Vietnam rice boom heaping pressure on farmers, environment

Rice farmer Nguyen Hien Thien is so busy growing his crops that he has never even visited Can Tho, a town only a few miles from his farm in the southern Mekong Delta.

“When I was a child, we grew one crop of rice per year — now it’s three. It’s a lot of work,” 60-year-old Thien, who has been farming since he was a child, told AFP on the edge of his small paddy field.

Experts say Vietnam’s drive to become one of the world’s leading rice exporters is pushing farmers in the fertile delta region to the brink, with mounting costs to the environment.

The country is already the world’s second largest exporter of the staple grain. But intensive rice cultivation, particularly the shift to producing three crops per year, is taking its toll on farmers and the ecosystem.

“Politicians want to be the world’s number one or two rice exporter. As a scientist, I want to see more being done to protect farmers and the environment,” said Vietnamese rice expert Vo Tong Xuan.

A major famine in 1945 and food shortages in the post-war years led to the government adopting a “rice first” policy.

This now generates far more of the crop than needed to feed Vietnam’s 90 million population and has catalyzed a thriving export industry.

Workers load paddy onto a boat for a customer at Co Do Agriculture Company in the southern Mekong delta province of Can Tho. Photo:AFP

Rice yields have nearly quadrupled since the 1970s, official figures show, thanks to high-yield strains and the construction of a network of dykes that today allow farmers to grow up to three crops per year.

The amount of land under cultivation in the Mekong Delta has also expanded and quotas are in place to prevent farmers from switching to other crops.

But experts are questioning who really benefits.

According to Xuan, farmers don’t reap the rewards of the three crop system — the rice is low quality and they spend more on pesticides and fertilizers, which become less effective year by year.

Falling quality

He argues the delta would be better off if farmers cultivated a more diverse range of crops, from coconuts to prawns, with just the most suitable land used to grow rice.

The country should consider abandoning the third crop and focus on improving quality and branding to sell Vietnamese rice at higher prices, he said.

Currently, the bulk of Vietnam’s rice is exported at cut-price costs on government-to-government contracts through large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like the Southern Food Corporation, known as Vinafood 2.

“Over the last five years, the trend is towards lower-quality rice,” admitted Le Huu Trang, deputy office manager at the firm.

Some argue that such SOEs have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo as they earn lucrative kickbacks from the huge contracts.

A farmer throws fertilizer on his family rice field in the southern Mekong delta province of Can Tho. Photo: AFP

But even as salt water intrusion, drought and flooding increase in the delta — to say nothing of agricultural chemical pollution — it is also hard to convince farmers to change.

“The prevailing mindset is to grow three crops… we have to explain two crops is better,” said Nguyen Tuan Hiep from the Co Do Agriculture company.

Over the last 20 years, Co Do — which is state-run but a flagship model of how the industry could evolve — has identified the best rice-growing land in the delta and helped farmers expand their farms.

They now work with 2,500 families on 5,900 hectares (14,600 acres) of land, enough for each family to make a living — typically the average rice farm in the delta spans less than one hectare.

The firm invests heavily in high-quality seeds and improving irrigation, while also advising farmers on the best chemicals to use.

“Two crops is more sustainable long term — the soil is not degraded, the environment isn’t polluted, and value of the rice increases,” Hiep said.

‘Ground zero’

Climate change is another factor threatening the delta, according to the World Bank Group’s vice president and special envoy for climate change Rachel Kyte.

“This is really ground zero for some of the most difficult adaptation, planning challenges that any country in the world has,” she said.

Nguyen Thi Lang walks among new rice varieties she is developing at the Vietnam Rice Research Institute in the southern Mekong delta province of Can Tho. Photo: AFP

Ultimately Vietnam has tough choices to make, including whether to help people transition from a rice-based economy to aquaculture (fish or shellfish farming) or other crops, Kyte added.

The environmental costs of maintaining Vietnam’s current level of rice production are also rising.

The system of dykes, which blocks flood water, are preventing soil nutrients from flowing freely and over time “soil fertility will fade”, said Tran Ngoc Thac, deputy director of Vietnam’s Rice Research Institute.

Scientists there are busy trying to breed new strains of rice that require fewer fertilizers and can survive in extreme weather.

“If farmers don’t change, if we can’t find a suitable new rice strain, pollution will continue and incomes will drop,” Thac said, adding these measures were essential to save the delta.


As Vietnam struggles to attract foreign tourists, more Vietnamese take overseas trips

While Vietnam has been losing its tourism appeal to holidaymakers worldwide, tourists from the Southeast Asian country are valued customers of many tour organizers in other countries as they are willing to pay for overseas trips.


Vietnamese tourists are seen on Boracay Island in the Philippines

Around five million Vietnamese people spent their holidays outside the country last year, a healthy growth rate of up to 20 percent, according to the Vietnam Travel Association.

The figure is expected to continue rising this year and Vietnam has emerged as a potential market for travel firms around the globe, the association said.

“If each Vietnamese vacationer spends an average of US$300 per trip, Vietnam loses some $1.5 billion from tourist spending annually,” said the association’s deputy chairman Vu The Binh.

This is quite contrary to the fact that the number of international tourists choosing to spend their holidays in Vietnam during the first two months of this year dropped 10.6 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.

Industry insiders have pointed to the country’s lack of diversified tourism products, rigid visa rules, and a polluted environment.

But these shortcomings cannot be found in other regional countries.

With Japan easing visa requirements for Vietnamese on organized tours starting late last year, the number of Vietnamese tourists traveling to the East Asian country has soared dramatically, according to industry insiders.

“Long lines could be seen in front of the Consulate General of Japan in Ho Chi Minh City on a daily basis after the Lunar New Year [in February],” Thu Pham, a tourist guide, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, referring to the visa application for trips to the East Asian country.

“You would not see this a year earlier.”

The general director of a tour organizer in Ho Chi Minh City also said bookings for Japan packages to watch the cherry blossoms have increased 40 percent compared to last year.

His company has also managed to find customers for packages to the EU, the U.S., and such regional destinations as Cambodia and Thailand.

The company received 150 bookings worth a total of VND920 million ($42,874), more than 50 percent of which are for packages to the said destinations, during its first day attending the week-long Ho Chi Minh City Tourism Festival 2015, which concluded Sunday, according to the executive.

Many other major Vietnamese travel companies told Tuoi Tre there are huge numbers of bookings for tours to South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S.

The third annual Vietnam International Travel Mart, the country’s largest such event, is slated to run in Hanoi from April 3 to 6.

Representatives from other countries’ tourism administrations will account for nearly a third of the booths at the event to attract Vietnamese customers, according to the organizers.

Enviable approaches

The approaches other countries apply to attract Vietnamese vacationers could make travel firms in Vietnam envious as they seem unable to receive such support from local tourism authorities.

Many websites of the national tourism administrations of other countries are available in the Vietnamese language, and they provide detailed information on where to stay, what to do, or how to use public transportation in their countries.

“We feel upset seeing that they have such a professional approach to promoting tourism,” the director of a local travel agency said.

While Vietnam has been criticized for failing to introduce their tourism beauties to the world through effective marketing campaigns, the travel agencies of other countries are hugely supported by their tourism authorities to do so.

“The tourism administrations [of other countries] give financial support to run ads in Vietnamese media or to print leaflets or brochures,” said Nguyen Quoc Ky, general director of Vietravel, a leading travel firm in Vietnam.

“Their ultimate goal is to have as many Vietnamese tourists visiting their countries as possible.”

The mayor of the Japanese city of Sapporo has also come to Vietnam to meet with local travel companies and proposed helping them with bringing Vietnamese holidaymakers to Japan.

“He came and asked what they could do for us to bring [Vietnamese] tourists to Sapporo,” Ky recalled.

Vietnamese tourists usually follow the ‘golden itinerary,’ which covers Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Osaka, and Kyoto for their Japan trips, and other Japanese localities are trying to attract these vacationers to their own destinations.

“Representatives from authorities of many Japanese localities have also come to Vietnam and asked us to bring tourists there,” said Lam Tu Khoi, director of outbound tours with Saigontourist.

“They are willing to cut prices, reduce or exempt airport fees, and provide shuttle buses for us, as long as Vietnamese tourists will visit their localities.”


“Low carbon transition in energy efficiency sector in Vietnam” programme (2013-2015)

Denmark strengthens its support for Vietnam’s Green Growth through a new programme handling energy efficiency in Small and Medium Enterprises and in large buildings.

Lo gach thu cong dot than  Bac Ninh  2008  PhD Nguyen Xuan QuangnyNY

There is huge potential in improving energy efficiency in brick kilns, Bac Ninh province. (Photo: Nguyen Xuan Quang)

As a result of a long-term dialogue on low carbon transition within the energy sector in Vietnam, specifically targeting energy efficiency initiatives between the Governments of Vietnam and Denmark, a new project entitled “Low carbon transition in energy efficiency sector in Viet Nam” has been signed by Danish Ministry of Climate, Energy and Buildings (MCEB) and Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT) in November 2012, funded by the Global Framework under the Climate Envelope 2012.

The project takes place from January 2013 to December 2015 including an inception phase of 6 months, covering a total budget of DKK 65 million. In alignment with the present cooperation within energy efficiency under the Danida climate change adaptation and mitigation programme (2008-2015), this project provides targeted budget support to the Vietnam Energy Efficiency Programme (VNEEP, 2006-2015).
The project consists of two components: The first supports the Ministry of Industry and Trade in promoting energy efficiency in the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) with a focus on the brick, ceramic and food processing sectors while the second provides support to the Ministry of Construction (MOC) in implementing the building codes for energy efficiency.

The development objective of the project is: “Improved energy efficiency in small and medium enterprises and buildings in Viet Nam contributes to sustainable development and a transition to a low carbon economy”. This objective is consistent with both the VNEEP phase 2 objectives and current Danida support to VNEEP.

The immediate objectives and activities are identified as:

Component 1 – Energy efficiency in SMEs: “Small and medium enterprises in at least 3 sectors adopt energy efficiency measures that will contribute to the VNEEP energy saving targets of between 5-10%. This objective will be achieved through support to project #2.3 under the VNEEP 2011-15, complemented by the initiation of lasting partnerships between Vietnamese and Danish industries. Under this component, a budget of DKK 35 million is reserved to support bankable energy efficiency investment projects of SMEs.

Component 2 – Energy efficiency in buildings: “Improved capacity for implementing energy efficiency in large buildings improves and contributes to the VNEEP energy saving targets of between 5-8%.” This objective will be achieved through support to project #3.1/3.2 under the VNEEP 2011-15, complemented by the initiation of a partnership between the MOC (Viet Nam) and MCEB (Denmark).

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Office (EECO) under the MOIT is the focal point in managing the project.


Swedish parliament speaker visits Vietnam, attends IPU-132

Swedish Parliament Speaker Urban Ahlin is slated to begin his five-day visit to Vietnam on Saturday on the occasion of Sweden’s participation in the 132nd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) that opens in Hanoi the same day, the Swedish Embassy said on Thursday in a press release.


The speaker of the Swedish Parliament Urban Ahlin

Speaker Ahlin is travelling with a delegation of six parliamentarians from four different political parties, the press release said, adding that they together represent Sweden in two very important committees, the steering Committee on the WTO and the Committee on Middle East Questions.

During his visit, Ahlin will meet with high-ranking  Vietnamese officials to discuss and promote Sweden’s cooperation with Vietnam in such areas as parliamentary exchange, economics and trade and higher education.

The Swedish Speaker will hold talks with Vietnam’s  National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung and will later pay a courtesy visit to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

He will also have separate meetings with Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien and Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang.

Health and transport have been identified as two potential sectors of intensified business opportunities and technology transfer between Sweden and Vietnam.

During his visit, Speaker Ahlin is also scheduled to participate in a field visit to ABB’s transformer factory in Bac Ninh province and join a campaign to raise public awareness about traffic safety.

Ahlin said he is delighted to visit Vietnam for the first time to attend the IPU-132 and to witness the prosperous development of what is considered to be a unique and special bilateral relationship between the two nations, the press release said.

Sweden was the first Western country to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam already in 1969.

“My visit serves to strengthen ties between our countries and our peoples and provide opportunities for mutual understanding of good parliamentary practices and contributing to the enhancement of trade flows, investment and technology transfers between Sweden and Vietnam,” the press release quoted Ahlin as saying prior to the visit.

The IPU, which is to run from March 28 to April 1, will comprise of a series of meetings and discussion sessions covering the above subjects, among other important issues, under the common theme of “Sustainable Development Goals: Turning Words Into Actions”.


IPP offers funding grant to Vietnam’s startups & incubators

Vietnamese startups  and incubators will have an opportunity to receive a grant of up to 300,000 Euros ($316,120) and 200,000 Euros ($210,750), respectively, from the Innovation Partnership Program (IPP), as part of their second round of funding.


A promising startup can get up to 30,000 euros ($31,612), while an effective incubator will be supported with the maximum amount of 50,000 euros ($52,670) for the initial round The companies are meant to use the money to pay for human resources and/or research costs.

Notably, the grants are not subjected to refund or any equity/ownership of the companies.

The IPP program, jointly developed by the Finnish government and Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology, has attracted some 200 Vietnam-based startups after calling for an ‘expression of interest’ across four cities in Vietnam, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Can Tho.

About 40 startups from Hanoi, pitched their ideas at an IPP program, this morning. Meanwhile, the grant call is expected to be announced in a couple of weeks’ time.

Until then, IPP will assist the startups with mentoring and incubating, in both management expertise and networking with investors.

“When the grant call opens, we will stop our assistance to assure fair competition between the young companies,” said Riku Makela, senior advisor for the program.

This year, the IPP looks for support 20 to 30 projects regardless of the nationality of the startup owners, as long as they are registered in Vietnam and have the potential of global expansion.

To be eligible for IPP funding, the startups must show a plan stating clearly the solution provided and the benefit to the customers, their competition and alternatives, and the resources linked to the core teams as well as their networks.

According to Nguyen Trong Nghia, e-commerce advisor and founder of online travel platform, this is a huge opportunity for Vietnamese startups to get to know how they can develop in an early stage before entering any funding calling round. “Many startups collapse before they could get seed funding,” he said, adding that startups really need money but also need a mentor.

The majority of Vietnamese startups are founded by information technology engineers or marketing professionals, who often lack comprehensive expertise in doing business, Nghia said.

While the size of Vietnam-based incubators and accelerators is still small, Makela thinks they could join hands to offer more support to startups.