Tag Archives: Vietnam environment

The Problem With Curious Boys in Vietnam

People who visit Vietnam for the first time often comment on the ingenuity they witness on the street as curious craftsmen and repairmen work magic with their hands.  But every day, it seems, curiosity ends in tragedy.

Today’s tragedy is about three boys who were tinkering with a land mine left over from the war that they found on a construction site near the central Vietnamese city of Danang.  It was mid-morning, and the boys were taking explosives out of the mine casing when their curiosity took both of Phan Van Hieu’s hands.  He’s 11 and recovering in a hospital.  The boys suffered other injuries as well.

Authorities in Vietnam are well aware of the danger unexploded ordnance poses to  people in the countryside, especially curious boys.  In this case, the area where Hieu was hurt was a former military base that supposedly had been cleared of mines before people were allowed enter it.  But you can’t always get every mine.

It’s estimated that more than 16 million acres (one fifth of Vietnam) contain 800,000 tons of unexploded bombs, shells and landmines — concentrated in six central provinces and the city of Hue.

Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has killed more than 40,000 people and injured 60,000.  That’s a relentless human toll of more than 3 deaths and 4 injuries a day.

Vietnam’s Approach to Gender Roles at Work

About the time the Vietnam/American War ended, American women started progressing toward gender equity in the workplace, and now it’s hard to imagine the US government doing what Vietnam just did:  banned employers from hiring women in 77 job categories.  

Effective Dec. 15, Vietnam’s new labor decree is aimed at protecting women’s health.  It prohibits women from working in jobs that adversely affect their  reproduction and child raising duties as well as jobs that require frequent submersion in water.  The list includes metal processing, oil well drilling, gas exploration, work on high-voltage power lines, repairing the exterior of tall buildings, boiler operation, and anything that involves carrying things heavier than 120 pounds.

Women also won’t be allowed to do sewer dredging, mining, underwater concrete construction, or anything that requires workers to stay in dirty and stinky water for 12 hours or more a week.

Further, women who are pregnant or raising infants aren’t allowed to do work that exposes them to electromagnets or radioactive substances, or chemicals that can cause gene mutation or cancer.  And they won’t be allowed to carry more than 50-pound objects, or work in dirty water, excessive heat, excessive cold, or stagnant air.

Some feminists might consider the new rules appalling, but they seem to reflect a profound cultural difference between East and West when it comes to acknowledging and honoring gender differences and protecting the health of not only women but also the next generation.

And anybody who wants to complain that Vietnam’s male-dominated government is being sexist will have to explain why the country’s males will be ending up with most of the dirty work.

Rescuing Vietnam’s 882 Endangered Species

While Vietnam cultivates its industry and agribusiness, one arm of the government is looking to rescue economic development’s innocent bystanders:  882 endangered species of floral and fauna.  That number is up from 161 species 20 years ago even though some of those have become extinct, including nine kinds of animals.

Coming to the aid of non-human forms of life, Vietnam’s environment department this week introduced a national strategy to create 41 new nature reserves.  When and if that happens, 9% of Vietnam’s land mass and 45% of its forests will be protected — and there will be 10 biosphere reserves and 10 ASEAN heritage parks.  The agency’s biodiversity master plan also calls for 23 reserves by 2030 in addition to the 148 existing ones and the 41 to be established by 2020 (accounting for nearly 3,000 square miles of land).

Vietnam does not have a good reputation with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, partly because the country — as one of the world’s most diverse — has so much to protect.  WWF and others have criticized Vietnam for not being more aggressive in combatting illegal trading of wild animals and habitat fragmentation that results from hydropower and other trappings of economic growth.

Even so, Vietnam has a passionate population of environmentalists who see biodiversity as the foundation of a green economy, a key to dealing with climate change, and a significant contributor to quality of life.  They want to balance the economic dreams of Homo sapiens with the needs of other species.


10 Dark Hours For Vietnam’s Infrastructure

Garment factories, fish processing facilities, traffic signals and everything else that runs on electricity in 22 Vietnamese provinces shut down this week for half a day when a crane operator accidentally knocked down a tree — and cut the power supply for a third of the country.

Accidents happen, but this one heightened investors’ anxieties about Vietnam.  As global manufacturers rush to Vietnam as an otherwise stable, lower-cost alternative to almost every other country in Asia, some of them wonder if Vietnam can keep with the surging demands on its transportation and energy infrastructure.

The country has been rapidly modernizing roads, seaports, airports, and energy supply — including oil refineries, hydroelectric facilities, and planning for two nuclear power plants — much to the chagrin of environmentalists concerned this is happening at the expense of Vietnam’s health and culture.  They may have considered the brief delay in economic expansion a breath of fresh air.

For a few hours, restaurants served tourists by candlelight.  Water supplies began to dry up.  Factories shut down.  Traffic jammed, especially near nonfunctional traffic lights.

When a tree falls in a developing country, the sound you hear is usually called progress. But when this particular tree fell on the nation’s main high voltage transmission line, the air conditioners stopped.  And the sound the government heard was sweaty criticism of the state-owned electricity company.

Vietnam’s Urgent Health Concerns

A new report says the cancer death rate in Vietnam is among world’s highest, with 73% of 110,000 annual cancer cases resulting in death — which seems to underscore the urgency of Vietnam balancing the needs of its people and its economy.

Speaking in Vietnam’s capital, a director of Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital told an international conference on cancer that Vietnam’s cancer death rate far exceeds the 60% world average and 49% average for developed countries.

Vietnam’s most common cancers are lung, breast, large intestine, stomach, liver, prostate, uterus, cervix, esophagus, bladder, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, oral cavity, leukemia, pancreas, ovary and kidney.  Women are six times more likely to have cervical cancer in Ho Chi Minh City  than in Hanoi — where breast cancer is more common; men are more likely to have liver cancer in HCMC and lung cancer in Hanoi.

Cancer diagnoses are increasing by up to 30% per year, and the main reason most of the patients die is particularly concerning:  They wait to see doctors until their conditions are in late stages.

These reports highlight two of Vietnam’s most urgent needs:

  1. Preventive health care and early diagnoses — People need to be encouraged to adopt healthy lifestyles (such as quitting smoking) and to seek medical care when they are sick; they also need confidence they will get and can afford quality care.
  2. Environmental protection — Many of the cancers that are killing Vietnamese people are linked to poor air quality, water pollution, food contaminants, and other environmental hazards.

Vietnam’s government has said much about its effort to balance the needs of people, environment, and economy.  It’s incorporated in the communist philosophy.  The latest cancer report is a stark reminder that Vietnam needs to balance its priorities.

Does Mice-Eating Kill Vietnamese Rhinos?

Controversy over a newspaper columnist’s comments about Vietnam doesn’t seem to be going away.  As if to prove Joel Brinkley’s assertion that meat-eating makes Vietnamese people aggressive, Vietnamese people worldwide are calling for the Stanford professor’s head.

Obscured in the controversy is the central point of the article published two weeks ago:  Vietnam has a bad record of protecting tigers, elephants and rhinos from poachers.  That’s partly because Vietnam’s forests had so many wild animals in the first place, but even so:  The World Wildlife Federation’s crime scoreboard lists Vietnam and China as the worst offenders.

Meanwhile, the culture clash over the newspaper column in a strange way seems like a replay of the Vietnam War:  The American blinded by arrogance and pride; the Vietnamese adversary tenacious and unyielding (attributes that aren’t synonyms for aggressive).

Professor Brinkley’s column, like the American involvement in the Vietnam War, was about a lot of things — including American centrism.  US leaders expected their moral and technological superiority to prevail; the newspaper columnist seems to have thought his wisdom would inform.  Neither intended to offend anyone, but some Vietnamese were offended anyway when the American military killed millions of civilians and when the professor insulted their culture.

Now hundreds of people have signed a petition asking for the professor to step down from his position at Stanford University.  And he seems intent on digging a deeper hole, defending indefensible generalities.  The Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre says this was his response to its question about whether he still thinks Vietnamese people are aggressive:  “I would call the Vietnamese more robust than their neighbors, most of whom eat rice and not much else.  They ingest little protein.  In the  many months I  spent in Cambodia writing my book on that state, I found passiveness and  lassitude among so many people.  A common phrase I heard in Vietnam was this: ‘Vietnamese grow rice. Laotians watch the rice grow. Cambodians listen to it grow.'”

Whatever happens next, the controversy is instructive.  Anybody who wants to build a bridge between the US and Vietnam can learn from it.  Things worth learning:

  • Sometimes It’s not a good idea to generalize.  Some Vietnamese are aggressive.  Some are passive.  Some are assertive.  Some eat mice.  Some eat hot dogs.  Some people who do not eat birds but do eat field mice and an occasional dog are aggressive sometimes, and some are not.
  • Leave causal relationships to scientists.  Does meat-eating cause aggression?  Does rodent-eating cause rhino extinction?  Does rice cause not-so-smartness in Cambodians?  Does winning a Pulitzer Prize make your head grow bigger?  Maybe.  Maybe not.
  • Humility goes a long way.   Cultural misunderstandings are human and common.  Regardless of how smart a professor, decorated a general or successful an investor you are, you’re going to make embarrassing mistakes.  Learn from them.  Acknowledge them. Apologize for them with humility and sincerity, and then forgive yourself.
  • The world doesn’t revolve around the USA.  This is Asia’s century.  You won’t win friends if you don’t get Asian cultures, and you don’t want to take a course from a professor who doesn’t get Asian cultures.

For anybody who missed the column that offended some of the world’s Vietnamese people, you can find it here.

A Prized Professor’s Ignorance About Vietnam

Anybody who plans to do business in Vietnam should read Joel Brinkley’s  column (below) that appeared last week in the Chicago Tribune.  The Stanford journalism professor published a textbook example of Western centrism, arrogance, and hypocrisy that insults an entire culture.

People who want to invest in Vietnam would be advised to learn from the ugly top_site_international_businessAmericanism expressed by Professor Brinkley, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting about Cambodia — but made the rookie mistake of generalizing about Vietnam  based on a brief tour there over the winter holidays.  That isn’t unusual for some Americans, many of whom still have archaic notions about Vietnam left over from the 1970s.

The most absurd and pathetic of Brinkley’s assertions is that “Vietnam has always been an aggressive country” because its people eat meat.  Actually,  Vietnam’s history is mostly about defending itself from the aggression of China and others, including Americans.

As penance for his mis-characterized aggression, the professor should be required to read every page of the new book: “Kill Anything That Moves,” which documents America’s systemic culture of war crime during the Vietnam War.

Brinkley also links Vietnamese consumption of birds, rodents, and canines to the demise of tigers, rhinos and elephants in their country.  It’s true Vietnamese eat birds (so do Americans) and rodents, but rice-eating Vietnamese mice in the field are not quite the same as rats in San Francisco’s sewers.  And, yes, dogs can be food as well as pets in Vietnam, but that is about cultural differences, not environmental conservation.

The column contains elements of truth, and even worthwhile information:  Protection of wildlife IS an important issue in Vietnam; perhaps Vietnamese DO tend to consume more protein than many of their Cambodian neighbors (which may imply more about the nutritional values of the workforces than anybody’s propensity for aggression).

But not much in the column rings true to me after my travels in Vietnam over the years.  An award-winning journalist and professor should know that a few days on a tour aren’t enough to generalize about a people. especially a people that was systematically dehumanized by the professor’s “people” not long ago.  And the idea that Vietnamese are aggressive, written from the perspective of an American, is just silly.

Unfortunately, the columnist exacerbated his cultural ignorance by responding to criticism of his column by insisting that meat makes people aggressive and, in the process, insulting Cambodians and Laotians.  He wrote: “Eating a diet rich in protein will make you more robust than others, in Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian states who eat rice and very little else. After all half of Laotian children grow up stunted, even today. In Cambodia the rate is 40 percent. That means they grow up short and not so smart. Would it also follow that they would be less aggressive than Vietnamese? I think so.”

For investors interested in avoiding the mistakes of a Pulitzer Prize winner who needs an editor, here is the column from the web site of the Chicago Tribune, which to its credit issued an apology for publishing it:

You don’t have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where’d they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten.

Of course, as with most states in the region, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other big animals are trafficked to China. At this, of course, Vietnam is hardly alone — though the World Wildlife Fund describes the state as the world’s greatest wildlife malefactor.

Various reports show that Vietnamese kill more rhinos for their horns than any other nation. Chinese value those horns for their mythical medical qualities — like so many exotic-animal body parts.

Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there. In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale — their fur removed but otherwise intact — ready to cook.

Last spring, Conservation International reported that several varieties of Vietnamese gibbon, part of the ape family, “are perilously close to extinction” — all but a few of them already eaten.

All of this raises an interesting question. Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — have largely left their wildlife alone.

In each of these other countries you see flocks of birds that are absent in Vietnam along with numerous pet dogs and cats. There, people eat rice, primarily, and for many people in most of those states their diet includes little more than that.

Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.

Many anthropologists and historians attribute the difference to the state’s origins. Vietnam was born of China, while India heavily influenced the other countries — two nations with drastically different personalities, even today.

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state’s aggressive tendencies — and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It’s considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats. For Vietnamese, tradition has it that whenever you have bad luck you should eat dog meat to change your fate. But you shouldn’t eat it at the start of the lunar month, or the reverse will happen. You’ll actually bring on bad luck.

The Chicago Tribune’s apology:

“Tribune Media Services (TMS) recently moved an opinion column by Joel Brinkley about his observations from a trip to Vietnam that did not meet our journalistic standards. The column has provoked a highly critical response from readers since its release.

“TMS has a rigorous editing process for its content, and in the case of Brinkley’s column that moved Jan. 29, all the required steps did not occur. We regret that this happened, and we will be vigilant in ensuring that our editing process works in the future.”