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  • The death instinct.

    They do it everywhere – cafés, restaurants, office stairwells, and even inside buses. Short of a gas station, the Saigonese seem to casually light up whenever (and wherever) they need a fix of nicotine. For many expats, this carefree attitude towards smoking in public may come as a shock, but the fact is that puffing away on a cigarette isn’t necessarily seen as a bad habit here, as in the eyes of many, smoking is very much part of the local culture. Smokers certainly seem to be everywhere in HCMC, but anecdotal evidence aside, how bad is it really? The statistics are grim –a total of 15 million Vietnamese people are smokers, roughly a quarter of the entire adult population. Each year, tobacco use leads to some 40,000 deaths; put in perspective, that means that over a hundred adults succumb to smoking-related diseases every day. The WHO warns that at the current rate, some 10% of the country’s population will have died of smoking by 2030. The most important thing to understand about the prevalence of tobacco use in Vietnam is that it’s publicly acceptable. The country has yet to go through a decades-long public education campaign – the likes of which made lighting up a guilty pleasure in most developed countries. Recently, the state has launched a “Vietnam without cigarette smoke” media campaign to curtail the number of smokers by informing them of the dangers associated with second-hand smoke. While many Vietnamese men understand the negative effects of tobacco on their health, they are not aware of their habit having a harmful effect on their families and colleagues: statistics show that 73% of adults are exposed to second-hand smoke at home and almost 56% experience it at work. Public acceptance is one thing, but in some social circles smoking is actually encouraged. In a tradition that started decades, if not centuries ago, offering someone a cigarette is a sign of politeness that is often used to start a conversation. Rather unsurprisingly, this is only true among men: smoking is seen as an inherently masculine activity, something that “makes a man a man”. Because of this, there is a strong social pressure on Vietnamese men to reach for their first cigarette at an early age to prove that they’re not “chicken” and belong in the company of fellow men rather than women. The trend is clearly illustrated by WHO statistics: out of every two men aged over 15, one is a smoker; on the other side of the spectrum, only 1.4% of adult women profess to being tobacco users.

  • Even the hard-working Vietnamese get to take a break.

    There’s a healthy respect for time off in Vietnam, and while the general annual public holiday entitlement is nine days, in reality there can be several more officially-sanctioned days off in any given year. The powers that be take the issue quite seriously: if they perceive that a regular annual holiday happens to fall on a weekend, they’re careful to assign a day in lieu so that no-one misses out. Employers in Vietnam are also famously generous with holidays: while the Labour Code of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam regulates a minimum number of days off work for employees, depending on business conditions employers will often extend holidays for their staff, especially during the Tet (Lunar New Year) period. Official government bulletins often explicitly encourage employers to give staff more time off during Tet. According to law, workers are still entitled to be paid salary during these holidays. They do not need to work overtime or any extra days to make up for the time off, and this is cited in legal documents. Traffic is rarely a problem during public holidays (most local Vietnamese prefer to spend them at home) except in one major respect. The mass exodus of temporary residents in Ho Chi Minh City returning to their rural hometowns during the Tet season clogs intercity highways and makes travel tickets both expensive and really hard to book. Within the city, though, streets are virtually empty during the Tet holidays, and foreigners staying alone here are more likely to suffer from boredom than anything else. The vast majority of businesses will be closed for the whole week or even longer, including supermarkets and restaurants – and while a certain number of quality venues will stay open to chase the expat dollar, you’d be well advised to stock up on canned staples in advance. It’s not quite the Zombie Apocalypse, but you’re in danger of going hungry if you’re not prepared.

  • How Vietnam became the world’s largest coffee producer.

    The real starting point of the Vietnamese coffee industry was in 1888 with the building and opening of the first coffee plantation in Ka Se by a French colonist. However, the plantation was small and poorly operated, and output wasn’t high. Subsequent coffee plantations in Vietnam opened in the beginning of the twentieth century, and were also funded, built, and managed by French colonial forces under concurrent French rule. Although supplies were shipped to France, the then Vietnamese coffee industry was largely an unknown in terms of the world industry. In 1920s, Tay Nguyen was discovered to have the ideal soil properties for coffee planting, and was designated the key coffee growing area of Vietnam. It remains the centre of Vietnamese coffee production to this day. From that point on, the history of Vietnamese coffee and Tay Nguyen became irrevocably intertwined. After the 1945 revolution, these coffee plantations fell into the new Vietnamese government’s hands. After 1975, the total coffee growing area in Vietnam reached 13,000 hectares, producing 6,000 tons of coffee per year. The coffee industry grew under the combined funding of the old Russian Soviet Union, Germany, Bulgaria, Balan, and Czechoslovakia (still one country at that time). The deciding point arrived in 1994, the year of the Salt Mist in Brazil, which dealt catastrophic damage to the Brazilian coffee industry and a blow to the world’s coffee industry. Vietnamese coffee, untouched by salt and the subsequent drought on the other side of the world, flourished under heavy demands of the world’s coffee market. The Vietnamese government at that time, freed from the long war effort and under their new economic reform campaign Đổi Mới (change), poured heavy funding into Vietnamese coffee production. Within fifteen years, Vietnam became the second largest exporter of coffee internationally. In March 2012, Vietnam became the single largest coffee exporter in the world, surpassing Brazil.

  • Vietnam’s next big cash crop?

    To many Westerners, macadamia nuts are synonymous with Hawaii. While these delightful nuts are not exactly common in the West, finding a pack to satisfy that white chocolate macadamia nut cookie craving in HCMC is not an impossible task. Macadamia nuts are actually native to Australia and were not introduced to Hawaii until fairly late in the 19th century. It was there that international fame found them, and as the global demand continued to rise, the cultivars grown on the tropical islands were brought back to Oz. While abroad, they managed to become more resilient against the diseases that plagued Australian macadamia farms. Production volumes rose dramatically, propelling the country’s commercial production to surpass that of Hawaii. What might be more surprising to expats is that macadamia nuts are also grown right here in Vietnam. In 2005, thanks to a cooperation initiative with Australia, a pilot project was started in the province of Dak Lak to start the country’s first macadamia farms. Since it takes five years for the trees to start bearing nuts, the project is still in its early stages. Still, the farms in Dak Lak province now provide modest quantities of nuts to the local market, as well as exporting some of their harvests abroad. Despite being grown locally, macadamia nuts are not easy to track down. Local supply and distribution is shaky, with Vina Macca being one of the only reliable sources for Vietnamese macadamias. Imported nuts are easier to come by, but expect to pay anywhere from VND600,000-800,000 for a kilo. If you happen to find them in the local wet markets (try Binh Tay Market or the An Dong Market under Caesar Palace, both in Cholon) they should be significantly cheaper. Aside from the foreign grocery stores on 56 and 58 Ham Nghi street, you may also try one of the following distributors:

  • Getting married in Saigon is no simple affair.

    This may be a developing country, but when Vietnamese people get married, they don’t do it by halves. Weddings are huge here; colourful to the point of gaudy, boisterous to the point of irritating, and the anticipation of the bride and groom’s special day is so involved – and frankly, so stressful – that it has seen the ruin of many an engagement. Successfully navigating the manifold demands of preparing for a wedding is, of course, richly rewarding – and will result in a ceremony that will be remembered always. Doing so as a foreigner is just short of miraculous – so here are a few tips to improve your chances. If you need to consult a survival guide for ideas about your wedding, you’re probably not intimately well-informed about the precise details of a Vietnamese-style ceremony anyway, which means your opinions won’t count for quite as much with your in-laws as they would in your own country. Unless you are unusually charismatic and can successfully convince the entire local family to follow your vision for the wedding, you’re going to have to be content with taking pole position while your local partner has the wheel. This can be somewhat frustrating for your spouse-to-be, given that the work normally shared by a marrying couple now rests on his or her shoulders alone. Your immediate objective, therefore, is to avoid seeming stupid, lazy, or argumentative. Accomplish that, and your beloved will be prepared to overlook your utter and miserable ignorance about the whole thing. Start by putting together your own list of what the various tasks ahead seem to be (check the following sections for more details), and be ready to at least offer your own humble opinions about each phase of the preparations. Try to anticipate anything you can do to make the burden on your fiancé/e easier – remember that if you’d been a local, you’d have been expected to handle a lot more. Always, always remind yourself – this wedding is not for you , it’s for the attendees – to whom you’re making a public announcement of your status as husband and wife. Your own reward comes only after the wedding – provided you don’t screw things up. So don’t try to make this your dream wedding – just deliver what the local family will more or less expect. This is one concession you probably have to make for choosing to get married in Vietnam. One presumes it’ll be worth it.

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