A neighbourhood of tall, thin concrete houses—most still unpainted—is illuminated by the main road and house lights that circle the western border of the power cut. Blue torch lights flicker through the bars of one rooftop balcony as a family fumbles around looking for bedding. It’s too hot to sleep inside without a fan, in one of the many unannounced power cuts across the capital this summer.
‘It’s much worse than last year. The weather this year is very hot,’ says Le Anh Tuan, from inside his cupboard-sized photocopy and printing shop. ‘I’m angry. I need power every day for my business and power cuts hurt it.’
For Tuan, who’s also a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver, half- and day-long blackouts mean he can’t use his two photocopiers in the busy university area in Hanoi’s southern Hai Ba Trung district. He says his area gets two blackouts a week, each half a day long, and while residents are informed prior to these the other blackouts are unscheduled.
It’s been one of the hottest summers on record in Vietnam, and the unscheduled blackouts leaving fans and air conditioners dead haven’t pleased residents. Here, as in other countries, city temperatures can reach higher levels than the countryside thanks to the Urban Heat Island effect, where metropolitan cores heat up due to increased industrialization and their increasingly built-up nature—especially in the tight knit alleys of un-insulated houses.
The long-running drought has been blamed for this year’s blackouts in Hanoi. The level of water in hydro dams was ‘dangerously low’ months ago and Dr. Nguyen Lan Chau, deputy director of Vietnam’s hydrometeorology institute, suggested back in the spring that the capital would suffer worse than usual summer power cuts without heavy rains (hydropower supplies about 30 to 40 percent of Vietnam’s power).
But despite such claims, many believe that state-owned enterprise Electricity Vietnam is using the ongoing drought as an excuse to hide wider problems.
That EVN can be inefficient is no secret to many. The dangling, bunched power lines supplied by the company have even inspired a t-shirt depicting an image of the jumble, sold with the title ‘Saigon Online’ in the southern city’s tourist district. It’s not unusual to trip over a cable that has fallen from a pylon and electrocutions during floods are common. And these, along with the blackouts, are just the street level issues.
The demand for power in Vietnam is growing fast—about 15 percent each year. Eight nuclear reactors will be built between now and 2030. The technology is Russian, but there has been little foreign investment in the electricity sector in Vietnam (although US power company AES has agreed to invest in a $1.6 billion, 1,200 megawatt plant).