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A postcard from the night train to Hue

By Mike Loftus on Dec 29, 12 11:40 PM in

Early light reveals paddy fields alongside the railway track. A scene maybe hardly changed for generations begins to unfold.

The fields become gradually peopled here and there- a man or women working alone or with a water buffalo, Very occasionally a mechanical plough. Rice is hugely important here. The skill and expertise the Viet people developed in rice cultivation led them to their cultural domination of this part of the world. Today Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice in the world - after near neighbour Thailand. Agriculture and other primary production still dominates employment with almost half the workforce in the sector. Much of that must be on a more intensive scale than the scene from the train reveals.

In Ha Long Bay hectare upon hectare is given over to fish and shell fish farming. Also coffee production - where Vietnam is now actually the world's leading exporter. Coffee is one of the ( very few ?) continuing benefits of the country's period as a French colony from the mid 19th Century till 1954- the French having begun coffee cultivation here ( green tea being not the thing to go with le petit dejeuner, sans doute)

Industry however was not part of the French plan for Indo-China. In the mid 50's it made up less than 1% of the new North Vietnam's economy. Thirty years of war followed by a brief attempt to apply classic Marxist rigidities saw little inroads into this.

A change in economic policy to greater market disciplines from the mid eighties while leaving State owned enterprises with some % of activity and the one party state apparatus in total control led to a spurt in growth ( from very low levels) and a upbeat mood internally and among the international community. The down turn in world activity has damped performance and expectation in recent years but underlying strengths are still there.

Along with most other places that have experienced it ( but each in their own way) Vietnam seems an unlikely place for the Marxist once over. Leave aside the dominant role, until very recently, of low level agriculture and consider instead the typical urban residence in northern Vietnam. Its a narrow three four or more storey development ( narrow because plot width used to be taxed) painted exuberantly and decorated with balconies on two or more tiers and all possible topped of with towers and/ or turrets. And all with the ground floor given over to a retail or trading unit. All of which seems to speak of a fairly rampant individualism to say the least.

In terms of large scale industrialisation the route from Haiphong ( the major port in the north) to Hanoi highlights what has been done, what remains and crucially the nature of opportunity presented here. Haiphong on a rainy December afternoon has all of the allure of any commercial port but the containers are stacked for shipment in or out on the dockside.

The road to Hanoi is almost continually developed with commercial and industrial space built out or with sites being accessed and serviced. The 110 kilometre journey on a dual carriageway thick with commercial traffic took some two and a half hours. Which probably highlights the fact that - along with so many other emerging economies is infrastructure enhancement. Power, water, water treatment all no doubt sit high on national priorities and the experience and expertise to deliver these will be required. .Other transportation too - the rail service from Hanoi through Hue to Saigon provides a marvellous opportunity to see the country but even the most indomitable back packer must jib at the 30 plus hours it takes.

And aside from infrastructure what other opportunities present themselves for UK plc ? This brief visit hasn't shown evidence of a raging appetite for prestige autos yet so that route may be a little way off. UKTI do badge Vietnam as a serious target as still one of the fastest growing economies and there is a immediate target of $4 billion of bilateral trade.. Quite what the UK's current $0.5bn of exports is made up of I have found it difficult to establish - patient doggedness may well be the order of the day.

However all is not lost. The Premier League - the Goldman Sachs of sporting franchises ( a great squid etc etc) is here. To be fair other European soccer also gets a fair shout - passing a newstand last night, I could make out just one word 'Mourihno' in a headline - so presume the special ones travails at Real are well understood here.

But the Premiership seems to hold a special place - flicking through the TV channels on the Saturday before Christmas there are three live games to follow. (Curiously none of these is Southampton-Sunderland; I can only assume that the Vietnamese TV schedulers regard that sort of contest as being much too rich a fare to set before their audience).

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