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  • License plate poker, Vietnamese edition.

    License plates are like smoke detectors: once they’ve been put up, few people bother to acknowledge their existence until there’s an emergency. But while there’s little to be said about the often non-existent smoke detectors, license plates in Vietnam are issued according to an intricate system that reveals a lot about the driver based on their colour and number. Knowing a thing or two about local license plates can come in handy: it can be used to piece together the history of a used motorbike, for example. If nothing else, you can use this knowledge to devise your own version of license plate poker during a long bus trip. Every registered vehicle must display a set of valid, government-issued license plates. For motorbikes, the requirement is to have a single square-ish plate on the back, while cars must also have an additional oblong plate in the front. Also, vehicles that have more than 9 seats are required to have the license plate number painted on both sides (according to circular 01/2007/TT-BCA-C11). The vast majority of the license plates you’ll see on the streets of HCMC feature black numbers and letters painted on a plain white background. These are issued to ordinary people based on a uniform format of a double-digit number followed by a letter and four to five more digits, for example “52A 1234” or “52A 123.45”. The first two digits are used to identify which city or area the car was registered. The single letter that follows them is used to identify the year of registration for cars; in the case of motorbikes, the letter acts as a code for the district in which the driver resides. The following digits are random numbers that are unique to each vehicle: those registered before October 2010 have four digits, while those after are given five, with the last two digits separated from the rest by a dot.

  • How do the various teas of Vietnam rate – and what constitutes the best Vietnamese cuppa?

    Phrasing the question “what’s the best tea in Vietnam” will inevitably return an answer that delivers a region rather than a brand, as Vietnamese people rate the taste of tea less on blends and more on the quality of the main ingredient – fresh tea leaves – and that largely depends on where they’re grown. There are two types of tea that are widely regarded as the best by Vietnamese locals, with one being far harder and costlier to obtain. To date, there are literally hundreds of tea blends in Vietnam, not counting fashionable varieties such as bubble tea or pearl milk tea. Vietnamese people differentiate tea blends not only by their components, but also by which type of tea leaves the blends are made of, their degree of fermentation, brewing technique, and so on. There are specific blends that can only be found in some regions of Vietnam, and there are also blends, originating from the old Vietnamese royal court, that have been lost to history. It’s an almost impossible task to catalogue all of the tea blends of Vietnam – however, a list of some of the more popular blends follows: Vietnam is among the top five tea exporters of the world. In 2011, a total of 131,000 tonnes of tea was exported, worth 198 million dollars. The oldest tea factory in Vietnam, Cau Dat, is now 85 years old and still in operation. Cau Dat was built in the mountainous area around Dalat city. Tea plantations lie mostly in the central and northern highland areas in Vietnam. Among these, Phu Tho and Quang Nam are the two provinces with the largest plantation coverage, with Lam Dong as a close third. However, none of these three are regarded as the homeland of the best farmed tea of Vietnam. This honour falls to Thai Nguyen, a highland province neighbouring the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Benefiting from thousands of years of experience in tea farming, the tea produced in the Thai Nguyen plantations is regarded as rivalling those from the wild tea forest of Shan Tuyet Co Thu . Thai Nguyen itself is called the Vietnamese Capital of Tea.

  • A mosquito bite turned deadly

    Malaria is a disease that has plagued humankind for millennia: Chinese written records as old as 2700 BC describe typical symptoms of malaria, and the malady is thought to have played a role in the fall of the Roman empire. Recent efforts have been successful in containing the disease in developed countries, but the world still sees some 300 to 500 million cases on a yearly basis. Unfortunately, many parts of Vietnam are considered to be of high-risk when it comes to contracting the disease. Spread primarily by mosquitoes, malaria is caused by microorganisms called protozoans. Following infection, they move to the host’s liver and begin to multiply. The first symptoms start manifesting themselves 8-25 days later, with patients complaining of headache, fever, joint pain, vomiting, shivering, and muscle soreness. If this list sounds familiar, it should be: malaria’s symptoms are nonspecific and easily attributed to the common flu. Diagnosis of the disease is usually performed by a microscopic examination of the patient’s blood, but may be supplemented by a rapid diagnostic test. Getting tested early on is essential, as depending on the strain of malaria, uncomplicated cases may be treated at home with oral medications. Left untreated, even less malignant strains of the disease may result in serious complications and even death. In Vietnam, the most common species of malaria is also the deadliest one: P. falciparum accounts for some 50-90% of the infected mosquitoes, with the remainder made up of the less malignant (but nonetheless dangerous) P. vivax . Those expats who rarely leave the comfort of major cities can breathe a sigh of relief, as both the CDC and WHO state that there is no risk of contracting it in HCMC, Hanoi, Da Nang, Haiphong, Nha Trang, nor Qui Nhon. This is not the case with rural areas, however, with the central highlands regions reporting the highest rates of infection: Binh Phuoc, Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Kon Tum; also, the western parts of Khanh Hoa, Ninh Thuan, Quang Nam, and Quang Tri are considered to be relatively high-risk. The disease is also present in the Mekong Delta, but the infection level is reported to be low.

  • Dens of decadence? Or just a really good deal on a night’s accommodation?

    There are far more mini hotels in Ho Chi Minh City than there are regular ones. Maybe it’s because they’re cheaper, fairly convenient, sufficiently well-equipped for comfort (some are even good hotels in their own right) and because they can save travellers a certain amount of money for their short term requirements. More importantly, however, is their hourly rate – which means that guests can enjoy a brief period of comfort and privacy without having to pay for the a whole night’s stay. It’s no secret, however, that this accommodation category suffers from a bad reputation – and there are multiple rumours and horror stories about what goes on inside them. Their advantages do create the conditions for a certain amount of risk – being cheap, easy to access, and relatively unconcerned with checking ID, mini hotels are prime targets for prostitution, selling and using drugs, extramarital affairs, and gambling (usually on the football, and especially in venues with the distinctive K+ mark outside). Despite these, as well as occasional problems with overcharging and theft, the chances of you running into trouble (as long as you yourself are on your best behaviour) are fairly minimal – but not zero. Mini hotels are more likely to be paid attention to by the police than other kinds of hotels are. This is why it’s not unusual for a place like this to develop certain relationships with the local authorities in order to avoid unexpected fines and trouble for their customers. But those with bad reputations can still be targeted for spot-checks. A mini hotel’s standard of accommodation really focuses on providing minimal service for a short rest, including a bed, bathroom, air-con, and TV. Its exterior generally resembles a private house or villa with 3-5 floors (local boutique hotels are similarly laid out and just as inexpensive, the difference being that the boutique hotels usually don’t have hourly rates). The reception area is usually quite small, and can sometimes look very dark – particularly in places that need to be avoided.

  • Your child’s daily dose of industrial waste.

    Back in 2008, the discovery that multiple Chinese milk brands were tainted with the toxic chemical melamine (the consumption of which killed six Chinese babies) resulted in the widespread recall of Chinese milk products, the resignation of senior quality control government officials, and even the execution of a number of corporate executives responsible for the deliberate cost-cutting act of contamination. Melamine has been a hot topic of concern for many Vietnamese parents since that time, and it has remained one of the most common concerns amongst all consumers. The chemical itself is an organic compound that has been found to have properties as a fire retardant when mixed with certain resins, and it has several other industrial uses. Melamine is also a metabolite of cyromazine, a pesticide. It is formed in the body of mammals who have ingested cyromazine. It has been reported that cyromazine can also be converted to melamine in plants. In its own right, melamine isn’t a toxic substance except when combined with cyanuric acid, which produces melamine cyanurate – and this is in fact the compound that was found in Chinese milk powder. A good deal of research following the scandal revealed that melamine has been present in Chinese milk powder for 15 years, but it wasn’t until September 2007, when some pet foods imported into the U.S. from China were found to contain the substance , that this problem came to light – after which the Chinese authorities began to investigate its content in baby milk powder. Some of the most obvious harmful effects of melamine in children is the formation of kidney stones, anorexia, and weight loss. Although melamine is not very harmful to humans when a small quantity of the substance is ingested, its content in some milk brands exceeds 2.565 mg/kg, well above the safety threshold.

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