Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Where is Vietnam Headed in 2009?

    by BARBARA CROSSETTE

    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.

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    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.

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    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.