Visa on arrival: an unpleasant welcome 


I returned to Vietnam yesterday (March 19) and utilized again the visa-on-arrival (V-O-A) service.

The situation at the V-O-A counter at Tan Son Nhat International Airport was quite chaotic and disorganized, as it has been from the initiation of the program. This wasn’t too much of a concern a year ago as the service was not heavily utilized.

Now there are many, many visitors expecting to get their visa on arrival. Unfortunately the wait, once one gets to the front of the initial line to drop off your passport, for me yesterday, was about 30 minutes.

As typically observed in these sort of situations in Vietnam, there were some locals who seemed to have the inside line who were getting the visas for others, who, I imagine, were "taken care of" more quickly.

Even picking up your passport, with your new visa, is problematic as the woman calling out the names had apparently no idea how to pronounce the names on the passports. During the time I was there I facilitated a few folks getting their passports back because nobody could decipher what name she was attempting to say.

What the V-O-A providers might consider doing is, as each passport is tendered, a number printed on a laminated card attached to a lanyard be given to the visitor, and when the passport is returned and the fee paid, the lanyard is used again. I suggest having the number on a lanyard because any visitors already have their hands full when they arrive. This would be a way to insure that the V-O-A process is "first come, first served".

It’s horrible to subject international visitors to an abysmal first experience on their arrival in Vietnam. Now that the streets from the airport to downtown have finally been widened and the sewer work under the streets is finished, what was possibly the worst part of tourists’ visits before, the trip from the airport to downtown is a relative breeze. Similar focus must be brought to bear on this unnecessary, frustrating V-O-A bottleneck.

Clifton Buck-Kauffman

(Ho Chi Minh City)

Scrap dam, avoid unmitigated disaster 


Mekong Delta fertility at risk, experts warn, as they reiterate calls to cancel plans to build the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

A farmer feeds his cows on a dry riverbank in the Mekong Delta. Environmentalists have called for the cancellation of the first dam planned on the lower reaches of the Mekong River, saying it would irreparably damage its biodiversity and affect millions of people who depend on it for their livelihood.

With less than a week to go before the Mekong River Commission’s Joint Committee makes a decision on a major hydropower dam on the river, environmentalists highlighted its infeasibility and called for its cancellation.

If built, the dam could perpetrate an ecological catastrophe, they said.

“Disruptions to fish migration and food supplies for millions in the Mekong basin are likely if the first mainstream dam on the lower Mekong is allowed to go ahead,” the WWF, one of the world’s largest independent conservation organizations, said in a statement released Thursday (April 14).

Expert analysis showed that the feasibility study and environmental impact assessment prepared for the Xayaburi hydropower dam in Laos failed to address key environmental risks, the WWF said.

The US$3.5 billion dam, to be built in northern Laos, would generate power mostly for sale to Thailand.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which serves as an international advisory body set up in 1995 by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, will meet in Vientiane from April 19 to 22 to reach a conclusion to the regional decision-making process, in which the four member governments are expected to make a decision over whether or not to build the proposed Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River.

Environmentalists say the dam would disrupt fish migrations, block nutrients downstream and even damage Vietnam’s rice basket by slowing the river’s flow, which sets off severe seawater intrusions into the Mekong Delta.

The plan for the first dam on the downstream region of the Mekong River that flows through the lowlands of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam has been controversial from the outset, with experts saying it could exacerbate impacts already caused by upstream dams built by China.

Environmental advocates have warned that the Xayaburi dam could open the way for 10 more dams being considered along the lower Mekong.

Through public consultation meetings organized by the MRC in January and February, government officials, academics and civil society in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have consistently expressed concern over the dam’s impacts and the need for further studies to be done, she added.

In a WWF commissioned review – coordinated by the WorldFish Center with participation from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)  – researchers found that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the proposed Xayaburi dam in Laos was “woefully inadequate and fell well below international standards” for such studies.

The review found that the EIA ignored published studies and relied heavily on “a very light field sampling” that captured less than a third of the biodiversity in the impact area.

Just five migratory species from a list compiled in 1994 were mentioned and just three of more than 28 studies of Mekong fish migration were referenced. In contrast, current studies show that 229 fish species exploit habitats upstream of the dam site for spawning or dry season refuges, with 70 classified as migratory, according to the review.

According to the WWF, among the species threatened is the Mekong’s famed giant catfish with only known spawning areas in the upper Mekong between Chiang Rai Province (Thailand) and Bokeo (Laos).

“How can you devise mitigation measures for fish passage without addressing the biology and the needs of target species, which in this case range from a small Siamese Mud Carp or Pa Soi to a 3-meter long giant catfish,” asked Jian-hua Meng, WWF International Sustainable Hydropower Specialist, in the Thursday statement.

“WWF supports a 10-year delay in the approval of lower Mekong mainstream dams, including the Xayaburi hydropower dam, to ensure a comprehensive understanding of all the impacts of their construction and operation,” it said.

The Boys are in town 

(L to R) A. J. McLean, Nick Carter, and Howie Dorough – three members of US boysband Backstreet Boys at a press conference in Ho Chi Minh City Wednesday

Nick Carter and Howie Dorough, two members of the world-famous American band Backstreet Boys, arrived in HCMC Monday for the short Vietnam leg of their This Is Us world tour.

The band is doing two shows in Vietnam: at Military Zone 7 Stadium in HCMC on Thursday and My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi on Saturday.

The Backstreet Boys are the biggest selling boy band of all time and have been nominated for seven Grammy Awards in their long career together.

Many fans turned up at HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat Airport to give the ‘boys’ a warm welcome when they arrived after 36 to 47 hours in the air.

“I’ve been looking forward to seeing the Backstreet Boys for months. And I just must go to Hanoi to see them,” exclaimed university student Thanh Xuan.

At Wednesday’s morning press conference at the Park Hyatt Hotel, which only lasted for 25 minutes, including the photo op, Thanh Nien Weekly asked the band what they expected out of their visit to Vietnam.

“We expect to give back what we get. We’ve had a great time for 18 years and gained lots of experience. We want to give back the energy and hope they (the audience) have a great time and enjoy our music,” Nick Carter replied.

Ahead of their Thursday show, the Backstreet Boys traveled around HCMC and visited the war museum, Ben Thanh Market and the Cu Chi Tunnels.

“This trip has definitely opened our eyes and taught us things we didn’t know. We had a lot of fun getting out on our first day here. We visited the countryside and spent six hours relaxing by small ponds amid the rice fields,” Carter said.

Also at the press conference, the band announced that they would be touring with New Kids On The Block.

“They’ve done well in the past. It’s a joint venture for us. We’re trying to do something different, create something special. It is the beginning of many new things,” Carter said.

Their world tour, which began in Europe in 2009, is said to be renewing and refreshing one of the most famous boy bands in the world.

A.J McLean said they had been thinking about the band’s direction for a month and decided to go back to what they were best at: pop music. He also said they were thinking of getting a new producer.

This Is Us – Vietnam


An exclusive source has informed Thanh Nien that playgirl Paris Hilton could attend the VIP party held to welcome the Backstreet Boys’ show in Hanoi. The party could take place at the Hilton Hanoi Opera, a property that belongs to the corporation founded by Hilton’s grandfather. Paris is also known as one of the Backstreet Boys’s ex-girlfriend.

Do Hoai Nam, president of Water Buffalo Productions, the promoter who has brought the Backstreet Boys to Vietnam, spoke with Thanh Nien Weekly about signing up the band.

“It took us a year of talks and emails back and forth. Finally, relying on the advice of international lawyers, we signed a very long and detailed contract. The Backstreet Boys made a thousand enquiries about things like the lighting and sound systems, stage design and their accommodation here,” Nam said.

“From the outset we didn’t anticipate making any profit from these concerts. Few international acts come to Vietnam, unlike in nearby countries like Thailand. We want to invite more international bands to Vietnam so that local fans can experience international music and culture. However we don’t hand out free tickets as it would kill our business,” he said.

“Some Vietnamese people spend two to five million dong a week at the discotheques,” he added.

He also told Thanh Nien Weekly about the habits and preferences of the Backstreet Boys. “A.J loves fast food, and Howie D really likes Vietnamese food, especially Bong thien ly xao toi (a vegetable flower fried with garlic) while Nick Carter can spend a whole day with a Play-station. Howie also feasts on parties. On their first day in Vietnam, Howie and his wife escaped from their bodyguards’ phone calls and went out all day,” Nam said.

In their concerts here, the Backstreet Boys will be using the latest Meyer sound system like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears.

Ahead of the first concert, the stadium was already teeming with hundreds of bodyguards.    

Nguyen Van Nam of the International Security and Protection Company, which is looking after the Backstreet Boys while they are in Vietnam, said that the huge number of fans could create problems.

“The guys have lots of local fans. “We have to arrange for 20 to 30 bodyguards to be present at every stage of the tour. Their four personal bodyguards are coordinating with us well. There’ll be around 300 security personnel for the concerts in HCMC and Hanoi, checking the fans and protecting the band members,” Nguyen Van Nam said.

These will be the first shows in Vietnam to use a special detector to check the bar-coded tickets and spot any fakes, he said.

Ticket prices range from 500,000 to two million dong. To book tickets and have them delivered, call 1900 6604 in Hanoi or 1900 6608 in HCMC.

Stretching an hour into a year 

Hanoi youth gathered at last year’s Earth Hour celebration. Millions of people are expected to switch off lights for an hour from 8:30 p.m. on March 26 to raise awareness about energy conservation during Earth Hour 2011.

La Thuy Diem Hang is sure that this year’s Earth Hour will witness record participation in Vietnam.

This week, volunteers and organizers have been busily arranging activities and preparing communities all over the country for the big event.

This Saturday, environmentally-conscious people and businesses all over the world will shut off their  electric lights from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The main event in Vietnam is set to take place in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

“In 2010, the campaign was held in Ho Chi Minh City mainly by WWF Vietnam,” said the 23-year-old graduate from the HCMC University of Science. “This year, many local environmental clubs and organizations have gotten involved.”

Hang said that many young first-time participants in last year’s event in HCMC have joined this year’s campaign to mobilize others. “We have distributed leaflets and encouraged locals from seven neighborhoods in HCMC to join the campaign,” she told Thanh Nien Weekly. “Also, 60 cafés in the city have committed to turning off their lights during the event.”

As Vietnam faces down its growing energy needs, energy efficiency policies and programs are being looked to as the cheapest and most immediate solution to the nation’s power shortcomings.

Making strides

Manufacturing flourished as the nation’s economy soared, driving up the country’s power demands – and not always in the most efficient way.

In the past ten years, international development agencies have implemented a host of small scale programs to help Vietnam make its grid more efficient.

In 2003, for example, researchers discovered that Vietnam consumed 39,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) for every dollar of its gross domestic product (GDP). That same year, Japan used about 5,000 BTUs per dollar of GDP.

From 2004-2009 Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) implemented a program to promote the installation of energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in houses and buildings across Vietnam. 

“The program had a major impact, transforming the lighting market in Vietnam, and reducing peak demand by 300 MW,” said Peter du Pont, who worked as a consultant to EVN and the World Bank during the implementation of the program. “It also reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, by more than three million tons." 

At the moment, the Asian Development Bank is looking to fund the streamlining of seven heavy manufacturing sites, according to Felix Gooneratne, Asia Director, International Institute for Energy Conservation (IIEC).

“Investment grade audits conducted at seven sites (five cement and two steel) have identified significant potential for generating electricity from process waste heat that would supplement on-site electricity demand,” said Gooneratne. “Investment plans are currently being finalized.”

At the same time, the United Nations Development Program has targeted small and medium-sized manufacturers for efficiency projects.

Future energy needs remain a major issue in the country.

Last month, the government raised the costs of electricity roughly fifteen percent. Officials at the Ministry of Industry and Trade said they hoped that higher power prices would make the construction of large power projects more attractive to foreign investors.

In the meantime, Vietnam is looking to develop its own grassroots campaign to curb energy usage.

Beyond the hour

Earth Hour was initiated by the WWF – a non-governmental environmental advocate – to increase climate change awareness and induce mitigating responses.

The first event was held in Sydney in 2007 and has quickly spread around the globe.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people across the world, in 4,616 cities and 128 countries and territories, turned off their lights during the last weekend in March.

Tran Minh Hien, Vietnam Country Director of the WWF Greater Mekong Program, said that they plan to launch an extensive campaign that will last the whole year.

“The main event night is just a beginning,” she said. “Several activities have been launched for individuals, companies and organizations nationwide.”

WWF Vietnam has held talks with students from 16 universities and schools about climate change and Earth Hour.

Hien said that the first success of the campaign is that it has attracted more support from governmental agencies, organization and individuals.

In 2010, 20 cities and provinces as well as more than 300 companies and organizations participated in the event.

“This year, up to 30 cities and provinces and more than 4,800 companies and organizations have committed to participating,” Hien said.

Facing down energy demands

This January, the Law on Economical and Effective Use of Energy took effect. The law resolution sought to establish limits on the use of energy in homes and businesses-though actual regulations have yet to be established.

In the meantime, Vietnam is facing some very immediate problems in its energy needs.

According to the HCMC Energy Conservation Center (ECC) the city will face a shortfall of two million kWh of electricity every day during the remainder of the dry season—which ends in May.

Center Director Huynh Kim Tuoc said that the energy shortfall would not be a problem if local consumers became more conscious about their energy usage.

“If 1.8 million households in HCMC turned off their air conditioners for an extra 30 minutes, the city would save 900,000 kWh of electricity a day,” he told Tuoi Tre newspaper in an interview last week. “More efficient use of electricity in factories and offices would also solve the energy shortage.”

But local campaigners and public awareness campaigns are already taking hold.

Last March, the ECC and the HCMC Women’s Association launched a campaign to make 100,000 households energy efficient. As a result, many households have reduced their electricity bills between 10-50 percent during the previous year.

”We built a network of some 1,200 propagandists in all the city’s 24 districts,” Tuoc said. “Each was assigned to be in charge of around 100 families to offer energy saving consultations and encourage them to use electricity efficiently.”

Tuoc added that the ultimate goal is to change the community’s awareness in purchasing and using electricity.

“The result was great,” he said. “The participants later encouraged others to participate in the program.”

Japan logs first trade deficit in almost two years 

A freight ship docks alongside a container wharf in Tokyo port.

Japan posted its first trade deficit in almost two years last month, officials said Wednesday, amid rising commodity prices and weak demand for its exports ahead of China’s Lunar New Year holiday.

The finance ministry said exports, a key driver of Japan’s economy, rose just 1.4 percent in January — the 14th consecutive month of growth, but a well off the 13 percent on-year surge in December.

That came as instability in the Middle East and North Africa pushed the price of oil and other commodities up amid concerns supplies could be cut, sending resource-poor Japan’s import bill up 12.4 percent.

And analysts warned that with commodity prices looking set rise further Japan could see its cost of imports continue to grow.

The trade deficit for export-dependent Japan, which is struggling to revive its sagging economy, stood at 471.42 billion yen ($5.7 billion), compared with forecasts for a 49.6 billion yen surplus.

“Exports to China grew by only one percent in January, compared with 20.1 percent in December,” said a finance ministry official.

“Overall exports, mainly to China and other parts of Asia where people celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday, slowed because of shipping adjustments,” he said of the lead-up to the holiday in early February.

The economy, hit hard by the global downturn, is however broadly gathering steam as wider overseas demand remains strong, and officials predict the trade balance will swing back to black soon.

“The global economy has been recovering since late last year while a relatively lower yen is also helping Japanese exporters,” said Hiroshi Watanabe, economist at Daiwa Institute of Research.

Japan’s economy has been buffeted in recent months by a strong yen, which made exports more expensive and eroded companies’ repatriated profits.

However, it has eased off its 15-year high of 80.21 against the dollar struck in November and is currently sitting around the high 82 yen mark.

Japan reported last month its trade surplus more than doubled in 2010 and exports to key trade partner China had hit a record high, as robust overseas demand indicated gathering momentum for its recovery.

December’s 13 percent growth in exports, the second consecutive monthly acceleration, also showed the economy, highly reliant on auto, electronics and machinery exports, was starting to bounce back.

But Watanabe said the trade balance could be squeezed further in the coming months because of higher commodity prices, especially crude from the Middle East where Japan sources 90 percent of its oil.

“There are three main factors behind the surging commodity prices,” he said. “Emerging economies are expanding further. Speculative capital is also hiking prices due to monetary easing policies of the world’s major economies.

“Finally, the instability in the Middle East is pushing prices of oil and other resources higher.”

Prime Minister Naoto Kan Tuesday summoned his key ministers for an emergency meeting as oil soared to two-year highs amid escalating violence in Libya and instability elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East.

Wednesday’s trade data showed Japan’s January imports at 5.44 trillion yen as the country was forced to pay more for iron ore and petroleum products as well as oil.

Exports were 4.97 trillion yen, modestly higher than a year earlier, thanks partly to demand for steel and construction machinery.

The Bank of Japan this week upgraded its view of the economy for the first time in nine months on accelerating global growth but kept its easy monetary policy in place due to persistent deflation.

Japan’s real gross domestic product slipped an annualised 1.1 percent in the December quarter as expiring auto subsidies hit car sales, a new tobacco tax sapped cigarette demand and a strong yen hurt exports.

But the contraction was smaller than expected, and there are hopes the economy will pick up this quarter on improving demand from key partners such as China, which overtook Japan in 2010 as the world’s second economy.

GM Liem scores first Aeroflot Open double 

GM Le Quang Liem (R) plays Rauf Mamedov of Azerbaijan in his final match of the Aeroflot Open in Moscow on Wednesday, February 16. Liem became the first contestant to win the title twice, having won the 2010 edition as well.

Grandmaster Le Quang Liem, Vietnam’s best chess player, retained his Aeroflot Open title Wednesday drawing his final match with Azerbaijani Rauf Mamedov in Moscow.

Liem, ranked 79th with an elo of 2664, staved off a determined attack by the 86th ranked Mamedov (elo 2660) who was playing with white pieces.

With some very smart moves Liem, the only Vietnamese to enter the world top 100, had more pieces on the board than Mamedov as the game came to an end, forcing the latter to play more defensively and settle for a draw.

The draw gave Liem 6.5 points from nine games. He was able to retain the championship because Bulgarian Ivan Cheparinov, who also had 6 points before his final match, lost to 33rd-ranked Russian Nikita Vitiugov (elo 2709).

Two other competitors immediately behind Liem and Ivan, Russian Denis Khismatullin and Israeli Maxim Rodshtein, who had 5.5 points each before the final game, both scored draws, allowing the Vietnamese defending champion to retain the title.

Liem won a cash prize of US$20,000 and became the first contestant to win two Aeroflot Open titles after the tournament began in 2002. He also won a berth at the 2011 Super Grandmaster tournament in Dortmund, Germany in July.

Forcing hate to surrender 


American connects with Vietnamese anti-war songs and reconnects two icons

Molly Hartman O’Connell performs Vietnam’s red songs in Con duong am nhac (Musical road) program on Ho Chi Minh City Television

“Mother of Vietnam, do you know your children have begun the fight?”

This was the only part of the song, the chorus, that Molly Hartman O’Connell understood, because, as she recalls, her Vietnamese was “fumbling” at best when she heard it for the first time.

But the first Vietnam War song that the Brooklyn (New York) native and former anthropology student from Columbia University heard, Tieng hat nhung dem khong ngu (Songs for sleepless nights), composed by well-known musician Pham Tuyen in 1970, left a lasting impression.

It sparked in her a desire know who the composer was and understand the role that this music played.

True to the anthropologist tradition of participatory observation, Molly decided to learn how to sing Vietnamese war songs herself and was instructed by local vocal instructor Cao Nguyet Hao, a retired member of the Hanoi National Dance and Song Ensemble.

However, “I am a student. I am not a singer,” she told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Armed with a Fulbright scholarship, Molly left her hometown in 2003 to study current women’s issues as well as the Vietnamese language in Vietnam as part of a study exchange program between the two countries.

Molly’s (Mai Ly in Vietnamese) unexpected love affair with Vietnamese revolutionary songs began while she was making friends and interviewing local women, specifically those who were former political prisoners prior to 1975.

With her parents being social workers and community activists, and her brother very aware of antiwar music movements, it was easy for Mai Ly to get hooked onto war music in Vietnam.

“I know a lot of songs from my parents who are in that generation with Bob Dylan, the Woodstock Concert in 1969. They are very interested and feel very connected whenever we talk about Vietnam, though they did not come here during that time.”

“They really lived in that period and know the whole background behind it, including Con Dao Island, famous for its prison built by the French colonial government, because at that time, everything came out in magazines and other media channels.”

Molly, who now works for a private company in HCMC, said: “Unlike them, when I hear a certain song or am told about that period, I have to imagine it. Yet, the interesting thing is that like most people in their generation, my parents never thought of or looked for information about modern Vietnam, after the war. They just know about Vietnam in the old days.

“So when I informed them that I was going to Vietnam to study, they were not afraid at all, they were excited. They said, ‘Ok, go to Vietnam and find out about the place.’”

Her journey to Vietnam and into the nation’s patriotic music has gone deeper than she might have intended.

Hao has not only taught Molly how to sing and pronounce the lyrics, but also explained the meaning and background of each song, and even introduced her American student to several Vietnam War era musicians, including Pham Tuyen, Phan Huynh Dieu, Luu Nhat Vu and Truong Tuyet Mai.

The most interesting part of Molly’s story is not about how she became famous and was invited to perform on local television channels like HTV; and it is not even that she won awards in singing contests.

It is what transpired after she first met 81-year-old composer Pham Tuyen, creator of red music classics like Nhu co Bac Ho trong ngay vui dai thang (As if there were Uncle Ho on the great victorious, happy day) and Gay dan len hoi nguoi ban My (Keep on strumming, my American friends), dedicated to Pete Seeger in 1969.

(L-R) Musician Pham Tuyen, Molly’s parents, Molly

Tuyen told her during that 2007 meeting at his house in Hanoi that the song was composed in response to the performance of “Ballad of Ho Chi Minh” by Pete Seeger, 92, an American folk singer and an iconic figure in the mid-twentieth century American folk music revival. He was also in the forefront of antiwar music, leading a march of one million people at Washington DC in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War.

Pete Seeger heard about Tuyen’s song when it was broadcast on Cuban La Habana Radio Station several months later. Touched by the song, Pete found a way to go to Hanoi and meet Pham Tuyen in the early 1970s. They had lost touch with each other until Molly visited him.

“Mai Ly is my special fan and singer, not only because she is an American who can sing Vietnamese songs, but also because of her enthusiasm and special love and appreciation for Vietnam’s traditional and revolutionary music, which is being ignored by many young local people,” said Tuyen.

Molly concurred. “A lot of young Vietnamese people like American songs, and most of them like pop music, while Americans would love to learn more about Vietnamese traditional music.

“Pop music doesn’t have real meaning, it’s just for fun. When a Vietnamese singer sings an English song, it sounds great, but it doesn’t have cultural meaning. I think that traditional music should be exchanged between the two countries, for not many people perform it in my country.”

Tuyen said he has more reasons to be grateful to Molly than her interest in Vietnamese revolutionary music.

“More than that, I’m so thankful to Molly for being a bridge for me to reconnect with Pete Seeger.”

On February 15, Tuyen received a letter containing the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s 200 anti war songs, as well as CD recordings from the American musician and singer.

After their conversation about the background for Gay dan len hoi nguoi ban My, Molly promised to help the Vietnamese musician contact Pete Seeger in the US, for her parents know a lot of artists of that generation.

“It’s amazing that Pete, who is so famous and receives a lot of mail everyday, wrote us back after we found how to contact him,” said Molly, who sent Pete her translation of four of Pham Tuyen’s songs.

With Bob Dylan set to visit Vietnam for a tribute to Trinh Cong Son, the solidarity between artists of the Vietnam War generation is being strengthened.

In his latest letter to Tuyen, the 92-year-old Pete Seeger writes: “I have lost my voice already, yet I am still working. As musicians, our art should overcome language barriers and differences in culture or politics to work for peace.”