Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Destination Vietnam - From the Mekong River Delta to Ha Long Bay

By Samantha Berkin

Fortunately, the present-day experience of traveling from South Vietnam to North Vietnam is not at all like it was during our parents' time. Instead of fighting from a swift boat in the Mekong Delta, you can now be enjoying cheap beer on a luxury liner. You can even make silly television shows about making the entire South-to-North trek on underpowered motor scooters in the rain.

Either way you look at it, the experience is, shall we say, a lot safer. This is even true if you are stupid enough to be taking a scooter into Vietnam traffic as an inexperienced Westerner, but just barely so.

Vietnam is a stunning country with rich history, beautiful, powerful scenery, and it is a good value destination on top of that. It is also popular as a destination for some of the older crowd. There is a generation of tourists out there, freshly retired, who want to visit the country under more favorable circumstances than they did in the past, people who want to choose to visit the country rather than be forced to do so.

Starting in the South, cruising the Mekong River is a popular place to start. Many travelers choose to start in Cambodia and cruise down the river before disembarking outside Ho Chi Minh (Saigon for all you old-schoolers out there) and taking a bus in. Another highlight of a trip in the area can be taking the Cu Chi tunnels into the city instead. The Viet Cong dug this nearly 200 kilometer-long network of tunnels to infiltrate American camps in Saigon during the war.

Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling, modern city, and the most populous one in Vietnam. It is also a traffic nightmare, as well as an excellent place to go shopping and pick up some trinkets for the folks back home. Don't forget the Presidential Palace and possibly a visit to the War Remnants Museum while staying here.

Next on the list of places to see would have to be Nha Trang, consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in Vietnam, as well as one of the most beautiful bays in the world. The scuba diving in particular is making this a huge backpacker destination. More and more, however, the big tour companies are also catching on to this fact. Just check out a comparison of Vietnam tours, browse around, and you will find that many of these tours include Nha Trang. Additionally, it was the site of Miss Universe 2008, and will play host to Miss World 2010. Not my thing, to be sure, but for some, I guess this is an attraction.

Most people do not have forever to dilly-dally in Vietnam, so for the next major attraction on the list, we are going to have to jump all the way forward to Hoi An, home to numerous small museums concerning the history and culture of the region. This ancient town has been remarkably well-preserved over the years, well enough for the area to be recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a traditional South-East Asian trading port.

Hue is another great ancient city with an amazing amount of monuments . This was the Royal City, the ancient capital of Vietnam. The "Pass of the Ocean Clouds" is supposed to be an unforgettable drive. Our imaginary itinerary next takes us to Hanoi, the capital and second largest city of Vietnam. Hanoi has been a city for nearly 1000 years, and this has necessarily left its mark on the area. If you want culture, history, urban tourist attractions, and the like, the city is definitely a must-see.

Of course, the true must-see destination of Vietnam, and where we will end our journey, is Ha Long Bay. This site should be recognizable to backpackers, seasoned world trekkers, and even those armchair travelers out there whose idea of travel is watching an old VHS flick on the tube television. This was where the young couple floated around for days in Indochine (an amazingly beautiful movie, which I highly recommend, by the way.) In more recent times it was highlighted in Tomorrow Never Dies, one of the forgettable Pierce Brosnan Bond films.

Beyond all that, it is shockingly beautiful. The landscape is utterly surreal, with over 2000 small limestone islands erupting from the placid jade waters. A complex of grottos and caves, mountains and beaches, floating fishing villages and spectacular sunsets should enthrall you. Silently, you mourn the fact that you must inevitably return from this island paradise to the drudgery and office politics of the paper company you work for in Scranton.

I'm a world traveler and recent Columbia University graduate. I'm looking to share some of my experiences/tips with others so they can discover their next perfect trip. I'm a little older than your usual graduate, because I took gobs of time off to travel extensively!

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Australian Mining Technology Cos Seek To Invest In Vietnam

HANOI -(Dow Jones)- Representatives from 15 Australian mining technology firms will visit Vietnam later this month to seek investment opportunities in the country's mining industry, Vietnam's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said Monday.

During the three-day visit starting Monday, the delegation will hold talks with state-run Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries Group and visit the Sin Quyen Copper Mine and Tang Loong Copper Refining Plant in the northern province of Lao Cai, the ministry said in a statement.

The delegation will introduce their mining technologies and services to mining firms in Vietnam, the ministry added.

-By Vu Trong Khanh, Dow Jones Newswires; 844 35123042; trong-khanh.vu@ dowjones.com

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Standard Chartered: Vietnam makes it a different year

08:28' 22/04/2009 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet Bridge - That the Vietnamese economy is showing several positive signs was what Standard Chartered revealed in its latest report entitled “Vietnam-what a difference a year makes”.

In the report released by the bank in mid-April, the Head of the Southeast Asia Research Department, Tai Hui, said that the trade balance in Vietnam is steadily swinging from a deficit to a surplus.

For the first quarter of 2009, Vietnam ran a trade surplus of 1.6 billion USD, compared to a deficit of 8.4 billion USD in the same period last year.

“This was the result of a collapse in imports, which was partly driven by a rapid decline in commodity prices, in particular of steel and petroleum products,” Tai Hui added.

He stated that when Vietnam’s first oil refinery starts production later this year, the country should be better protected from rising oil prices.

Another positive sign came with exports increasing by 25.9 percent in February and 12.9 percent in March after shrinking for three months between November 2008 and January 2009, said Hui.

Inflation remains on a downward trend, dropping to 11.2 percent in March, the lowest since December 2007, after peaking in August 2008 at 28.3 percent.

The senior economic expert forecasted that inflation could drop to a single digit by the second half of 2009 if oil and food prices remain stable.

“The gloomy global sentiment has yet to be seen in local consumption as domestic retail sales have maintained a decent momentum in recent months. Even after adjusting for inflation, real retail sales have been broadly expanding,” Hui said.

“Surprisingly, the global economic slowdown has yet to hurt foreign direct investment (FDI),” emphasised the economist.

Official figures show that the country attracted 6 billion USD of pledged FDI in the first quarter of 2009, slightly higher than 5.2 billion USD recorded in the same period last year.

In his analysis, Hui attributed the State Bank of Vietnam’s (SBV) prompt monetary policy for the U-turn in the economy 12 months ago.

Trade deficits reached up to 9 percent of gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2008 and inflation culminated at 28.3 percent in August of that year.

In response to capital outflows and rising inflation, the SBV raised its base rate aggressively in 2008 to 14 percent by the end of the second quarter of that year from 8-7.5 percent at the start of the quarter.

By the third quarter of 2008, the trade deficit seemed to have been brought under control and the increase of the consumer price index had slowed down.

In this situation, the Government was quick to reverse its monetary tightening, reducing the base rate to 7 percent in early April 2009 from 14 percent in September 2008. Meanwhile, the authorities also permitted the VND to fall further against the USD. Since the end of September 2008, the VND has dropped by 7 percent.

The Government has announced various fiscal measures to support economic growth, including interest subsidies and tax deferrals.

In the report, Standard Chartered remained constructive in its medium-term outlook for Vietnam while 2009 is still a year of great challenges for the domestic and regional economy.

“Several structural factors will drive the country’s development, some of which will still be at work even as growth in the advanced economies weakens”, Hui said.

Standard Chartered experts forecast that Vietnam’s purchasing power will double in the next 6-7 years, after taking into account the growth of other Asian economies.

Vietnam, due to its stable political environment and low production costs, is often regarded by Asian businesses as a good alternative, said the report.

“The experiences of other Asian economies often serve as an example to policy makers in Vietnam as they determine the most appropriate approach to facilitating growth. The domestic market turmoil in the second and in third quarter of 2008, as well as the global financial crisis, demonstrates that the authorities are quick to learn and adapt, in our view,” the report made it clear.

Standard Chartered retained its previous forecasts of the Vietnamese economy growth at 4.2 percent in 2009 and 5 percent in 2010.

“While this may be low from a domestic standpoint, it is a respectable performance from a regional perspective,” concluded Hui.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Where is Vietnam Headed in 2009?


    January 12, 2009

    The three-day Tet festival is approaching in Vietnam, the climax of a long season of celebrations that began with the enthusiastic embrace of Christmas in mid-December. In the southern city that residents still call Saigon, parks and boulevards have been festooned with colorful lights, and Christmas carols drifted over restaurants, hotel lobbies and department stores with their resident Santas.

    On the surface, the "American" war that ended more than three decades ago seems to have left no traces here. But in the hearts and minds of those who suffered the war and survived to remember it, there is pain. Tet is a time for reflection, and there are some conflicted emotions about where Vietnam is headed in the new year.

    It is not only that the spectacle of affluence and materialism, even in tough economic times, and the love affair with things Western seem jarring to a revolutionary generation that gave their all to a cause, losing relatives and friends, often to unmarked battlefield graves. There is also, especially in the south, unease and disappointment that a unified Vietnam has not lived up to its considerable potential. Despite nearly two decades of economic liberalization, the Vietnamese see their country stagnating under the heavy hand of excess government regulation and censorship, and watch politicians squandering the country's economic gains on corruption.

    The start of this long holiday season coincided with a suspension of Japanese development assistance after the discovery of a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that diverted aid funds from Japan, until now Vietnam's largest donor. A reporter from a leading newspaper said journalists have been told to stop dwelling on this. Two reporters were arrested last year for writing about the skimming of aid from not only from Japan but also the World Bank. One journalist is in jail and the other in re-education. The reporters, Ngyuen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre and Nguyen Viet Chen of Thanh Nien, were convicted of "absuing democratic freedoms." (Human Rights Watch has a new report, Vietnam: Stop Muzzling the Messengers, on these and other cases. Colleagues say that the reporters had inside government sources, but that did not save them or their editors. The government, which retains the right to appoint news managers, dismissed the editors of the two newspapers involved. The popular, daring and profitable daily Tuoi Tre saw its editor replaced in December for the third time in two years by ever "safer" government appointees; in early January the editor of Thanh Nien was sacked.

    In Danang, a publishing house was shut down in December and two top editors fired for printing "mistakes." Internet users are regularly harassed and occasionally arrested. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of Vietnamese use the Internet to post blogs and share information. Among the bloggers are schoolchildren as young as 11 or 12 who have home computers or frequent Internet cafes, which the government polices clumsily. It may be a sign of a losing battle that new regulations on Internet use have been recently published in an effort to contain the impact of the cyberworld. At the same time, newspapers and other publications are racing to create English-language Web sites to give their reporting wider exposure.

    Among students, academics and, above all, journalists, critics are becoming astonishingly outspoken. In a recent seminar of professors and university administrators (some of them retired from careers in the West), speaker after speaker told of chafing under political restrictions imposed from Hanoi. The message heard again and again from participants was that the government should understand that free speech and access to information were prerequisites of human and economic development. A university president, asked how she had managed to gain so much intellectual space for her faculty, declared boldly, "I don't get given autonomy; I take it."

    In southern Vietnam there are other grievances beyond those of the classroom and newsroom. Residents of Saigon, officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City three decades ago, complain that more than three-quarters of the earnings of this dynamic, outward-looking metropolitan area are siphoned off by the central government and southerners get very little in return. A recent survey by a British consulting company ranked Saigon 150th among 215 large cities worldwide in quality of life, well behind neighbors such as Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, against which this city should be more competitive. On a scale of 1 to 10, the English-language Viet Nam News reported, Saigon got a zero for the quality of its water, and some hospitals were found to have two or three patients sharing one bed.

    Every enterprise and voluntary association gets bogged down in layers of licensing requirements. Trade groups, chambers of commerce and construction companies say publicly that new ventures may face as many as thirty-three time-wasting procedures, frustrating would-be investors.

    Among intellectuals there is enormous interest in a new book from Vietnam's most popular dissident writer, Duong Thu Huong, author ofParadise of the Blind and other works of fiction critical of enduring nationalist myths.

    The new book, just published this month in Paris and titled in French Au Zenith, is a thinly veiled and not complimentary novel about the national hero, Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of modern Vietnam and an off-limits subject here. Newspapers have been warned not to touch the story, but copies or excerpts of Huong's book in French and Vietnamese began to circulate on the Internet even before its publication.

    Huong, who is from Hanoi and was once an active communist cadre, turned against the regime, as did other intellectuals in the north, on learning after unification that much of the propaganda they had been fed about life in the south was untrue, and that Hanoi's army was killing not only Americans but also fellow Vietnamese. For more than two decades northerners have been exploring this theme of official wartime deceit in books, poetry and film.

    When Huong, whose works are banned in Vietnam, was asked, at a rare appearance in New York in 2007 sponsored by American PEN, why there was not open revolt in Vietnam, she said there were several reasons, among them that the Vietnamese had a history of fighting outsiders and no tradition of internal conflict--thus the shock at learning how many southern Vietnamese were dying in the "American" war. She also said bluntly that the Vietnamese are ruled by backward-looking leaders whose pride in winning a war against the United States--a pride widely shared--has never been augmented and updated with a compelling postwar vision for the country. The leadership has survived for thirty years "on corpses," she said.

    Meanwhile among the young, the majority of Vietnam's population, there is a deep, if blind and unrealistic, belief in the West, encouraged by theViet khieu, or overseas Vietnamese, who return with money to spend on homes and goods that local people without connections cannot afford. In recent years, European designer boutiques have supplanted Vietnamese stores in downtown Saigon, where characterless contemporary architecture is in vogue. A huge shopping mall topped with luxury apartments and a hotel is under construction, covering a full city block of prime real estate from Nguyen Hue boulevard to Dong Khoi, the former Rue Catinat.

    The complex is called Times Square.

    About Barbara Crossette

    Barbara Crossette, United Nations correspondent for The Nation, is a former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief in Asia and at the UN.

    She is the author of So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1995 and in paperback by Random House/Vintage Destinations in 1996, and a collection of travel essays about colonial resort towns that are still attracting visitors more than a century after their creation, The Great Hill Stations of Asia, published by Westview Press in 1998 and in paperback by Basic Books in 1999. In 2000, she wrote a survey of India and Indian-American relations, India: Old Civilization in a New World, for the Foreign Policy Association in New York. She is also the author of India Facing the 21st Century, published by Indiana University Press in 1993.


    Friday, January 02, 2009

    Vietnam Opens Wider For Business

    Oliver Massmann and Giles T. Cooper12.31.08, 12:00 AM EST

    With new 2009 trade rules, it's the year to invest.



    On Jan. 1, Vietnam opens its retail sector to wholly foreign-owned investments according to its World Trade Organization obligations. Lucrative opportunities await in Asia's new No. 1 retail market.

    Times are changing in Vietnam's capital city. While tourists from all over the world are still flocking to Hanoi's picturesque market stalls, the heart of daily life is no longer confined to the old merchant quarters. Western-style shopping malls are popping up overnight, and they are attracting high-end retailers from the U.S. and Europe.

    Vietnam officially joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) as its 150th member on Jan. 11, 2007. The WTO requires that tariff regulations, trade rights, national treatment and most-favored-nation treatment be incorporated into domestic law. Essentially, trade barriers must be torn down and the Vietnamese market opened to other WTO members.

    Although Vietnam has taken solid steps to restructure and meet these requirements, challenges for foreign investors remain. The economy is still in a developmental phase, relying heavily on traditional sectors such as agriculture.

    At the same time, it is leapfrogging other Asian markets in retail thanks to rapidly growing consumer demand and low barriers to market entry. According to a 2008 ranking by consultants AT Kearney, India has yielded its position as first in "retail investment attractiveness" and fallen to second behind Vietnam, formerly in fourth. Russia and China dropped to third and fourth respectively. While the retail outlook in the U.S. is grim, Vietnam provides corporations with an alternate growth strategy.

    As Vietnam strives to emulate a Western standard, transitioning from a socialist system to an internationally integrated market economy is a bumpy process. One WTO requirement is to end import tariffs that had been imposed to protect local businesses against foreign competitors. The country has been reluctant to adapt this rule in the case of agriculture, given that entire villages depend on it as a main source of income.

    The 2006 Law on Intellectual Property, by comparison, has been better received. Recent high-profile trademark infringement cases represent remarkable progress.

    Vietnam Tourism Sector Seeks Luxury Travellers during Economic Crisis

    According to the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM), the Vietnamese tourism sector should focus its energies on the luxury market with figures during the current economic crisis indicating that the top 3% of tourists are spending 20% of total tourism expenditure.

    The top 3% of tourists represent a significant segment of the Vietnamese tourism market as they have an average spend of approximately $5000 compared to tourists normal average spend of around $750.

    Luxury travellers have been placed in the enviable position of being able to demand nothing short of the most thrilling and unique experiences and personal and confidential service during their holidays in Vietnam.

    Ha Pham, founder and CEO of the Luxury Travel Company said that Vietnam has the potential to develop into an upscale destination, where products and services must be created to cater for the niche market rather than “sell the same tourism products since 10 years ago”.

    He added, “Golfing, spa, beach vacation, family travel, junk and sampan cruises, honeymoon and romance moved up to the top notch and favorites for upscale travelers. Vietnam’s appeal is vast”

    Vietnam will be provided with the perfect opportunity to advertise its image on a global platform next year when it hosts international events such as the ASEAN tourism forum 2009.

    Vietnam: 100 million people fast approaching!

    VietNamNet Bridge – The birth rate in Vietnam is quickly rising again, posing many challenges for the country. Food shortages accompany enormous populations. The health sector will have to take drastic measures to prevent the “prospect” of a population of 100 million.


    Limited land, crowded population


    With limited land and natural resources, Vietnam has to nurture over 86 million people. At the current growth rate, Vietnam’s population would hit 115-120 million people in the not too distant future.


    Minister of Health Nguyen Quoc Trieu said without drastic measures to curb the birth rate, Vietnam’s population could even reach 145-150 million.


    The increase of population, according to experts, will slow down economic growth and increase unemployment. Vietnam is now in a period of golden population, during which the number of working-age people is higher than that of dependent people (children under 15 and elderly people over 64). Annually, Vietnam has around 1.5-1.6 million people reach working age, posing challenges in creating jobs for new labourers.


    The country will enter a period of old population structure in the next 15-20 years, and at that time, challenges in terms of social welfare will arise. The young population structure goes with pressures in terms of health, education, and child care.


    As the number of couples having more than two children is on the rise, Vietnam will have to once again resume its campaign to call for each family to have no more than two children.


    The re-increase of the birth rate has been said to originate from the dissolving of the Committee for Population, Family and Children, which was in charge of family planning and population tasks, in August 2008. Since this agency was dissolved, family planning and population tasks in localities have been suspended.


    Risk of food insecurity


    Each year Vietnam has an additional 1 million people, equivalent to the population of a province, even though each couple has two children at most. Its population is forecast to reach 100 million in the coming years. At that time, the current 40 million tonnes/year of cereals that Vietnam can produce now would be just enough to feed domestic demand.


    While the population is rising, the land area devoted to rice growing is narrowing. This means that while the need for rice is increasing, rice output will not increase, and may even decrease.


    In the 2002-2007 period, the area for rice decreased by 0.46 million hectares (around 4% of agricultural land area). The biggest drop happened in the Mekong Delta (0.26 million hectares); the figure was around 0.11 million hectares for the Red River Delta. At the same time, the birth rate increased quickly; in particular, the ratio of families with three or more children rose by 16% and it was even 19-20% in 2008.


    Vietnam aims to become an industrialised country by 2020, with over 40% of its population living in urban areas. The challenges for maintaining rice crops will be great. Controlling birth rate, thus, becomes a key job.