Lives on the rock


Plagued by poor farming conditions and destitution, many members of the Ruc ethnic minority group in central Quang Binh Province have gone back to living in caves

The road leading into On Hamlet in Minh Hoa District’s Thuong Hoa Commune was rough and desolate, with few signs of life around.

As it opened into a small clearing in this so-called “valley of rocks,” a sprinkling of dilapidated houses finally emerges. The shadows of human inhabitants begin to emerge, moving about inside their makeshift shelters looking out with curiosity at the rare visitors.

The hamlet is home to 56 households, of which 43 are members of the Ruc ethnic minority group.

When asked why the area was so sparsely populated and lacking in basic amenities, hamlet chief Tran Xuan Tu replied: “Everyone has gone into the forest. Several households would go up to the caves for a few days and then return here for a few days. Some families would remain in the caves for up to a month.”

Meager habitat

A boy of the Ruc ethnic minority group on his way to the farming area

A 19-year-old local named Quang took Thanh Nien correspondent on a trip from the resettlement area to the caves. The journey required wading through a waist-deep fast-flowing brook, hiking up a wet dirt road overgrown by vegetation, and scrambling over a tree bridge crossing a wide spring.

Along the way, Quang ran into four girls and a boy carrying rattan baskets going to dig for cassava tubers. The local guide explained that the Ruc people cannot farm well so many have to survive on a paltry diet of cassava, plants grown in the forest, and wild animals.

When we finally arrived at the cave of Quang’s grandparents, located about a 25-30 meters straight climb from the foot of the mountain, we found some items belonging to the couple, including old clothes, blankets, mosquito-nets, a saucepan, a thin sheet of iron with holes for grinding cassava tubers, a fishing net made from a damaged mosquito-net, and a homemade mousetrap.

A small smooth area covered by reed-woven mats was reserved for sleeping. There was no rice, water, salt, or lamps inside the cave.

Quang went to fetch the grandfather, who was old and extremely frail. He appeared shrunken in a set of worn clothes, his bare feet covered with rough skin due to having to traverse the harsh terrain daily.

With a sad face, Loa said he had checked the traps placed the previous night but found no mice. He and his wife would therefore eat only cassava for the day.

Unskilled farmers

No one knows exactly how many caves exist on the treacherous limestone cliffs of Minh Hoa District. But each grotto could serve as a home for the Ruc people whenever they go scavenging for food in the forest or farm far from the hamlet.

According to hamlet chief Tu, members of the ethnic minority group usually grow corn and cassava but their crops are destroyed by cows from a neighboring area. Since the Ruc people lack farming experience and don’t know how to protect their crops from the encroaching beasts, many suffer from hunger or malnutrition.

Moreover, the local administration lacks sufficient funds to develop training programs to improve agricultural techniques for the relocated locals.

Upon leaving On Hamlet, one last glance back at the scant residences makes one wonder if the resettlement effort has been a complete failure, and why many Ruc households were simply returning to the caves to lead a miserable primitive existence they have long grown used to.

GROWING PAINS

The Ruc people were believed to be the last among the ethnic minority communities discovered in Vietnam from 1959-1960. The group comprises of more than 30 people possessing primitive appearances: they had long hair, wore tree barks, ate leaves, roots and wild animals, and were very frightened of strangers.

In the years following their discovery, local authorities and border guards convinced the community to relocate to a new settlement area and practice a modern way of life.

In 2004, construction of a power network, roads, schools and houses for the Ruc and other ethnic minority groups in Quang Binh Province was completed. They were taught farming techniques and provided with livestock and seedlings. However, agriculture development has faced many obstacles due to inclement weather, crop diseases and bad harvests.

Reported by Truong Quang Nam

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Playing from the heart


Canadian maestro Simon Leung will be conducting his second international concert in HCMC December 4-6

Music is universal, says Canadian conductor Simon Leung, who is in Ho Chi Minh City for a performance next week.

 “I do not look at myself as an Asian as much as I regard myself as a musician.”

Brought up in a rather feudalistic family, the 52-year-old says he learnt from a young age humanity through Confucius and the beauty of simplicity, universality and eternity through Taoism.

He tries to inject these elements into his music.

The music of Vivaldi and Bach, Hayden and Beethoven, Saint Saens and Verdi, Stravinsky and Bartok are full of human values, he says.

“Their music is full of compassion, passion for humanity, nature and the goodness of mankind.”

He is returning to HCMC for a second time after the success of his first concert last March, which he calls one of the most memorable of his career.

“I had to help some choir members sing in German and English within just a few weeks.

“Some of them had never sung in a foreign language before. “The impact of the concert on young musicians was quite impressive,” he recalls.

Last week a young student at South Saigon International School who played in Leung’s concert, begged her principal and his agent for permission to join next week’s concert.

She told her principal she had thought playing the notes on the page was good enough. But the last concert taught her she has to play from her heart.

For Leung, such an impact on a young musician is a very positive result.

Leung stresses that his aim is to recreate this time the same environment for all music lovers who are willing to work together for another meaningful community activity.

Next week’s concert is meant for charity and is sponsored by the Korean Business Association.

The enjoyment he perceived among the Vietnamese audiences is another reason for his return.

“The level of Vietnamese audiences is as high as any around the world.

“When there is good music, they deeply enjoy it and show their appreciation the same way as anyone else,” he says.

Global Echoes Christmas Concert

The concert will be held at the White Palace Convention Center, the HCMC Conservatory of Music and the South Saigon International School respectively on December 4, 5 and 6.

The Korean Business Association will be supported by the international community and the Canadian and Vietnamese governments.

It will feature 55 international choir singers and orchestra members from Canada, Korea and Vietnam.

Soloists from Australia, Korea and Vietnam will also perform Christmas music from around the world.

A part of the concert’s proceeds will go toward the HCMC Conservatory of Music, the Hospitality School of HCMC and the HCMC University of Industry.

SIMON LEUNG’S BIO

Simon Leung was born in Hong Kong, and moved to Victoria via Ottawa, Canada, at the age of 17.

He enrolled at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and studied vocal, classical guitar, and choral conducting.

From 1977 to 1984 he studied at the University of Victoria’s Music School and continued studying voice, choral conducting and orchestral conducting.

After he left university, he continued to learn conducting from Dr. Paul Freeman, music director and conductor of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

He became a lecturer and assistant conductor of the Victoria Choral Society.

He joined the Hampton Junior Orchestra as principal conductor, as well as the Hampton Orchestra and the Saanich Peninsula Orchestra.

From 1987 to 1996 he was principal conductor of the Sooke Community Choir.

He is also principal conductor of the West Coast Chamber Orchestra and holds voice workshops for choir members, coaches voice students and lectures on music appreciation.

Leung is planning a choral concert tour of Beijing, Guangdong, and Hong Kong next year.

Reported by Vinh Bao

Vietnam to shoot the moon with space center


An artist’s rendering of Vietnam’s first satellite Vinasat-1 satellite in orbit

Vietnam will work with Japanese experts to begin building Southeast Asia’s most advanced space technology center by 2010, said project facilitators at a press event in Hanoi on Thursday.

The Center for Space Technology Research and Deployment will be equipped with the most advanced devices in the region, internet newswire VietNamNet recently quoted Taka Mashikawa, deputy head of Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO)’s consultancy group, as saying.

The center will provide photo-based information to monitor floods, observe natural disasters, and even prevent illegal logging, he said.

Japanese experts will help Vietnam build infrastructure, develop human resources and transfer technology in an effort to have the Southeast Asian country making and launching its own satellites by 2017.

With US$350 million in Japanese official development assistance (ODA) investment, construction on the center is scheduled to begin in 2010 for completion in 2017.

Located at Hoa Lac Hi-tech Park, some 20 kilometers from Hanoi, the center will operate under the Space Technology Institute (STI), part of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.

STI and JETRO plan to submit a feasibility report to the government by the end of this year.

Source: Tuoi Tre, VietnamNet

HCMC officials in the spotlight after satisfaction survey


A bus Friday in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District. HCMC residents satisfaction with bus services has fallen dramatically over the past two years.

A survey of Ho Chi Minh City residents found people are becoming more exasperated with some city government services.

The deputy head of Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Transport Friday vowed his department would work harder to improve its standing in next year’s satisfaction survey.

But Duong Hong Thanh could not spell out exactly what will be done to lift customer service levels, much to the ire of the HCMC People’s Council deputies, who met Friday to grill leaders of departments that performed poorly in a satisfaction survey.

The People’s Council called an extraordinary meeting with three government departments who performed poorly in the satisfaction survey released this week by the city’s Development Research Institute and Statistics Bureau.

The biggest fall in satisfaction was for the city’s public bus system, with levels plummeting to 50 percent this year from 79 percent in 2006.

Thanh told Friday’s meeting there was room to improve the city’s public transport and he admitted bus staff had a reputation for being rude to passengers, especially those with free bus passes.

In September, Thanh Nien received many complaints from disabled passengers and workers who said they had been abused and threatened by bus staff because they used free bus passes. Some said the buses even refused to pick them up from bus stops.

Thanh Friday acknowledged the careless driving by some bus drivers remained a major worry for citizens.

He also said traffic jams around street barriers had made it very difficult for buses to meet their deadlines.

But the People’s Council deputies said these issues were not new. The deputies said they wanted to know what the transport department was doing to fix the problems and restore public confidence in the public transport system.

“The survey results will be made known to all the staff of the transport sector in the city so that we can draw deep experience from the case,” Thanh told the meeting.

“I am convinced the bus service will record better results if the survey is conducted next year.”

’Too vague’

The Department of Construction also saw its service in the granting of house and land ownership services slipping to 39 percent this year from 59 percent two years ago.

At the meeting Friday, department Deputy Director Do Phi Hung admitted the granting procedure was complicated and time-consuming.

The construction department would coordinate with agencies concerned to streamline the procedure, Hung told the meeting.

But deputy Le Nguyen Minh Quang said Hung’s description was “too vague.”

“What the residents are yearning for is faster processing of paperwork and cordial public servants but the department cannot seem to deliver this,” Quang said.

Other angry deputies also demanded Hung provide more specific measures, a demand he could not meet.

After the survey was released on Wednesday, Pham Phuong Thao, the municipal legislature chair, singled out red tape as a major problem in the processing of property ownership certificates.

She urged the city administration to take drastic action to simplify the system.

The health department Head Nguyen Van Chau also said he appreciated the survey results, saying the problems of unreasonable service prices, red tape and unfriendly staff were still annoying residents.

The satisfaction level for the health sector fell to 69 percent from 78 percent in 2006.

Chau admitted it was taking too long – one hour on average – for patients to be attended to.

The survey, conducted for the first time in 2006, sought public opinion on eight local government services this year, including primary education, garbage collection, health services, bus services, notary services, taxation and processing of construction licenses and property ownership certificates.

Respondents were asked to evaluate the service qualities of the agencies as well as the attitude of staff.

Deputies Friday asked for another similar study next year, focusing on the sectors of property paperwork, bus services, health and taxation.

Reported by Minh Nam

The growing NGO lobby


Children perform a play about HIV/AIDS at a meeting sponsored by NGO PACT Vietnam

Professional lobbyists are gaining ground in Vietnam as shifting laws give stakeholders a larger say in policy making.

NGOs in Vietnam are advocating for government policy change as authorities become more open to the role professional lobbyists can play in formulating laws.

Since the 1990s, international Non-Government Organizations’ main work has been helping with Vietnam’s socio-economic development plans. They traditionally provide financial assistance and capacity building in areas such as health, poverty reduction and education by working with local non-profit organizations such as the Vietnam Women’s Union, with lobbying just playing a minor role in their work.

The government, through the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations and the Committee for Foreign Non-Governmental Organization Affairs, has called on them to help in particular areas such as HIV/AIDS and vocational training.

But international integration and the country’s accession to the WTO have paved the way for more lobbying.

“There has been a big change in the process of government policy making in Vietnam,” said Vu Thi Nga, a consultant for the Consultancy on Development (CODE), an NGO that has been helping to bring together government representatives and NGOs at lobby workshops in Hanoi over the last two years.

Nga said there used to be a “top down” system that created a lot of “overlapping” in the Vietnamese legal framework.

But she said that a new law on the promulgation of legal documents passed in June had made the situation better.

The CODE consultant said the new law mandated that law and policy makers must carry out impact assessments of new laws while also proposing solutions to possible risks and consulting public opinion on the new measures.

She said agencies now have to publish draft laws on their website for 60 days.

The grassroots

Nga said CODE was established in March 2007 to carry out development research, advocate for policy, build partners’ advocacy capacity and improve public awareness of the need for lobbying.

She said the non-profit organization was working to help people recognize the need to use professionals to advocate for policy change.

“I think that heightening people’s awareness of lobbying is the thing that must be done immediately in order to build professional lobbying in Vietnam,” she said.

Nguyen Anh Thuan, who consults for PACT Vietnam managing and developing grants from the US government, said that lobbying was more successful than it used to be because members of the government travel a lot more than they used to and they have seen programs working in other countries such as Thailand and Australia.

The consultant with 15 years experience in the HIV/AIDS field, said he had worked with the ministries of Health and Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs to develop policies to help fight the epidemic.

During the building of the Can Tho bridge which started in 2004, he was the first person to alert the Ministry of Health to the HIV/AIDS risk posed when migrant workers are employed on large scale infrastructure construction jobs, he said.

What resulted was a 2006 policy that all big projects with a migrant workforce nationwide must have an HIV prevention program.

He said to advocate policy change, “What we need to have is evidence – for example a risk assessment… need to have an alliance – groups of different NGOs, provincial HIV/AIDS centers – need to have representatives of people affected with HIV and government partners and agencies.”

“You need to have people work with you, do workshops and educate the local media,” he said.

Regarding the HIV issue, the PACT consultant said, “The government has become really open, accepting of the issues” because the manner of advocacy was diplomatic, constructive and well prepared.

He said as a result of his NGO’s lobbying, the Japanese government and the Ministry of Transport allocated US$170,000 for an HIV prevention program in Can Tho for workers and residents and that such programs have spread all over the Greater Mekong Region.

He said that in the context of HIV prevention, he didn’t think the government was shackled by a concern that it was a moral issue, instead he said they just want to see evidence that HIV prevention programs are not going to pose a risk.

He said this is the role of professional advocates for policy change.

According to Nga, there are three main reasons why lobbying operates less effectively in Vietnam than other countries: a lack of professional lobbying organizations to convey information “accurately and effectively” to the government; “distortion of lobbying” in Vietnam by corruption, bribery and wheeling and dealing; and a “too cumbersome” administration system.

“It is difficult for lobbyists to identify who they need to lobby. To improve lobbying activities in Vietnam, the government needs to simplify the administration system and create personal responsibility in machinery of government.”

CODE is currently lobbying for a more sustainable government approach to bauxite mining across the country. The non-profit group organized a workshop with stakeholders in October to find solutions to minimize negative impacts of exploiting bauxite, alumina processing and aluminum refining.

The workshop, organized by CODE, the people’s committee of Dak Nong Province and the Vietnam National Coal – Mineral Industries Group in Gia Nghia Town, Dak Nong Province, discussed in depth the positive and negative impacts of bauxite mining on all aspects of society.

“After collecting the views and research of all stakeholders, we sent the documents to the Prime Minister and other relevant ministries to discuss in the National Assembly meetings. We hope it could make some important changes,” Nga said.

Reported by Michael S. Smith

Hanoi drainage under the lens after catastrophe


Heavy rains that deluged Hanoi last week have landed the city drainage system and insurers in hot water.

The Government Inspectorate wants to launch its inspection of Hanoi’s drainage projects ahead of schedule after the recent floods exposed glaring shortcomings.

The Government Inspectorate was planning to inspect the first phase of the drainage project next year but it would ask the prime minister to approve an earlier investigation considering the impact of the floods, Mai Quoc Binh, Deputy Chief of the Government Inspectorate, said at a press briefing Thursday.

The Inspectorate was scheduled to inspect all public construction projects including the drainage system in 2009.

Also Thursday, while visiting several households stranded by the floods in the capital city’s Dinh Cong Ward in Hoang Mai District, President Nguyen Minh Triet asked the municipal government to review its drainage system.

The first stage of a US$500 million drainage project, which was completed in 2005, invested $200 million to dredge the Lu, Set and To Lich rivers, build 30 km of new sewage systems and construct the Yen So pumping station.

The $300 million second stage of the project, slated for completion in 2011, envisaged building 300 km of sewerage systems, dredging the lakes and upgrading Yen So drainage pumping station.

Following completion of the first stage, the drainage system was capable of handling rainfall of 172 mm in two days. But the recent flooding saw rainfall of up to 600 mm.

The historic downpour that lashed Hanoi beginning last Friday killed at least 22 people, submerged many areas of the city, causing losses amounting to trillions of dong.

At least 79 people have been reported dead or missing after the floods wreaked havoc in northern and central localities, according to the Central Steering Committee for Flood and Control and Prevention.

Eleven areas in Hanoi remained flooded Thursday, city authorities said, adding they were strictly monitoring the dyke system. Mass evacuation of residents was also being considered, they said.

Schools are set to resume today, except for those in Hoang Mai District which was still heavily flooded Thursday.

Hanoi party unit chief Pham Quang Nghi also said Thursday that agencies concerned should draw major lessons from the floods to cope with future natural disasters.

Insurance payout

Two major insurers, Bao Viet Insurance and Petrolimex Insurance (PJICO), have said they were set to pay compensation of between VND4 billion (US$238,450) to VND5 billion ($298,000) each for flood-damaged cars they had underwritten.

Around 600 cars have been damaged in Hanoi by the floods with repair fees estimated to range from VND40 million to VND600 million each.

Nguyen Tien Dong, a senior PJICO official, said the firm was considering around 150 compensation applications which could increase to 200 in forthcoming days.

A Bao Viet official, Dinh Quang Tan, also said the insurer would have to pay compensation for to up to 270 affected cars.

Reported by Thanh Nien staff

The ugly duckling


A shop that duplicates famous paintings in Hanoi

Local and foreign experts agree that Vietnamese artists and art lovers need to appreciate their own art if they want it to be noticed on the international scene.

Vietnamese art went unnoticed at an art fair in Singapore this month.

The three-day Art Singapore Fair, which began on October 10, displayed works from 110 galleries based in 16 countries and territories, including the US, France, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Three Vietnamese galleries sent work to the event – Mai and Ngan Pho (Thousands of Streets) from Hanoi and Zen from Ho Chi Minh City.

But they received the cold shoulder from visitors to the fair, which was crowded with pieces by more famous artists from around the world.

The Vietnamese works were given much less elaborate displays than those from South Korea, China and Indonesia. The auctions by the two auction houses Larasati and Borobudur placed little emphasis on the Southeast Asian nation.

Paintings by late Vietnamese master Le Pho were only bought for between US$7,460 and $33,108 while paintings by young Indonesian artists were bought for $115,294 and $122,000.

But buyers at the two auctions showed little interest in the paintings from other contemporary Vietnamese artists though they were offered for less than $6,000 each.

Le Pho (1907-2001), who lived in France from the late 30’s until his death, is one of Vietnam’s most prominent modern painters. His works have been exhibited and bought around the world.

His paintings are now on show at the Vietnam Fine Art Museum, the Paris Modern Museum, the Oklahoma Museum and at many other collections in the US.

Art critic Nguyen Hung told The Thao Van Hoa newspaper “Vietnam has no advertising mechanisms for artists,” he said.

“As a critic, I don’t praise Le Pho’s contribution to art,” Hung said. “His paintings sell better only because they are placed in well-managed commercial channels.”

The ’art world’

Le Thai Son, who manages the Thai Son Fine Arts Gallery & Collection in Ho Chi Minh City, said US-based Wally Findlay Galleries International Inc. had been the only regular collector of Le Pho’s paintings since 1963.

This work by Vietnamese master Le Pho was sold at Singapore Art 2008 for US$30,519

He said the gallery had thousands of Pho’s works.

The gallery offers Pho access to auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and ArtNet – where nearly 400 of Pho’s paintings have been advertised over the past several years – as well as a collection of international galleries like the Romanet in Paris, Florence Art in Italy and Ode To Art in Singapore.

When asked why Wally Findlay had chosen to take so many of Pho’s works, a representative from the group said that Pho was a leader of the first generation of modern Vietnamese fine artists but had yet to receive the attention he deserved.

This credit gap was all too visible at the Singapore auctions where Pho’s works could hardly compete with Southeast Asian contemporaries like Indonesians Affandi (1907-1990) and Hendra Gunawan (1918-1983), whose paintings were sold for between $130,000-300,000.

According to foreign collectors, Pho’s paintings could be sold for as much as $1 million if they become more popular on the domestic market.

Representatives from Sotheby’s and Christie’s said they hoped that Pho’s paintings could be sold to domestic buyers for as much as $500,000 by 2010.

But the prices of Vietnamese paintings have been dropping at Hong Kong and Singapore auction houses, said Son, just back from Art Singapore 2008.

Experts and foreign collectors have no confidence in Vietnamese paintings, he said.

The collectors are scared of Vietnamese fakes, said Vietnamese-French collector Gerard Chapuis at the Singapore fair.

Many foreign collectors and gallery owners say Vietnam has produced too many paintings on a limited range of topics.

Son said that Vietnamese artists had to produce better work, local collectors and galleries had to launch better advertising campaigns and art critics had to become more outspoken and brave if Vietnamese art ever wanted to be respected abroad.

Playing the game

Earlier this month, renowned artist Bui Thanh Phuong, the son of legendary painter Bui Xuan Phai, threatened to sue Sotheby’s for attempting to sell counterfeits of his father’s paintings.

Phuong alleged that four of five paintings auctioned by the British auction house in Hong Kong earlier this month were low-quality forgeries of Phai’s work.

Sotheby’s then cancelled the lot but Phuong has insisted he will pursue a case against Sotheby’s.

Phuong said this was not the first time Sotheby’s had sold fake Vietnamese paintings.

He said that the auction house sold th ree other fakes as Phai’s works on April 8.

The case emphasized how little Vietnamese artists know about the international auction world, said Phuong.

“If we knew how to play this game, perhaps there would be foreigners willing to pay extremely high prices for our major works,” he said.

Vietnamese experts, however, are not very optimistic about Phuong making much of an impact with his case.

Art critic Nguyen Do Bao said it was not the first time Vietnamese fake paintings had circulated on foreign markets. He said lawsuits were usually dead ends.

Artist Le Thiet Cuong said Sotheby’s could defend itself by saying it had made a mistake in evaluating the pictures but the guilt lay with the person provided the forgeries.

Another painter, who asked to go unnamed, said that Sotheby’s did not have to worry about loosing the case or its reputation because Vietnamese paintings were not sought after by collectors and art houses.

The auction house might not even bother to evaluate the authenticity of the Vietnamese works its sells, the painter said.

Vietnamese Fine Arts Association’s Head of Art Committee Le Huy Tiep said fake paintings were a plague in Vietnam and had damaged the reputation of Vietnamese art.

A Google search of tranh gia (fake paintings) results in at least 100 copy shops in Hanoi and 200 in HCMC that reproduce famous works of art on the cheap.

Source: TN, Agencies