Thai Nguyen hosts Vietnam’s first international tea fest 


Vietnam, the world’s fifth leading tea exporter, will hold the nation’s first International Tea Festival in the northern province of Thai Nguyen from November 11 to 15, according to the culture and tourism ministry.

The event will feature various cultural activities including a tea seminar, a beauty contest for contestants from tea planting areas across the country, a street festival, a tea culture festival, and an international trade and tourism expo, the ministry said at a press conference last week in Hanoi.

Participating in the festival, to be expected to receive 400,000 visitors, will be enterprises and importers from 10 countries and territories, including China, India, Russia, Japan, and the US, 25 local companies and 50 traditional handicraft villages from 30 provinces and cities in Vietnam.

Vietnam has a strong tea culture dating back over 3,000 years, of which green tea is the best and the most popular. In Vietnam, serving and drinking of tea has great social role in the local culture. It is a ritual preliminary to conducting business, to scholarly meditation, to getting acquainted, even to romance.

Vietnamese tea has so far been sold to 110 nations and territories worldwide.

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.

Don’t count your tourists before they’ve arrived 

Tourists check a map at a street in Hanoi.

Vietnam tourism officials may be patting themselves on the back a bit too soon.

The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) recently announced that Vietnam welcomed five million international arrivals.

The figure has somehow gone on to be reported as the number of international tourists who visited Vietnam in 2009 as officials laud a record “tourism” increase of 34.8 percent year-on-year.

However “international tourists” and “international arrivals” are by no means the same.

The former are foreigners who visit a country purely to travel and relax, while the latter are those who travel to visit family, and conduct business.

In fact, in its detailed report, the administration said around 3.1 million foreigners visited Vietnam for travel.

One million came on business; nearly 600,000 came to visit family, while the rest came for other purposes.

Businesspeople don’t spend much during their brief visits. Those who come to visit family rarely patronize tourism services because they stay with their loved ones.

One tourism expert said, on condition of anonymity, that no other country would make such an obscure declaration about tourism arrivals.

Businesses use those figures to make plans for next year and such equivocation can ultimately hurt industry development.

Tran Thuy Linh, another industry expert, argued that related agencies should separate tourists from other visitors to create an honest assessment of Vietnam’s capacity to serve foreign tourists.

Vietnam air travel set to grow 10.2 pct annually: industry group 


The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said Vietnam will see some of the world’s most significant industry growth in the coming years.

The association expects Vietnam’s airline industry will grow 10.2 percent annually by 2014 in terms of international passengers, making it the third fastest growing market after China and the United Arab Emirates.

Vietnam will also rank second in terms of growth in domestic passengers, after China, IATA said in a statement Monday.

The association expects the global airline industry to see 3.3 billion passengers by 2014, up 800 million from 2009. Asia will account for 45 percent of the increase, the association said.

“Despite some regional differences, the forecast indicates that the world will continue to become more mobile. This creates enormous opportunities but also presents some challenges,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “To realize the economic growth potential that this will bring, we will need even more efficient air traffic management, airport facilities and security programs.”

In terms of air cargo, IATA expects international freight volumes to surge to 38 million tons in 2014, compared to 26 million tons in 2009.

The top three fastest growing international freight markets over the period will be Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, the association expects.

Vietnam denies participation in joint military drills 


A senior military official squashes rumors that Vietnam participated in a US-Thai military exercise

Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Chi Vinh says Vietnam has no intention of joining the Cobra Gold joint military exercise in Thailand. Meanwhile, he said that Vietnam will reinforce defense cooperation and is preparing to join the United Nations Peacekeeping Commission.

Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh has rejected claims about Vietnam’s participation in the Cobra Gold 2011 military drill in Thailand (from February 7-18). Vinh has said that Vietnam doesn’t have any intention of joining another military exercise.

“This year, Vietnam didn’t send participants to the [Cobra Gold] military exercise,” Defense Ministry-owned Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army) newspaper quoted Lieutenant General Vinh as saying on Wednesday (February 16). “It is wrong to say Vietnam sent its people to prepare battle strategies [in the exercise],” he was quoted as saying. “I wonder where it came from. This incorrect information could mislead the public about Vietnam’s policy.”

Vinh was denying rumors that had surfaced suggesting Vietnam would join the other participating nations in formulating a regional battle plan.   

Count us out

The Cobra Gold exercise, hosted annually by Thailand, was launched in 1982 as a bilateral effort between the US and Thai militaries. It was promoted as a multi-national exercise in 2000, when Singapore joined, and has since grown to become one of the largest land-based, combined military training exercises in the world.

Cobra Gold 2011 was officially kicked off on February 7 in Thailand’s north-eastern province of Chiang Mai.

Besides hosts US and Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and Singapore are participating in the exercise that will be observed by military teams from China, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Brunei, Russia, Mongolia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand.

Vinh said Vietnam joined the exercise for the first time in 2003, as an observer, but has not regularly participated in the annual event since then.

“The purpose of Vietnam’s participation was to observe military exercises of other countries,” he said.

Recently, speaking in Malaysia, US Navy Adm., Patrick Walsh, Commander of the US Pacific Command, expressed the intention of inviting Vietnam to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) military exercise with the US and some other countries in the region.

However, Vinh said that Vietnam has not received an official invitation nor studied the military exercise.

“I want to stress again that Vietnam is not participating in any [joint] military exercise,” he said. “In the near future, Vietnam will only join joint humanitarian exercises like deactivating landmines.”

Peacekeepers to be

Vinh confirmed that the country has “actively” prepared to become a member of the United Nations Peacekeeping Commission as well as integrating with the international defense community.

He said that Vietnam has expressed its willingness to join the UN peacekeeping force at the right time and this would help the country improve its position and study various issues around the world.

Vinh said that Vietnam began preparing to join the UN force some four years ago, by training personnel, securing government approval and seeking for investment, “because the country is still poor.”

Any international military participation will be purely humanitarian, he stressed.

“Vietnam’s policy is not to send its peacekeepers to places where there are conflicts,” he said.

Vinh said that a new “security structure” was formed during the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (Plus Eight) in 2010 when many countries from outside the region joined the bloc. The Vietnamese army has participated in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and other defense conferences of the Southeast Asian bloc, he added.

In defense cooperation, Vietnam will boost current bilateral and multilateral relations, especially defense forums like the ADMMs, Vinh said.

“Vietnam will actively contribute to ASEAN, first and foremost for its own benefit,” he said. Vinh claimed that Vietnam’s participation would improve its international image, help modernize its army and help protect its sovereignty in the region and the world.

Asked about how Vietnam would contribute to ASEAN in solving the conflict between two members in the bloc – Thailand and Cambodia – that has recently flared up near the disputed Preah Vihear temple, Vinh said Indonesia (ASEAN’s 2011 Chair) and all members should help find solutions to maintain peace and stability in the region.

The disputes should be solved through peaceful negotiations that comply with international laws, he said.

Slow and steady losing the race 


New wounds open old fears about survival of legendary Hoan Kiem Lake turtle

This photo taken on December 30 shows new injuries on the neck of the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle, according to Ha Dinh Duc, who has kept a close watch on the conditions of the giant soft-shell species since 1991

Vietnam’s only living animal deity could be in mortal danger.

Already bearing multiple scars caused by pollution and illegal fishing at Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, the giant soft-shell turtle has sustained fresh injuries to its neck and carapace, said Ha Dinh Duc, a Vietnamese scientist who has been studying the giant species and kept a close watch on its conditions since 1991.

The rare soft-shell turtle has played a crucial role in Vietnamese lore for more than 2,000 years. There are only four confirmed members of the species left in the world – two living wild in Vietnamese lakes and a captive pair in China.

The Hoan Kiem Lake turtles are traditionally viewed as manifestations of the Golden Turtle God, or Kim Qui. Legend has it over the last two millennia, they have helped design fortifications, thwart enemy armies and produce a number of enchanted weapons.

Duc claims that the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle is around 700 years old and the last survivor of a species called Rafetus leloii. Several other scientists have argued, however, that the creature is a 120-year-old Rafetus swinhoei.

Despite its cultural, historical and ecological significance, the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle species is facing an increasingly precarious future, and many people are concerned.

“I was heart-broken seeing the condition of the turtle. Why has nothing been done to rescue such a historic symbol of the nation?” said a Hanoian who refused to be named. “The turtle should be preserved for future generations.”

But while conservationists are still debating what should be done to protect the country’s endangered deity, authorities concerned have maintained that the preservation of the animal is an issue they need to approach very carefully.

“This is a sensitive issue,” said Le Xuan Rao, director of Hanoi’s Department of Science, Technology, and Environment. “It needs thorough consideration before agencies concerned are able to come up with feasible solutions to protect the [Hoan Kiem Lake] turtle,” Rao was quoted by the Tuoi Tre newspaper as saying on Tuesday (January 4).

This has angered conservationists who fear the giant turtle has no time to wait.

“The injuries found on December 30 were probably the most severe ones the turtle has suffered in the last two decades,” said Duc.

“I don’t know why the authorities have kept saying they need more time to work out the solution,” Duc said. “I’m afraid when they are finally able to do something, it would be too late.”

In the dark

While awaiting the final decision from the authorities, international and Vietnamese experts have remained at odds on how to protect the giant creature.

The recent photograph of a red-eared slider clinging to the giant turtle’s carapace had Duc frantically calling for immediate destruction of the invasive species.

“Their impacts on the giant turtle are obvious,” Duc said, adding that he had been warning against the invasion of red eared sliders in Hoan Kiem Lake since 2004.

But this argument has been met with skepticism by international experts who said the red-eared sliders are not the biggest issue.

“I find it very unlikely that red-eared sliders would attack a larger animal. They’re more likely to eat dead meat or dead fish in the lake or other vegetation,” said Tim McCormack, a coordinator at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Asian

Turtle Program, a conservation network that seeks to develop and promote turtle conservation efforts in Asia.

McCormack also said that the photo of the red-eared slider piggyback on the Hoan Kiem turtle last month just looked like the smaller species trying to collect the body heat of the larger one to stay warm on a cold day.

“It’s more likely that the [larger] animal sustained injuries or has injured itself [on something else] in the lake,” McCormack said. “It’s difficult to tell from the photo.”

Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for the local conservation group Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV), backed McCormack’s stand. “Red-eared sliders are the most hated animals nowadays. But in Vietnam, they are not a major threat [to the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle].”

International conservationists also shrugged off Duc’s idea to catch the species and treat it.

“Catching a large turtle is not easy – you risk injuring or killing the animal when you try to catch it,” said McCormack. “The longer you keep it in captivity, the more chance for the animal to develop additional problems. Moving an animal into captivity needs to be carefully planned.”

“The turtle has survived many years in that lake. Pollution, people, disease, all around [but] it has done well. Why mess with a good thing?” said ENV’s Hendrie.

Both McCormack and Hendrie concurred that more experienced international experts should be brought in to resolve the issue. McCormack added he would ask for advice from international experts who had helped to move a turtle in China.

“At this stage, I would say leave the animal, monitor the situation, and people should try to take more photos to see if the injuries are increasing in size,” McCormack said. “Meanwhile, dozens of people are working around Hoan Kiem Lake – security guards and the police – it should be easy to limit littering and fishing [there].”