80 contestants at Miss Universe pageant help put spotlight on booming Vietnam

NHA TRANG, Vietnam: Eighty of the world’s most beautiful women have converged on a stretch of the Vietnamese coast better known for war than glamour.

They were preparing for the 57th annual Miss Universe competition, which will be broadcast to millions of viewers across the globe on Monday.

Like her 84 million compatriots, Vietnam’s 20-year-old contestant is hoping the show will let the world know about the new Vietnam, where commerce and fashion are thriving and war has become a fading memory.

“I want to introduce my country and my culture and our history to everybody,” said Nguyen Thuy Lam, whose traditional costume is a Vietnamese ao dai, a colorful silk pantsuit. “I feel very confident when I wear the ao dai. I wish everyone would wear it and feel confident too.”

The contest is being held in Nha Trang, a seaside city located next to a major American air base during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

Given the history of hostilities between the two nations, Miss USA Crystle Stewart has been impressed by the warmth of her Vietnamese hosts.

“The USA and Vietnam are working together, in cooperation and peace,” said Stewart, a Texan who is writing a motivational book. “Hopefully we’ll be role models for other countries.”

The show will be co-hosted by British pop singer Mel B, known as “Scary Spice” during her days with the Spice Girls. She will be joined by American television personality Jerry Springer, host of “America’s Got Talent” and a long-running tabloid talk show that often climaxes with angry guests cussing and brawling with one another.

Springer is clearly enjoying his new Miss Universe job.

“Whoa!” Springer said during an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, as dozens of contestants strutted across the stage during a rehearsal. “This is a plum assignment.”

The 80 contestants have been in Vietnam for nearly four weeks now, receiving intense coverage from the Vietnamese media as they met with local dignitaries, frolicked in their bikinis and participated in various charity events.

They were hard at work Saturday preparing for the show.

Miss Serbia, 21-year-old Bojana Boric, is eager to compete in the swimsuit competition.

“It’s a very good feeling,” said Boric, who enjoys modeling, cooking and extreme sports. “It’s your moment. It’s the moment when everyone will see your face, and everyone will remember.”

Beauty pageants have been derided by many as exploitative of women, celebrating superficiality over substance. Sweden’s 2007 contestant dropped out after coming under pressure from pageant critics in her homeland, and the country is not sending a delegate this year.

But beauty contests are extremely popular in Vietnam, which is also hoping to host the 2010 Miss World competition.

After years of war and poverty, the country has been booming economically, and high-end cosmetics and fashion stores have sprouted up in Hanoi, the capital, and in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s southern business hub.

“It’s great to have the Miss Universe competition here in Vietnam,” said 18-year-old high school student Nguyen Thi Kieu My. “It will help to promote Vietnam’s image in the world and bring in more tourists.”


Thousands mourn Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk

HANOI (AFP) — Thousands of followers on Friday mourned the death of Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk Thich Huyen Quang at a funeral at his pagoda in central Vietnam, supporters, a witness and an official said.

Quang, who died last Saturday aged 87 after decades of internal exile, led the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which has refused to come under state control and was effectively outlawed in the early 1980s.

“Thousands of people and followers were at the funeral, many of them Buddhist monks wearing their robes,” said the Vietnamese eye-witness, who asked not to be identified. “The funeral was organised by his followers.”

A provincial official, speaking to AFP on condition he not be named, said: “No representative from the Vietnamese government attended the funeral.”

A Paris-based UBCV spokesman said that 6,000 monks, nuns and lay followers of the banned church defied police warnings and controls to attend the funeral at the Nguyen Thieu monastery in Binh Dinh province.

Around 200 wreaths and plaques honouring Quang under his title of UBCV Supreme Patriarch were placed around the coffin, he said.

“The fact that Vietnam did not interfere in the funeral is a victory for the international human rights community, and the result of concerted pressure from diplomats, legislators and civil society movements worldwide,” said UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai.

“UBCV followers were able to pay their last respects to Thich Huyen Quang in dignity and calm, and he was laid to rest by those who loved and supported him throughout his peaceful combat for religious freedom and human rights.”

State-controlled media had earlier in the week announced the ceremony would be conducted by the state-sponsored Buddhist church and labelled UBCV followers “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks.”

The media attacks, and reports that large numbers of plain-clothes police were at the pagoda, sparked protests this week from international human rights groups and raised fears of disturbances at the funeral.

Amnesty International — which first named Quang a prisoner of conscience in the 1990s — urged Vietnam to allow his funeral to take place “without hindrance and harassment of UBCV members by agents of the state.”

The UBCV’s deputy Thich Quang Do — who had been attacked in the state press for his “evil plot” to hijack the funeral — led the ceremony.

Do, who has also spent decades under “pagoda arrest,” is expected to become the new supreme patriarch of the UBCV after an interval of several weeks, in line with Buddhist beliefs.

According to the Paris UBCV office, he said, standing before the coffin:

“Over the past 30 years, from 1975 until today, whereas religious and political repression raged in Vietnam, you were like a great tree that brought us shade and shelter.

“You were the helmsman whose firm hand safely guided the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam through persecution and oppression.”

On Thursday Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said that “there is no organisation called UBCV.”

But Do, according to his supporters, said to his late friend Quang: “You have left us for ever, but the struggle for UBCV legality goes on. We pledge to continue your peaceful combat, to follow the path you traced.

“We know that countless obstacles lie ahead, and we are ready to confront them. We will not cease until we have fulfilled your dream to see the UBCV regain its legal status and win back the freedom of religious activities stolen from us by the communist regime in 1975.”


5 killed by explosives left over from the Vietnam War

HANOI, Vietnam: Five people, including three children, died in central Vietnam when 30-year-old unexploded ordnance left behind from the Vietnam War exploded, police and state media reported Friday.

Three boys, aged 12 to 14, were killed in an explosion Thursday in the Hai Lang district of Quang Tri province, said a district police officer who identified himself only as Binh.

The boys discovered four unexploded bombs in bushes while looking after water buffaloes and the explosives went off when they examined them, he said.

Authorities suspect that farmers may have found the bombs while plowing their rice fields and put them in the bushes.

The area was a communist stronghold during the war and was heavily bombarded.

On Tuesday, two men aged 19 and 31 were killed in the central highlands province of Kon Tum when an artillery shell they were cutting up for scrap metal exploded, Friday’s Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported.

The explosion also left the wife of the 19-year-old man seriously injured, the report said.

About 38,000 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, according to government figures.


Vietnam denies existence of outlawed Buddhist group

The communist government in Vietnam has denied the existence of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

The statement came as crowds gathered outside a monastery for the funeral of the country’s leading dissident Buddhist, Thich Huyen Quang.

He was the patriarch of the group which has refused to come under state control and was outlawed in the early 1980s.

He died last Saturday, aged 87.

Foreign ministry spokesman, Le Dung, in reply to a question at a regular media briefing, said there is no organisation called UBCV.

He says the founders of the Nguyen Thieu monastery, his followers and his family are organised the funeral.


Vietnam tries to clean up its streets

Hanoi – As Vietnam attempts to clean up its streets by limiting street vendors, some downtown patrons questioned on Wednesday how much of an improvement the new laws will make. As of July 1, police in downtown Hanoi started handing out fines to street vendors operating on 62 streets and other designated areas.

“The ban on street vendors in downtown Hanoi has proved to be very effective,” said Nguyen Thi Nhu Mai, deputy director of the Department of Industry and Trade of Hanoi, one week after police started handing out fines to illegal vendors.

“Basically, all the street vendors have been notified about the ban and they all abide by the ban. However, there are a small number of street vendors staying and dodging the ban.”

With the streets of Hanoi notoriously crowded, the ban has been in development since the beginning of the year.

“Hanoi is becoming a modern and civilized city,” said Ho Quoc Khanh, director of the Trade Management Unit under the Hanoi Trade Department in a previous interview. “It’s trade activities will be more civilized and modern. Thus, we cannot accept a city with sellers and buyers operating on the streets and on pavements.”

Tu Nguyen, a travel agent who works in the capital city’s historic old quarter, questioned how effective the ban will be in the long run. While a slew of extra police officers were brought in for the initial kick-off, she doesn’t expect them to stick around. Since local police make deals with the street vendors, she’s expecting most of those street vendors to come back.

That’s good news for Phong Ti Nguyen and Xuyen Ti Nguyen, two local vendors. The two women bicycle 30 kilometres into town to sell fans and bracelets to tourists, earning a couple of dollars a day. They admitted to being afraid of the police and have been keeping a low profile since the ban came into place.

Bob Young, a tourist from Seattle, is also hoping that the ban won’t be too effective. Having visited Hanoi a few times, he said the street vendors are part of the city’s charm.

“It’s part of the culture, it’s Vietnam,” he said. “The vendors aren’t bothering anybody, it’s the vehicles, the traffic.”

Unfortunately for Young, regulations limiting parking to clear off the city’s sidewalks may not help. Tu Nguyen noted that as motorcycles can’t park on the sidewalks anymore, they are moving onto the streets, creating even more chaos on the already crowded roads. She remains skeptical about how effective the new regulations will be.

“People will always try to escape the law,” she said.


Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta in Grip of Dengue Fever Outbreak

Text of report in English by Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien on 7 July

[Unattributed report “Dengue Fever Plagues HCMC and Mekong Delta”]

Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta are in the grip of a dengue fever outbreak, with many hospitals overloaded with cases.

HCMC Preventative Health Department Deputy Director Nguyen Dac Tho said about 4,000 cases of dengue fever had been reported in the city in the first six months of the year, with about 100 new cases recorded every week.

Thu Duc District has reported the highest number of dengue fever cases, followed by districts 7, 8 and Tan Phu, Tho said.

Dang Hai Dang, deputy director of Ca Mau Province’s Preventive Health Department, said the number of patients struck down with dengue fever in his province over the past month was nearly double the number reported in the first five months of this year.

Tran Van Thoi District has been hardest hit, with 600 cases reported so far this year, followed by the U Minh and Thoi Binh districts and Ca Mau Town, he said.

At the Children’s Emergency Department of Ca Mau General Hospital, two or three patients share each bed.

The tropical disease, transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, has claimed four lives in Ca Mau Province this year.

Soc Trang Province has the highest number of cases, with more than 1,900 cases reported so far this year.

The provincial hospital’s children department often struggles to cope with the influx of Dengue patients.

In Tien Giang Province, more than 1,400 cases of the disease have been reported this year.

One death, a seven-year-old boy, was also reported.

Between 300 and 700 cases each of Dengue fever have been reported in the Mekong Delta provinces of Dong Thap, Bac Lieu, Kien Giang and Ben Tre.

Ho Chi Minh City’s Pasteur Institute has run prevention and treatment training courses for health officials from Soc Trang, Ca Mau, Bac Lieu and Hau Giang provinces.

Ca Mau’s health agency staff have been touring the province to advise residents on how to prevent the disease.

The health departments of Soc Trang, Dong Thap, Kien Giang and HCMC have launched mosquito eradication programmes.

Originally published by Thanh Nien, Ho Chi Minh City, in English 7 Jul 08.

HRW urges Vietnam not to interfere with dissident monk’s funeral

HANOI (AFP) — A US-based human rights group Wednesday called on communist Vietnam not to interfere with the funeral of a leading Buddhist dissident monk who died last weekend after decades of internal exile.

Thich Huyen Quang, the patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which has refused to come under communist state control and was outlawed in the early 1980s, died last Saturday aged 87.

“Members of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam should be allowed to organise and attend funeral services for their patriarch without government interference,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

The government has announced that the state-sanctioned Buddhist church will organise the funeral, while also attacking other UBCV members as “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks” in the state media.

“The Vietnamese government is risking unnecessary confrontation with the patriarch’s followers by trying to control him in death as in life,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Thich Huyen Quang gave up his liberty for 30 years in a quest for greater human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam,” he said.

“His followers should be allowed to pay their last respects without government interference, at a ceremony of their own choosing.”

UBCV followers have announced plans for a funeral on Friday at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in central Binh Dinh province, with UBCV deputy Thich Quang Do, the likely successor, presiding over the ceremony.

“The government should let anyone who wants to attend Thich Huyen Quang’s funeral services to travel there freely,” Adams said. “Instead the government is trying to discourage Vietnamese from honouring Thich Huyen Quang’s life in local ceremonies.”

Vietnam’s children get ready for climate disasters

A boy paddles a boat past a damaged house in a flooded village in Vietnam\'s central Thua Thien Hue province, October 2007. REUTERS/Kham (VIETNAM) People take preparation for disasters seriously in Vietnam’s Tien Gian province. Everyone gets involved, because the country’s so vulnerable to disasters – typhoons, flooding and mudslides.

Local leaders ensure the village’s early warning speaker systems work. Plans are in places for hand-held megaphones to warn hamlets with no electricity. Dirt roads and dykes against rising waters are reinforced. Children help draw maps of the village so everyone knows where safe evacuation points are, learning ahead of time so they won’t be afraid.

All across Vietnam, a country with more than 2,000 miles of exposed coastline, people know about climate change and what they need to do to protect themselves. That’s why they are investing time and money in projects that help reduce the risk of disasters.

The government has a department devoted to it. Children are involved through schools, dance, drama and other community activities, so they and their parents will know what to do in the case of disaster. Children’s specific needs are identified, as smaller-sized life-jackets are shipped in and schools equipped with community boats.

I recently visited small villages in the Mekong Delta, travelling by boat at dusk to reach communities where Save the Children is supporting disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities. The children I spoke to seemed to think this was all normal – no panic involved. Last year’s flooding season involved thousands of people evacuating, yet no one died.

Disaster risk reduction saves lives. In Bangladesh, cyclones in 1970 and 1991 killed around 500,000 and 140,000 people respectively. The November 2007 cyclone, Cyclone Sidr, which was of greater intensity, killed fewer than 4,000 people.

While this is still a huge number of casualties, it represents a significant reduction in loss of life. The experience of Bangladesh contrasts strongly with Myanmar (Burma) in May, where there was very little preparation, and a much higher death toll.

The consensus on climate change is clear: it is already affecting the earth with more frequent, more severe and less predictable natural disasters.

Save the Children works in many of the countries already feeling the impact of climate change. We are seeing children and families struggle against drought, floods and other disasters that hit with such frequency there’s little time to recover.

We know that climate change, along with the global rise in fuel and food prices, threatens to undermine the Millennium Development Goals, pushing hundreds of millions more people into deeper poverty. But we also know that when you work with children and their communities on disaster risk reduction, lives can be saved and people can be inspired to achieve dramatic change.

The call to political leaders in this summer disaster season – as drought causes hunger across Africa and storms lash the coasts of Asia and Latin America – is to recognise the links between climate change, disasters and poverty. The poorest people in the poorest countries will clearly be the hardest hit.

Both climate change and poverty have deeply damaging consequences for all of us, and demand global solutions and strong leadership by the world’s richest and most powerful nations.


Gaming a full-time job for some in Vietnam

Gamers in Vietnam are now able to earn a living playing online video games, according to local media reports.

Professional gamers are earning up to $160 a month, the Vietnam News Agency reported last week.

This is roughly equal to the average salary of a worker at a state-owned enterprise, and is more than four times the official minimum monthly wage for government employees.

Businessmen and others with more money than free time are paying gamers to play for them in order to boost the skills level and virtual bank balances of their online personas, the agency reported.

One unnamed company in Ho Chi Minh city provides this service by employing gamers in daily 11-hour shifts at a monthly salary of $103.

Following complaints that many Vietnamese teenagers have become addicted to online games, government regulations now limit gamers to a maximum of five hours online play per day.

However, Thanh Nien News reported last month that players are able easily to circumvent these restrictions with “tricks that can be found on game suppliers’ websites”.

Local officials are also becoming increasingly concerned about violence in online games.

“Authorities should revoke the licences issued for violent games to protect teenagers from addiction, especially those who cut class to play games,” Nguyen Van Khanh, chief of the Culture and Information Department Information Office, told Thanh Nien News.

“The most worrying thing is that the games can sow an admiration for weapons in their mind.”

Military service is compulsory in Vietnam, where teenagers are sometimes signed up as soon as they turn 18.


Hard market lessons for emerging Vietnam

The growing number of luxury stores reveals just how much better off some in Vietnam have become.

Hanoi’s streets are crowded. It was ever thus. But no longer do the smoky pre-war vehicles and creaking bicycles dominate. The roads are now full of new cars and motor bikes, evidence that ordinary Vietnamese are becoming more prosperous.
The growing number of luxury stores reveals just how much better off some have become.

Since the communist government embraced the policy of ‘doi moi,’ or economic openness, more than a decade ago, millions have been lifted out of poverty.
Vietnam has become one of the best performing economies in South-East Asia, averaging growth of between 8 and 9 per cent every year.
Ray Mallon is an Australian economist based in Vietnam’s capital.

“When I first visited Vietnam in 88 you saw poverty everywhere in the streets,” he says.

“There still is poverty here (but) it’s increasingly in the more isolated areas. There just has been an incredible bustling of entrepreneurial activity. Things have opened up, everything is much freer to move around.

“It’s far from being totally free but it’s just a very different economy, a very different society, standards of living have increased dramatically,” he says.

But there are worries now that the economy might be overheating.

Inflation is running at more than 26 per cent, the stock market has dropped 50 per cent this year and there are fears of a real estate bubble.

This week Vietnam’s communist government moved to depreciate the currency, the dong, to relieve some of the pressure.

“In the last 12 months or so inflation has taken off and is a scary levels, as is the current account deficit,” Mr Mallon says, though he adds that its not all doom and gloom.

“When you look at inflation, about half of that’s due to external factors. If you take out food price inflation then the inflation rate is more like 12 per cent which is a worry but less scary.

“So overall other sectors, manufacturing, agriculture, still doing very well. Employment growth is still very strong. This suggests that there will be continuing strong consumer demand. So it’s somewhere in between really. There’s cause for concern but there’s also cause for optimism,” he says.

Despite the fact that Vietnam is still a one-party, centrally controlled country with the constitution describing the system of government as Marxist Leninist, it has always been more open to market realities than some other, similar governments.
The business spirit is alive and well, with a high level of entrepreneurial activity combined with a strong work ethic, reflected for example in the rapid transfer of new technology.

“The level of use of the internet as a percentage of the population is up from nothing to higher than the Philippines for instance and similar levels to Thailand. So these sorts of things, picking up of language skill, anything related to technology, people invest a lot of their time in getting ahead and learning,” Ray Mallon says.

The Government still keeps a firm hand on the flow of capital, the currency and central bank policy.

There are still many government-run businesses too.

That is changing, but there are concerns that if the economy doesn’t improve soon, the Government might be tempted to turn its back on the policies that have brought the country this far.