Monday, December 5, 2011

A historic day: Aung San Suu Kyi meets Hillary Clinton in Yangon

Local and international journalists queue up outside 54 University Avenue, the family residence of Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was detained under house arrest by the military junta for 15 years until her release last November We were told to arrive at least 3 hours before Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton graced us with their presence for security reasons.

A US Secret Service officer keeps watch while the "uncles" from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, including 82-year-old U Win Tin, file into her house ahead of the meeting with Clinton.

Western journalists had a good opportunity to top up their tan while waiting for the "two ladies" to appear. The set-up, by Inya lake in the garden of Suu Kyi's house, looks like it would make a good wedding venue if she is ever short of cash.

This member of the traveling Washington press corps appears to be struggling to come to terms with his comically-oversized Burmese mobile phone, the sort of brick-like communication device last seen in the West about 20 years ago. In a country with very poor mobile phone networks, the large aerial helps but not enough to assuage this poor chap's frustrations.

Here come the brides...

They make a great couple, complete with matching hand gestures.

Photographers scramble to get a shot of "the hug".

Surprisingly, for two women with steely reputations, the warmth between them looked genuine.

Some of Burma's private weekly newspapers went big on the Clinton/Suu Kyi meeting. A veteran Burmese journalist told me that sticking The Lady's photo on their front page always boosts sales. The government still does not allow any privately-owned newspapers to publish on a daily basis but has indicated that that may change next year.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

An interview with Vietnam's first and only astronaut

Today the Financial Times has published a special edition magazine to commemorate the 50th anniversary of man going into space.

Below is an extract of my interview with Pham Tuan, Vietnam's first and only astronaut.

Pham Tuan was the ideal candidate to become the first Asian in space, as far as Vietnam’s hard-line communist leaders were concerned. From humble beginnings in a poor village, he had already risen to the rank of national hero. Defending his homeland from sustained US attacks during the Christmas Bombings of 1972, Tuan was credited with becoming the first Vietnamese fighter pilot to shoot down a B52 in air-to-air combat – a feat many US aviators still insist was impossible.

During his eight-day sojourn at the Salyut 6 space station, Tuan beamed back messages hailing Vietnam’s long struggle for independence and thanking the Communist party “for having trained me and given me wings to fly into space”.

Back on planet Earth, the hungry Vietnamese people were not so easily taken in. A popular rhyme at the time pondered: “We have no rice, we have no noodles, so why are you going into space Mr Tuan?”
Read the rest of my profile here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

(Not) Understanding Vietnam

If you want to understand why Vietnam is mired in economic instability, I'd urge you not to read this story on the state-owned Voice of Vietnam news website.

The story - an interview with a national assembly member headlined: "Why are gold and USD strictly controlled?" - meanders around the subject, adding new layers of confusion with each paragraph.

Perhaps it's just a bad translation - I know official Vietnamese can be very tough to render into crisp English.

After circling round and round, the report climaxes with a richly and - I suspect - accidentally ironic ending, which merits full quotation:

Dr Kien: The bottom line is that people have lost their trust in the value of the domestic currency due to one-sided information in the media.

Reporter: Thank you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Western pop music in Vietnam: from “social evil” to status symbol

My latest post for the Financial Times' Beyond Brics blog:

Throaty song-writing legend Bob Dylan and 90s teen favourites the Backstreet Boys might not have much in common as far as most music fans are concerned.

But both are playing big gigs in Vietnam over the next few weeks as music promoters test out the appetite for expensive, international standard entertainment.

Communist Vietnam has opened up rapidly over the last twenty years and Western pop music has been off the list of “social evils” for some time. But the live music market remains relatively undeveloped and only a handful of international artists have played in Vietnam thus far.

In a country where many would count themselves lucky to earn $100 a month, you might wonder who will be willing to pay $50-$120 for a ticket to the Dylan and Backstreet Boys gigs. But that’s well within the reach of status-conscious urbanites, who have been splashing out on iPhones, fancy cars and sleek scooters for a number of years.

Read the rest of this blog post over at the FT's Beyond Brics, which is free to all comers.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Financial Times is recruiting a News Assistant in Hanoi

Vacancy – News assistant for the Financial Times, Hanoi

The Financial Times, one of the world’s leading business news organisations, recently opened a bureau in Hanoi in order to expand its coverage of Vietnam.
We are looking to recruit a Vietnamese national to work as a news assistant alongside our resident foreign correspondent.
The successful candidate will be a dynamic and enthusiastic self-starter, with experience in journalism and strong news judgement.
You will help the correspondent to cover a wide range of stories involving economics, investment, politics, climate change, health and social issues. As we are a new and small bureau, you must be flexible and able to work independently and as part of a team.
When covering breaking news, you will have to work under pressure to tight deadlines.
This is an exciting opportunity for an ambitious individual to gain experience working at a leading international news organisation and to help shape our coverage of Vietnam.

Job description

Setting up and carrying out interviews with government officials, business leaders and others
Scanning the Vietnamese press for important stories and monitoring other news sources
Generating and developing story ideas
Carrying out in-depth research
Translating and interpreting
Some travel within Vietnam will be required

Essential Qualifications/Experience/Qualities

Bachelors degree or higher
Experience in journalism
Fluent in Vietnamese and English
A good understanding of economics, business and politics
Confident and good at making new contacts
Able to find information quickly


Good existing contacts among government officials and in the business community

Competitive salary

To apply, please send your CV and a covering letter explaining why you're the right person for this position to Ben Bland at

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Comparing corruption in India and Vietnam

My colleague David Pilling has written a great column in today's FT, arguing that, despite much hand-wringing, Indian companies are as much to blame for corruption as government officials.

India is said to grow at night while its government sleeps. The quip, beloved of Indian businessmen, is often invoked to rubbish a corrupt and incompetent state and to praise a supposedly heroic entrepreneurial class. But there is something wrong with this picture. In many sectors, Indian entrepreneurs make money not in spite of government interference, but precisely through colluding with a state that provides the land, licences and rent-seeking opportunities on which they thrive.

A number of Vietnamese contacts have persistently made the same point to me here: when it comes to corruption, it takes two to tango.

Many Western businesses are also guilty of double standards, criticising the dominance of the state in the economy, while themselves seeking patronage, licences and rents from the government.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Vietnam’s black market alchemists

Life is not easy when annual inflation is more than 12 per cent, your currency is likely to be devalued again shortly and you have to splash out on overpriced Lunar New Year gifts to impress your friends, family and colleagues.

But Vietnamese people, long faced with macroeconomic instability, have become expert at cooking up black market schemes to make a little money on the side. The latest ruse, picked up by the Phnom Penh Post, involves travelling to neighbouring Cambodia, withdrawing dollars from an ATM at the official dong-dollar exchange rate and then converting the greenbacks back to Vietnam dong at the superior black market exchange rate.

Read the rest of this blog post over at the FT's Beyond Brics, which is free to all comers.

Diageo thirsty for local alcohol in Vietnam

While a select class of wealthy Vietnamese men like nothing more than cracking open a bottle of Johnnie Walker with their mates at a karaoke bar, the vast majority of alcohol consumed here is home-made “rice wine” served in re-used plastic water bottles.

But tastes are changing as the middle class grows and Diageo, the global drinks group, has forked over £33m for a stake in a local vodka maker as it seeks to tap into the growing fondness for higher quality but affordable Vietnamese brands.

Read the rest of this blog post over at the FT's Beyond Brics, which is free to all comers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The power of connections in Vietnam

Whether you're a luckless street kid, an ambitious Communist party apparatchik or an upstanding foreign investor, there are few greater truisms in Vietnam than "it's not what you know but who you know."

I observed a classic example this week while on a trip to the paddy fields of greater Hanoi.

Approaching a traffic police roadblock, the car I was in was flagged down by an officious senior cop. He beckoned the driver out of the vehicle and accused him of violating traffic regulations (yes, they do exist here) by overtaking on the other side of the road.

No matter that there was no oncoming traffic, the dividing line down the centre of the road was dotted rather than continuous (indicating overtaking was allowed) and that this driver was perhaps the most cautious I've ever had the pleasure to travel with in Vietnam.

The cop was either having a bad day standing around in the clammy Hanoi cold or needed some extra cash ahead of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

The driver was taken aside and given the usual dressing down that precedes negotiations over the extent of any fine (around 500,000 Vietnam dong or $25 for this type of offence, so I'm told).

Rightly or wrongly, it is unusual for traffic police to stop cars containing foreigners as they don't want to create extra work for themselves or risk annoying some important diplomat, investor or other VIP.

So I stepped out of the car, naively intent on explaining my status as a foreign journalist and asking politely if we could be allowed to resume our journey.

No sooner had I walked up to the senior policeman, head bowed out of respect, than the driver had called up a relative who worked for the traffic police and passed the phone to the other cop who swiftly waved us on our way.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

History in the making: live tweeting Vietnam's Communist Party congress

The last time Vietnam's Communist Party met for its all-important five-yearly national congress, Twitter, the 140 character micro-blogging service, was yet to launch.

So prepare for a social media first, when I "live tweet" the 11th party congress, which begins on Wednesday at Hanoi's rather smart National Convention Centre.

Granted the bar hasn't been set that high. I didn't see any other journalists using Twitter at the pre-event press conference on Monday and Twitter isn't yet that popular in Vietnam (though that may change if Facebook continues to be blocked - some people have started bypassing the block by using Twitter to update their Facebook page).

But it's still going to be a first, provided I can get a mobile phone signal.

Read all about it at

For a sneak peek inside the congress venue, check out this blog I wrote for the FT's Beyond Brics.