Vietnam’s Hot, Dark Summer

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Vietnam’s Hot, Dark Summer

As demand outstrips supply in a brutally hot Vietnam summer, anger grows with the government power company over blackouts.

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).

One of the reasons cited by experts for the problems is price regulation. Prices are kept low by the government, something which has also stymied interest in the sector by foreign investors, so freeing up the sector will necessarily mean higher prices.

Nguyen Huong Giang runs a nail salon in a street with many other small beauty parlours and salons. She says she’s also been losing business because of the power cuts, but unlike Tuan reckons fair warning is rarely given, something which EVN could in theory be fined for.

‘The price is increasing but the power cuts are continuing,’ she says, ‘the price has been increasing more and more (in recent years).’ A steep increase in price would be widely unpopular with the public, who already worry about inflation. However higher prices may be accepted as a necessary evil if the lumbering state owned enterprise shapes up.

‘I think there are limitations in management,’ says Giang, voicing an opinion many people have of their government-run enterprises.   

The Chairman of EVN, Dao Van Hung, expressed frustration to local media last month, noting that low prices meant the company was unable to ensure profitability, and thus earn the foreign investment it wants.

The company has lost more than 4.7 trillion VND buying power to meet demand. Hung also pointed out that EVN shouldn’t be singled out as it only held a monopoly on distribution and purchase of power; PetroVietnam and coal company Vinacomin also produce power. Renewable sources of energy have been discussed but funding remains an issue.

That the power cuts are affecting business and are also becoming politically sensitive is obvious.

According to reports, tourists have been getting stuck in hotel elevators during unannounced blackouts and companies are spending large amounts of money to keep their generators running. People have begun cancelling tours and hotel stays.

Earlier, farmers forced government officials to sit in 40 degree sun in north central Thanh Hoa Province, urging them to explain why they had had to endure so many power outages.  

The government has told state media that production increased by 17 percent this year, but it’s still not enough to cover what is needed. Government assurances that it has told Electricity of Vietnam to improve and increase its purchases of electricity have been met with much cynicism.

‘When the government is spending money to buy power from foreign countries like China we don’t know where the power is going,’ Giang says.