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.