Vietnam’s Q1 car sales jump 30 pct year on year: industry 


Car sales in Vietnam in the first quarter jumped 30 percent from the same period last year to 27,896 units, while a Vietnamese car maker surpassed Toyota in sales last month, the Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (VAMA) said on Wednesday.

The number of cars sold in March alone increased 1 percent from a year earlier to 9,513, the association said in its monthly report. The data did not contain figures from Vinamotor, although VAMA gave no explanation.

Sales by the Vietnamese firm Truong Hai, which assembles vehicles including South Korean KIAs, exceeded Toyota’s for the first time, reaching 3,085 units in March, up 29.9 percent from a year ago , the report said.

Toyota sold 2,357 units during the month, it said.

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.”

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.”

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.

Treasure Islands 


Japanese experts help residents understand each house in their village is part of a precious heritage

Yamaguchi Yoriko (L) and Inoue Aiko in the garden of an ancient house in Duong Lam Ancient Village.

They know the village like the back of their hand.

But the two young women leading a tour group in Duong Lam Village – through Mong Phu Gate, and along winding paths lined with laterite walls – are neither natives nor professional guides.

Dr. Inoue Aiko and Yamaguchi Yoriko are Japanese culture experts helping residents to restore and preserve their village. Several houses in the Duong Lam Village are more than three centuries old.

Aiko left her hometown in Tokyo to work with locals to preserve and promote relics among tourists. After three years of working with UNESCO in Bangkok, Aiko moved to Vietnam to put her knowledge and experience to good use.

A volunteer with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Aiko said, “Tourists coming to Duong Lam Village for the first time can easily get lost in the labyrinth of paths, but this is a unique charm of the village.”

Aiko, 31, a cultural heritage management specialist, stops at a 360-year-old house, which was the first to be retored in Duong Lam in 2008 with the help of JICA experts and the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Yamaguchi Yoriko, a native of Hokkaido, arrived in Duong Lam Village six months before Aiko.

Yoriko, 29, has studied the architecture of the northern Vietnamese countryside, in particular, that of Duong Lam Village. She tells the tour group that unlike other gates in the region, which were built with a mezzanine on the roof, Mong Phu Gate is merely a house with two low sloped roofs.

Together with Nguyen Van Hung, the home’s owner and 12th generation Nguyen Van clan member in Mong Phu Hamlet, Aiko narrates the history of the house and the village.

She explains how the five-room house, covering an area of 420 square meters, was built with wood, laterite and unbaked bricks made of soil and rice husk – keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer. The structure, one of 30 first-ranked ancient homes and 1,000 other relics in the area, was restored in three months.

After just nine months of staying in the village, about 60km from Hanoi, Aiko has learned to cook many local specialties. Her favorite local treats are Cao Lam tea, and banh te (rice cake filled with browned onions).

Like a member of the family, she helps Hung and his wife prepare lunch, including ga mia (a kind of special chicken presented to the king in the past), boiled water spinach dipped in soybean sauce and fresh tea for the visitors.

The Duong Lam Village has a history of about 1,200 years and is the only place in Vietnam where two kings, Phung Hung (761-802) and Ngo Quyen (808-944), were born. They led the resistance to victories over Chinese Sung and Southern Han troops to gain national independence.

According to the Duong Lam Ancient Village Management Board, the village expects 30,000 visitors by 2020, despite a severe shortage of space. Aiko says the house owners should not receive too many visitors at the same time, and should pay attention to hygiene and sanitation to promote sustainable village tourism.

Yoriko, who travels on her bicycle everyday to visit different places in the village, says the village is a living museum.

A pagoda in front of Mong Phu Gate was Yoriko’s first preservative project. In just three months, Yoriko and her team disassembled the building, then selected undamaged tiles and wooden slats one by one. Then they redesigned the damaged ones and restored the building.

Nguyen Trong An, deputy head of Duong Lam Ancient Village Management Board, said: “As a technical consultant and supervisor, Yoriko is very careful in selecting the preservation plan, and precise in every detail. She keeps a close watch on the progress of the project.

Apart from its historical and tourism value, the village is an important place for scientists to study communities practicing old agricultural traditions.

According to Ha Nguyen Huyen, owner of a house dating back to 1848, “We are eternally grateful to the Japanese experts. Not only did they help us preserve our homes, but also helped us look outside, then back at ourselves. Without them, the locals might have not appreciated the true value of our own treasures.”

US tax-cut bill nears Senate approval 

President Barack Obama makes a statement about the senate vote on middle class tax cuts in the Brady Press Briefing room of the White House in Washington, December 13, 2010.

President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to extend expiring tax cuts for millions of Americans headed for overwhelming passage in the Senate on Wednesday, putting the measure’s fate in the hands of the House of Representatives.

As the Senate neared what appeared to be a rare bipartisan vote on the bill to renew all Bush-era income tax breaks and add some provisions designed to stimulate the US economy, House Democrats mulled ways to pull back on some of the measure’s tax breaks for the wealthy.

But even liberal House Democrats acknowledged there might not be enough support to significantly alter the legislation brokered by Obama and congressional Republicans that includes expanded tax breaks for wealthy estates.

“My guess is that the whole package passes,” said liberal Democratic Representative James Moran. “The Democratic caucus might not support it,” he said, but added, “I don’t know how much leverage there is” to significantly alter the bill.

Before the Senate votes, it will debate three initiatives that likely will fail: a Republican plan making all of the Bush-era tax cuts permanent, another Republican plan requiring that extended jobless benefits be paid for through spending cuts, and a Democratic proposal excluding the wealthiest 2 percent from tax cuts.

While there had been talk of trying to curtail tax breaks for ethanol blenders, no such amendment will be allowed in the Senate.

The package also got a boost in the House, where it faces its stiffest resistance, when a top Democrat said there are “compelling reasons” to pass it.

The bullish comments by House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer signaled opposition was dissipating among Democrats who believe Obama’s $858 billion tax deal, brokered with the opposition Republicans, is too generous to the wealthy.

The measure cleared a key Senate procedural hurdle on Monday, with 83 of the chamber’s 100 members voting in favor of moving the bill forward.

It extends for two years all Bush-era individual tax rates, prevents a spike in taxes on capital gains and dividends and renews long-term insurance for the jobless, while providing an assortment of new tax breaks for students, working families and businesses.

Economists have boosted growth forecasts based on the bill’s likely passage, citing in particular a one-year cut in the payroll tax and removal of uncertainty about taxes in general.

At the same time, deficit watchers fear the measure’s impact on the nearly $14 trillion federal debt.

Monday’s bipartisan vote was in sharp contrast to the gridlock that has tied the Democratic-led chamber in knots for much of the first two years of Obama’s presidency.

“The vote in the Senate indicates an urgency that is felt by a broad spectrum that the middle-income taxes not be increased come January 1,” Hoyer told reporters.

“Rarely do you see that big a number” in support of a bill, Hoyer said, also noting a swath from the very liberal to the very conservative backed it.

Obama and most of his fellow Democrats had pushed for extension of the tax cuts enacted by former President George W. Bush only on household income of up to $250,000.

Democrats lost control of the House and saw their margins shrink in the Senate in the November 2 elections, pushing Obama to strike the deal before the Republicans take more power in January.

Estate tax

A bid by some House Democrats to tighten an estate tax provision to make it less generous for the wealthy is expected to fail, but could slow down eventual passage.

On Monday, Moody’s Investors Service warned it was considering cutting the United States’ top-notch triple-A bond rating in the next two years if the package becomes law because it would push up debt levels.

Worries about the bill’s potential affect on the federal deficit prompted a two-day sell-off of US Treasury bonds last week.

Lawmakers have said they want to recess for the year by the end of the week, though that timeline is tentative.

Many House Democrats believe Obama struck an especially bad deal on the estate tax, conceding to Republican demands it exempt the first $5 million of inherited assets from taxes, with estates above that taxed at 35 percent.

Democrats favor a $3.5 million exemption and a 45 percent tax rate.

Hoyer said many Democrats want a separate amendment on the estate tax, but also said there is concern that debate over estate taxes could derail the whole deal and that no decision had been made.

“Given all of the problems facing this country, lowering taxes for people who are extraordinarily wealthy, whose incomes are soaring, whose tax rates are going down, should not be a major priority of the US Senate,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who helped lead the opposition.

Still, a senior House Democratic aide said he doubts there are enough members to back a weakened estate tax.

“It would give members a chance to vent to vote against it,” the aide said. “But I doubt” there are enough votes to change it.