Viet kieu ‘shooting star’ wishes to share his luck 

Nguyen Quang, a Vietnamese-Swedish entrepreneur, with the Male Shooting Star certificate awarded by international auditing firm Ernst and Young in Sweden in November last year

In early February this year, a leading Swedish daily, Göteborgs-Posten, used up a huge portion of its cover page for a photograph of Nguyen Quang, a Vietnamese-Swedish businessman.

Inside were two pages telling readers the story of a very young boy who arrived in Sweden with his father 30 years ago, and has risen, by dint of sheer hard work, to become one of Sweden’s largest food importers from Southeast Asia.

The 35-year-old director of Saigon Food AB became well known among the Swedish population after he was honored as the Male Shooting Star at the awards ceremony for Entrepreneur of the Year held by UK-based auditing firm Ernst & Young in November last year.

“Nguyen Quang started literally empty-handed. Today, his company is the market leader in food imports from Southeast Asia,” said a jury. “With a heart that beats for both employees and customers, Nguyen Quang is a good example for other entrepreneurs.”

Quang was modest about his success. “We have been lucky,” he said.

I met Quang at the end of February when he’d come to Vietnam to source Vietnamese food products to be shipped to his company in Sweden, and to do some charity work. He spoke to me about his journey from being empty-handed to handing out charity.

Soon after their arrival in Sweden, his parents opened up a grocery store. After returning home from school, young Quang would assist his parents in selling food and household items. He also helped deliver purchases to customers living near his house.

He studied economics at the university before he took over his parents’ shop and in 2004, established the Saigon Food AB in Gothenburg to sell food products coming from Southeast Asia. Two years later, his company directly imported such products before distributing them to not only Gothenburg residents but also those living in other cities.

“In the beginning I was working probably 75-80 hours a week. I worked in the office during the day and went around and delivered in the evenings. Sometimes I slept in a sleeping bag in the office.” Later his siblings joined him.

Most of Saigon Food AB’s products are shipped from Thailand while the remainder comes from Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia.

However, that could change in the future.

 “Through the numerous times I have returned to my native country, I have realized that the quality of Vietnamese food products has become better and better, and are not inferior to Thai products. Thus, this year and next year, I will focus on importing more Vietnamese products like Sa Giang shrimp crackers, banh trang (rice paper), and mi trung (egg noodles).

“Many Swedish people love Vietnamese food after traveling to Vietnam as tourists. When they return, they would like to enjoy Vietnamese food again. I will import more of it to satisfy their demand,” he said.

Saigon Food AB’s revenues for 2009 reached SEK142 million (US$23 million.) His company has posted an average annual sales growth of 25 percent since it was set up.

Not just business

Quang has not seen his business growth in purely economic terms. He has seen it as an opportunity to help needy people.

Because Vietnamese as well as others of Southeast Asian descent who are somewhat advanced in years find it hard to get work in Gothenburg, Quang has welcomed these people into his company.

Saigon Food AB now has around 25 staff of Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian and Thai origins. He also helps out other entrepreneurs. Many Thai women, for instance, who have started their own shops because they were unable to find jobs, are his clients. “We try to be generous with credit, remembering what it was like for us earlier,” he told the Swedish newspaper.

Quang said he plans to buy a 15,000-square-meter area in Gothenburg to expand his business, and generate more jobs for Vietnamese-Swedish finding it tough to find employment.

He said though there are not many Vietnamese people living in the city, the community always gathers together for sporting, camping and cultural activities together during Tet (Lunar New Year) and other festivals. Saigon Food AB is one of the main sponsors of the Vietnamese Cultural Society in Gothenburg, which organizes these get-togethers.

Quang said he is always looking for ways to help people in his native country as well. While reinvesting all the company’s profits, he takes out “the normal salary (for himself) and a dividend that I give to the poor in Vietnam,” he said.

Over the last five years, he and his parents have returned to Vietnam many times for charity work.

“Every year, I come back to Vietnam twice for charity purposes. This time [February this year], I spent VND500 million ($24,000) buying medicines and some essential products to give the poor, the old, and the orphaned living in Dong Nai.”

The award jury noted that the tremendous growth of his company was also marked by “his generosity and constant hunger to evolve on all levels.”

“If you share the money and experience, it gives you extra energy and motivation,” he said.

Advertisements

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.”

Headmaster gets nine years in jail for underage sex with students 

(L, R) Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy, Nguyen Thuy Hang and Sam Duc Xuong in the dock Thursday at a trial involving statutory rape in the northern province of Ha Giang

A closed court in the northern province of Ha Giang Thursday handed a nine-year sentence to the former principal of a high school for statutory rape in a high profile sex scandal.

 

Sam Duc Xuong. 54, had sex with students, six of them underaged, between July 2008 and August 2009, the court was told in a hearing which took place under tight security provided by around 50 officers and police dogs.

 

The ex-principal of the Viet Lam High School was accused of forcing the students into prostitution using his money and authority.

 

The Ha Giang People’s Court also handed down suspended sentences of 36 months and 30 months respectively to two of Xuong’s students, Nguyen Thuy Hang and Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy.

 

The girls, both 20, pleaded guilty to procuring schoolgirls for Xuong. They also had sex with Xuong.

 

Another four people were also charged with procuring, but not criminally indicted because they were underage, the court said.

 

The provincial police launched an investigation into the case after some parents reported that Xuong had forced their daughters to have sex with him in September, 2009

 

A trial that opened two months later sentenced Xuong to ten and half years in prison. Hang and Thuy received jail terms of six and five years respectively.

 

As the three defendants pleaded not guilty, an appeals court was convened in February last year when the two girls presented a list of 16 government officials that they had sex with.

 

This prompted the court to order a fresh investigation.

 

After studying the results of the new investigation, Ha Giang’s prosecutors decided not to charge any of the officials listed by the schoolgirls, including Nguyen Truong To, former chairman of the provincial People’s Committee.

 

However, To was dismissed and expelled from the Party in July last year after police discovered his nude photos saved in the phone of a sex worker in 2005.

Vietnam’s Eximbank 2010 net profit rises 60 pct 

 

Vietnam’s Eximbank, 15 percent owned by Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (SMFG), said its net profit surged 60 percent to VND1.82 trillion ($87 million) last year.

The lender earned VND586.8 billion in net profit in the fourth quarter last year, up 261 percent from the same period a year earlier, it said in a statement.

Eximbank’s stock price closed up 3.4 percent on Wednesday at VND14,900, with 710,450 shares traded.

Wanted: Better products, and an even better attitude 

An Audi waiting its turn at a gas station in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

My father once told me: “You lose not because your rivals are too strong to be defeated, but because you’re not strong enough to win. So, make yourself strong first.”

I think this lesson should be applied to the current problem facing the Vietnamese economy: the crazy import of luxury goods.

The General Statistics Office recently announced that Vietnam imported luxury goods worth a total of US$10 billion last year.

It’s not a shocking figure these days, considering how frequently we see cars costing millions of dollars, mobile phones costing hundreds of millions of dong, or foreign liquor bottles that cost the annual income of a civil servant.

What’s shocking is that even though high taxes have been imposed on luxury goods for years, the imports continue to increase.

There is a 300 percent import tax on cars on average, but Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Aston Martins were still shipped to Vietnam last year. It is said that most “super luxury cars” are already present in Vietnam.

Some people argue that those who have money have the right to buy what they want, including branded and luxury goods.

However, with the country facing serious problems like the rising gap between the rich and the poor, and the scarcity of foreign reserves, not to mention an annual per capita income of just over $1,000, overspending on luxurious goods by rich people is no longer their own affair.

Certainly not when their behavior is worsening the country’s trade deficit.

To deal with this problem, administrative measures like taxing and placing restrictions on foreign currency loans aren’t enough.

What matters here is people’s attitude. Once a matter of shame, people actually think ostentatious consumption, especially of foreign goods adds to their prestige!

I feel that to change this belief, we need to improve the quality of domestic goods and services, while organizing a long-term campaign to promote their consumption.

If we have good products and services that satisfy consumers, foreign products will have no way to dominate local markets anymore.

In South Korea, for example, local consumers’ support of domestic goods has helped the car, electronics and cosmetics industries develop strongly not only within the country but in export markets as well.

If experts are alarmed by the import of luxury goods in Vietnam, it means that the Vietnamese people’s undue preference for foreign goods is also cause for alarm.

If we don’t act now to instill a sense of national pride, the country’s trade deficit problem will only gorw.

The Mekong River's Pandora s box 

A woman fishes in the Mekong River in Laos in September 2010.

Though Zeus warned Pandora never to open the box given to her, the temptation proved too strong and Pandora forever unleashed into the world misery, suffering and sorrow.

Today, much like this mythical Greek tragedy, the decision-makers of the Mekong sub-region face a similar temptation in the form of a cascade of hydropower dams proposed for the Mekong River.

They have also received Zeus’ warning from a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report that warns of grave social and environmental consequences should the dams proceed.

In September last year, the government of Laos initiated a regional decision-making process, facilitated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), for the proposed Xayaboury dam located in the eponymous mountainous province in northern Laos.

Over the next four months, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will make a joint decision on whether or not to approve construction of the dam, which would be the first of 11 mainstream dams proposed for the lower stretch of the river that runs through the four countries.

The initiation of this regional decision-making process on the Xayaboury dam pre-empted by three weeks the release of the SEA report, which was commissioned by the MRC in May 2009 and was originally intended to inform future decisions on mainstream dam development.

Whilst to most it would seem common sense to consider the SEA report’s recommendations before moving to more advanced stages of decision-making, it is perhaps not surprising that the Xayaboury dam has been pushed quickly ahead by its proponents, leapfrogging the launch of the SEA report by weeks.

The SEA report concludes that construction of dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream would irreversibly undermine the ecology and economic productivity of the river and will place at risk the livelihoods and food security of millions of people who depend upon the river’s resources.

It recommends that decision-making on Mekong mainstream dams, including Xayaboury, be deferred for 10 years due to the massive risks and vast impact associated with the projects, and the need for more than 50 more critical studies to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed about these risks.

With very limited commitment to transparency and accountability in this new decision-making process, however, it seems that common sense might be in short supply, although civil society groups and the wider public have tried to make their opinions heard.

While the regional decision-making procedures over the Xayaboury dam began three months ago, the MRC only publicly released an ambiguous roadmap for its implementation late last month.

Remarkably, whilst comment is invited, the project’s documents have not been disclosed to the public, rendering the process opaque, unaccountable and increasingly lacking in credibility.

In October 2009, for example, a 23,000-signature petition calling for the Mekong River’s mainstream to remain free of dams was sent to the prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

More recently, in September last year, Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a petition to Thailand’s Prime Minister asking him to cancel the Xayaboury dam.

If built, the Xayaboury dam will displace over 2,100 people, at least 200,000 people would suffer a direct impact on their livelihoods through the loss of fisheries, riverbank gardens, agricultural land and forests.

The dam would also block a critical fish migration route – including for 23 fish species that travel from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake – and scientists from around the world have concluded that there is no viable mitigation technology. Up to 41 fish species would face the threat of extinction, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish.

The myth of Pandora’s box has long been used as a lesson in the dangers of curiosity, temptation and the weaknesses of human nature. The question is, can we heed Pandora’s lesson before it is too late?

The decision lies in the hands of the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

On first inspection it may appear that Thailand is a key decision-maker, as it plans to purchase 95 percent of the Xayaboury dam’s electricity. In addition, the project’s lead developer is Thailand’s second largest construction company, Ch. Karnchang, and four major Thai banks are considering financing the project.

However, as the Mekong River is a shared resource between all four lower Mekong countries, and joint decision-making over its sustainable and equitable sharing is embodied in the 1995 “Mekong Agreement” that mandates the MRC, in fact it is decision-makers from all four Mekong countries that will formulate the final decision on whether the project is approved or not.

As Vietnam contemplates this crucial decision, serious consideration must be given to the trans-boundary impacts the Mekong Delta may suffer as a result of the development of the Xayaboury and ten other proposed dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream.

The Mekong River is an integrated ecosystem and upstream development can have unintended – but severe – downstream consequences.

By altering the delta’s important life-cycle of water, silt and nutrients, the mainstream dams could have far-reaching implications for the delta’s rice production, fisheries, and agriculture, with implications for the local and national economy.

In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, working together to protect and share the Mekong River’s rich natural resources, rather than undermining them, should be a high priority for the region’s decision-makers.

If, like Pandora, decision-makers choose not to heed the advice of the SEA report and instead open the dam-building box, grave misfortune is certain to follow.

It is yet not too late to prevent the tragedy of these dams from being unleashed. Some boxes are meant to remain unopened.

By Ame Trandem
Ame Trandem is a campaigner with the NGO International Rivers, a partner of the Save the Mekong coalition.