles about their meeting.

"I found a new friend," he said at the government apartment he shares with his wife.

Bigeard left Phuong with a photocopied edition of his memoirs, which the Frenchman inscribed for his "comrade" in arms.

"We lived the same life in Dantesque conditions," Bigeard wrote. "Know how proud I am of you."

The personal links between Phuong and Bigeard reflect relations at a national level, where the war is something long past.

"We are dedicated to build the future," a French official said, describing relations as very good and spanning a variety of sectors.

France is Vietnam's second-biggest bilateral donor.

There are even some military ties between them. A French warship is to make an annual visit to Vietnam later this month -- and Phuong says he has been invited.

There will be no official French participation at the commemoration ceremonies in Dien Bien Phu on Thursday, the official said, but neither was there at the much grander 50th anniversary commemoration.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, the mastermind of Vietnam's victory over the French, is also not expected to attend.

Aged 97 and in frail health, Giap is second only to Vietnamese Communist Party founding father Ho Chi Minh as the most revered figure in Vietnam's recent history.

The state Vietnam News Agency reported that a delegation of foreign military attaches visited Giap on Monday as part of the commemorations. Giap told them the Dien Bien Phu victory had inspired other countries in their fight for freedom, the report said.

Phuong says he prefers the quiet comradeship of his mates who survived the battle, rather than grand celebrations.

For those who did not survive, he says he has made a habit of visiting their families on the anniversary of the victory to deliver a small gift and burn some incense for the dead.

"I miss my comrades," he says.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

Vietnam still struggles to find right staff

By Tim Johnston
Published: May 7 2009 01:54 | Last updated: May 7 2009 01:54

South-east Asia is reeling, as the global economic crisis chokes the exports that have driven the region’s extraordinary growth over the past decade. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared, yet there are some unexpected bright spots.

“There seems to be robust demand at the executive level,” says Lance Richards, a senior director at Kelly Outsourcing and Consulting, part of Kelly Services of the US. “What you are seeing is that unemployment is discriminatory to the unskilled and uneducated.”

He says that, across the region, areas such as finance, engineering, healthcare and human resources are still providing opportunities for people with the right qualifications.

He also notes that although employer demand has inevitably been hit by the slowdown, supplies of the right sort of employees remain tight.

“We don’t have a shortage of people, we have a shortage of talent,” says Mr Richards.

That is a particular problem in countries such as Vietnam.

At the beginning of last year, companies were struggling to find high-quality middle and upper management: engineers, human resources professionals, and finance directors were all in revolving-door jobs, their salaries sucked ever higher by the insatiable demands of both booming domestic companies and the hundreds of international investors moving to Vietnam to take advantage of its low-cost production base.

Even if the economy has since come back to earth with a bump, the veterans of these battles for talent are reluctant to let go of good employees.

And their reluctance has been fuelled by the Vietnamese government, which has responded to the crisis by trying to insulate industry with subsidised loans, tax holidays and trade finance: all in the hope that they will hold on to as much labour as they can until global demand starts to pick up.

But for companies working in developing and middle income countries in south-east Asia, the problem of talent shortage is likely to linger long after the current crisis is little more than a bitter memory.

“We don’t convert people into talent,” as Mr Richards bluntly sums it up. He says the core of the problem is that many universities in the region are providing the wrong sort of education.

“There are some world-class schools in the region, but many turn out graduates qualified in rote learning,” he says. “Their employability is abysmal.”

A survey conducted last year by the World Bank found that Vietnam should be turning out 10,000 skilled information technology graduates a year, but employers said that at least 60 per cent of new employees had to be retrained to bring them up to standard.

Intel, the computer chip manufacturer, needs to recruit some 3,000 employees for its new plant in Vietnam, but when it first went out into the market last year, of 1,965 students tested, only 320 passed the exam and only 90 – or 4.6 per cent – got more than 60 per cent.

Kieran Brennan, director of work and careers at the RMIT International University – part of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology – in Ho Chi Minh City, says that the survey is an extreme example, but Intel is not alone.

“Companies can find as many technical people as they want, but problem-solving and customer-facing staff can be hard to find,” he says.

Despite the slowdown, RMIT alumni are finding jobs.

“Our students are still relatively confident that there is a market for them,” says Mr Brennan.

One of RMIT’s clients, the accountancy firm KPMG, says that the situation is improving.

“The quality of graduates has improved considerably: not only in what they are learning at university, but in their mindset and their understanding of the outside world,” says Warrick Cleine, the managing partner of KPMG Vietnam.

He says that his firm recruited 300 graduates from 2,000 applicants last year, most of whom would have qualified. He says the company recently returned to the market to recruit 200 graduates for this year.

Staff turnover may have fallen, says Mr Cleine, but there is still a structural shortage of accountants in Vietnam.

When it comes to education, the country is by no means alone in its predicament.

The McKinsey Quarterly published a survey last year – before the global crisis began in earnest – which indicated that 44 per cent of companies headquartered in China thought that the lack of managerial talent was the biggest barrier to expansion outside the country.

This was significantly more than the 25 per cent that cited a lack of access to capital as their biggest problem.

The Vietnamese government sees education as the key to future prosperity and is pouring huge resources into schools and universities.

However, Mr Richards says that this and a promotion of critical thinking skills are unlikely to provide the solution: corporate culture also needs to change.

“If your business culture doesn’t demand leaders because the decision-making process is concentrated around one or two people, supply drops to match demand,” he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009