Learning from Bali – Tri Hita Karana

This isn’t a Kuta beach cocktail or even a Bali eco hotel. Instead its an idea. At this rather momentously muddled time in our history – with politics a bit of a nightmare, with atomised communities, with continuing threats to our planetary home and resources, we are in desperate need of some simple and powerful ideas. Perhaps we can draw on the past and other places – even if not perfect – for these ideas.

Apologies in advance to all those anthropologists for this short essay based on just a cursory observation of Bali. Apologies also to all those environmentalists  (rightly) concerned about garbage, water management and traffic jams! Going back to the idea – its about harmony between people, the earth and spirits.

Subak managed paddy fields, Bali

Subak managed paddy fields, Bali

What’s the essence of Bali that makes it able to retain so much of its physical and social heritage and live in apparent harmony with nature? Despite a large population of about 4.5mill people, 730 people a square km, the negative impacts on the island are under reasonable level of control. Just compare that density with a few others: 353 in India, 121 in Indonesia as a whole, and 21 in Sweden. Social institutions also continue to operate.

Such is Bali’s appearance and order that in the past a European explorer remarked (somewhat condescendingly): “Houses and villages marked out by coconut palms, tamarind and other fruit trees are dotted about in every direction; while between them extend luxurious rice-grounds watered by an elaborate system of irrigation that would be the pride of the best cultivated parts of Europe”.

complex water management

complex water management

A key aspect is the irrigation association or “subak” system of managing rice cultivation and water continues. Villagers rather than commercial agricultural companies remain in control. The system now has UNESCO recognition as a heritage site, and I’m relying primarily on the UNESCO site and Wikipedia, though I did pick up a great book from the 1930s[1]. Considering that water for paddy fields needs to be shared carefully all those people fed – this isn’t just equal or random distribution of rain – a good governance system is needed to avoid conflict.

Kantor Desa - village office

Kantor Desa – village office

The system that has evolved is a seemingly egalitarian and communitarian system of participation – not voting but direct participation.  The governance structure goes beyond the Subaks. As you pass through each village you will see the familiar buildings – not only the temple, the Pura Bali Agung or Pura Desa, but also the Kantor Desa or Town Hall. The local Banjar or village Government has a representative from each family.  The Subaks operate alongside them, with a complex system for financial contributions and water entitlements.  The Subak commitees meet regularly with all members taking part.

As to this egalitarianism, we were told by our village guide as we walked up Mt Batur that women are involved in this village-level governance though in separate institutions. I can also see some references to women being on the “karma subak” in charge of activities in some subak.  Nevertheless, it seems fairly clear that the system is patriarchal which clearly needs to change. However, in terms of caste and class no distinctions are made, and caste seems immaterial in terms of power, perhaps a late imposition from Javanese Hinduism that didn’t accord with earlier traditions. Perhaps this egalitarianism made a shift to Islam of less interest to the Balinese population.

Ubud's Banjar Orchestra

Ubud’s Banjar Orchestra

Then there is social capital – built up not only through governance but also through ritual and work. Some of the tasks of maintaining waterways and weirs are carried out communally, in accordance with a wider “gotong royong” system of communal work. A little like the Kenyan “harambee” system, Wikipedia tells me! But its not only repairing temples but even taking part in orchestras.

Religious events and festivals combined with this practice of mutual help and co-operation appears to support and create social capital. A challenge in multi-cultural societies may be making these rituals inclusive to all – not impossible!

And finally the reverence for nature.  Bali’s underlying philosophy of Tri Hita Karana” spirits, people and the environment” described as “achieving happiness with a harmonious relationship”.  This seems real, not just talk.  Villagers give offerings to the rain goddess or earth mother, Dewi Sri. The temple on Lake Bratan is for the worship of the goddesses of lakes and rivers –Dewi Batari Ulun Danu. They make offerings to the tree on Tempek Uduh Day.  On our visit to Mr Batur good to have a walking tour of the area, hear from our local guide why the community supported the protection of the mountain forest – to protect their rainfall.


Dewi Sri - Goddess of Rain

Dewi Sri – Goddess of Rain

Architecture reinforces this connection with the past and with nature – the designs from ancient texts like the Mansara and Mayamata continue to be adhered to. Villages are not overly compact and have an order and centre to them. They often seem to infringe on natural landscapes hardly at all. Houses are built in the Balinese style with courtyards full of flowers, trees and shrines – empty of statues as the spirits live in nature. Artisanal skill and design are much valued. Natural materials or seemingly natural materials are used. The shrines for the ancestors are empty of statues and have a simple shape and style with a thatch roof.


Things are changing – local institutions are threatened in many ways: with the increase in demand for water for non-agricultural purposes, agricultural land sold for hotels. The Government is responding with a Bali-wide Water Masterplan and no doubt wider-scale thinking and management is needed too. The traffic is probably the biggest issue – gone are the bemos and mini-buses pretty much. Tourists travel in their own cars. Kids ride home from school on motorbikes aged 10+.  We talked to our taxi-drive in Ubud and he said the village council was talking about this – thinking about a park & ride system. There is talk about a rail line around the island.


It may be that combined with good infrastructure planning, with its strong system of local governance – where all take part not just some, communal work, and reverence for nature as shown in the ritual relating spirits and gods, Bali can be a model for resilient and socially connected communities.  Perhaps this local level “Tri Hita Karana” approach drawing together people, spirits/gods and the earth can help ground our own communities once again!






[1] “Bali – Studies in Life, Thought and Ritual” from the Ganesha Bookshop in Ubud, which is a detailed account from the middle of the 20th century.


End Notes







Understanding the Age of Anger – Review of Pankaj Mishra’s book.

Not the environment for me today but another big theme of our age. This time the story of “extremists” across the world, and a review of a book that our Serious Book Club (HK) has been reading.



“The state of negative solidarity, as Arendt suspected, has become an   ‘unbearable burden’ provoking ‘political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or  desperate rebellion against all powers that be’. Political and economic life seems to have no remedy for the emotional and psychological disorders it has unleashed”.

To me this book, whatever its flaws, does take us a long way to understand the situation we are now in. And it helps, because rather than creating fear and hostility towards some groups it will help us to a painful understanding.



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Kenya leapfrogging ahead to a green energy economy!

Countries across the globe recognize the need to safeguard natural resources, productive capacity, and health and well-being, from pollution and climate change. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change seeks to bring the whole world together to address the climate threat. The challenge is in its implementation and regular ratcheting up of targets.

Taking into account the pressing need for new energy sources in Africa to support a growing economy as well as the vulnerability of Africa’s natural resources – soil and water in particular – to climate change, this blog explores the best energy strategy for countries like Kenya. 

I conclude that Kenya should not go down the route of coal-fired power stations but should leapfrog the West and Asia, and not invest in fossil fuel generation at all. In this way, it can approach climate negotiations with clean hands, it will be protected from many of the costs impact of regulatory and policy change such as carbon taxes, it will be able to avoid the air pollution causing health havoc in countries like China and India, last if not least it will help it secure the high-end tourism that it seeks to expand.

Plans for a Coal-fired Power Station on the Indian Ocean Coastline

This is an imminent issue as Kenya is soon to build its first coal-fired power station, with Chinese support, close to the beautiful coastal town of Lamu. http://www.climatechangenews.com/2017/05/23/kenya-signs-china-deal-coal-plant-beside-unesco-site/

I don’t much like dogma – and sometimes things aren’t always quite what they seem. Perhaps Kenya needs to go down this route and compromises need to be made? Current over-reliance on biomass i.e. cutting down trees for cooking fuel isn’t sustainable either. However, having explored this further, I’d stick to my instinctive response. Like the Pacific Islands going zero carbon, considering their vulnerability to sea level rise, like countries that are highly innovative like Japan and Denmark, and taking on board Asia leapfrogging others on green finance, Africa can and should leapfrog others on energy. The great news of course is that though black smoke, polluted waters etc may seem an inevitable part of progress, as Africa urbanises and industrialises it can go a different way!



Energy Needs

The basic position is that Africa needs more energy for lighting, cooking, transport and industry. Whilst Kenya uses 0.17 mWh electricity per capita, rich countries like the US use about 13 mWh electricity (100x more) and the Chinese about 4mWh per capita[1] (20x more). Government projections in Kenya are of an increase in capacity by 5x – from 3.4 GW in 2015 to 18GW in 2018[2].

Cutting down trees for cooking fuel is causing huge environmental degradation, and a better energy solution is needed. Clean, affordable, reliable power may also allow Kenya to diversify its economy, as in Kenya’s Vision 2030, and be less dependent on rainfed unpredictable agriculture – perhaps a place of high tech or at least textiles etc. It may allow diesel vehicles to be replaced by electric vehicles, cooking to be done on clean electric stoves instead. Surviving on lion-watching tourist mini-buses, Daily Mail reading sun –seeker tourists, plus growing coffee prone to disease and fluctuating prices is precarious.

Of course plentiful power is not an end in itself and there are energy efficient versions of modernity. Why swap a semi-outdoors style of design for high energy over-cooled, stuffy shopping malls, offices and restaurants? Moreover, energy on its own won’t kickstart the economy: a skilled workforce, a high calibre technical/scientific community, and good governance are all more important for progress. High “liveability” is critical –  helps retain and attract talent as well as maintain a healthy skilled population.

So what’s wrong with coal?

The pictures below from Beijing are a salutary reminder of the risks of following the same path. This is a situation which no-one wishes to be in! Prof Stephen Chu on a visit to Hong Kong described it as a 40 cigarette a day habit from the day of birth. Its not a happy place to be with air quality levels (PM 2.5s) about 50x above WHO limits, a lot of this due to coal fired power stations.  Perhaps even more importantly the climate impacts of burning coal are huge, as coal has the highest GHG emissions. If we don’t make drastic cuts globally, the commitment to achieve a net zero carbon world and stabliise the world’s climate will not succeed.

beijing poor AQcongstion and pollution


Kenya currently largely relies on renewables – hydro and geothermal make up 70% of its energy capacity.  It is already building scale wind farms (in Turkana) and using small scale solar.  In many ways its ahead of the game on climate friendly technology. It could avoid ever facing situations like what we see above.

Why say no to coal?

My argument for saying no to coal (and other fossil fuels) is 5-fold:

  • Kenya needs to make the Paris Agreement work – and it helps to approach the agreement with clean hands not as a big polluter;
  • It will reduce risk to business in Kenya arising from a likely new regulatory framework for a global low carbon economy – which Kenya needs to push for;
  • Solar power is entirely affordable and a good clean option for the country;
  • A weak transmission network makes local off-grid systems cost-competitive compared with centralised fossil fuel generation; and
  • In the absence of a strong regulatory system, competitive prices could be better achieved through avoiding excessive reliance on just a few power producers.

As to making the Paris Agreement work, the plan for a coal-fired power station in Lamu could be a step in an unravelling climate change agreement Developing countries across the world may pick up the last generation coal power stations whilst other countries like China keep to their Paris Agreement and move on: a one step forward and a one step backward approach, on a global scale. This needs to be avoided if we can.

Reducing Risk from a Changing policy framework  

Kenya as one of the losers in terms of climate change could do with coming to negotiations with clean hands – it doesn’t need to get into bed with the polluters. If it keeps its hands clean, it can push for border tariffs and carbon prices. If locked into a system too, it will not be able to push for those mechanisms that disincentivise carbon emissions. Or it will be hit by policy measures that penalise the use of his carbon energy. It may be that one day we begin to see “border carbon tariffs”.

The renewable energy route will also reduce the otherwise adverse impact of the policy changes that Kenya needs eg carbon prices on its own businesses. It minimises the so-called “regulatory risk” on its own economy. Its hard to push for the right policies if you end up facing the squeeze.

But is renewable energy really a practicable and affordable option?

Put another way, is the proposed 1.05 GW capacity power station on 395 ha about 21 kilometres north of Lamu replaceable by an affordable cleaner low carbon system? Can Kenya’s power generation be met through RE rather than gas or coal?

As IRENA’s Africa 2030: Roadmap for Renewable Energy[3] states there are several ways to increase generation through RE with plentiful potential – from solar, on-shore wind, and geothermal. Globally, the weighted average Levelised Cost of Energy (“LCOE”) for newly installed utility-scale solar PV in 2015 was USD 0.13/kWh. This compares with USD 0.05-0.10/kWh from coal and natural gas[4]. However, the most competitive utility-scale projects in 2015 were regularly delivering electricity for USD 0.08/kWh without financial support[5].  In terms of costs in Africa, some forms of RE utility scale solar are now not far off coal: $0.13 – 0.26 LCOE per kWh. The lowest cost of utility scale solar is even lower, at $0.075 mWh, in South Africa.

And that’s just solar PV. Development is occurring in Concentrated Solar Power (see Africa Roadmap 2030) – which has the advantage of the power generated increasing with temperatures unlike solar PV. Also wind energy and geothermal offer much potential. Year by year capital and installation costs are falling.

As a reminder the comparative emissions are as follows: coal emits roughly 740-910 gCO2/kWh; gas about 410 -650 gCO2/kWh, and solar 18-180 g/kWh; and wind 7-56 g/kWh (IRENA 2017).

“Renewables are now the first-choice option for expanding, upgrading and modernising power systems around the world. Wind and solar power, which commanded about 90% of 2015 investments in renewable power, are now competitive with conventional sources of electricity, as their costs have plunged in recent years. The cost of wind turbines has fallen by nearly a third since 2009 and that of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules by 80%”. [10].

What about the other problems  re RE? 

 Land supply – is there enough space for all of this?

This isn’t a major problem in Kenya – though what we are looking at is large scale solar not rooftop PV as in Europe. Solar on large buildings – around 1MW or utility scale beyond – is one option.  The largest (as of 2012) was a 392MW capacity ground mounted site in California (Ivanpah) spread over 5 square miles of federal land. Just over 3 such sites would provide the equivalent electricity from the Lamu power station with almost zero emissions and no air pollution. 50 such sites would give you the level of electricity that Kenya needs. Northern, Western and the Kenyan coast have high levels of sunshine year round, is well-suited to PV panels – some of the best parts of the world for solar energy lie here. Also the land use is ideal for PV once you get into the desert. PV panels can work alongside scrub and goats. They may even have other benefits in reducing evaporation and reducing wind and water erosion.

 Viability in the face of Variability?

The other question is viability – can an electricity grid be run on 100% renewable energy? A lot of the countries powering ahead like South Africa and Mexico aim to draw 5-10% of their share of electricity from solar and wind by 2020 (just 3 years away). But still that’s just a proportion. What we’re looking at here is a scenario where RE makes up almost all of energy needs. Even Germany hasn’t got that far! It has about 33% renewable power.

Can Kenya run its grid on 50% solar considering its variability over the day? That might be a challenge. However, Kenya is well-positioned for a mixture of solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Battery storage is also improving with California an exemplar of change and Tesla’s new battery storage plant in California is at the forefront of that change. As to successful integration into the grid, there is plenty of evidence to show this is possible. As much as 70% of a regional German grid is now RE, and without the use of storage[7].

 Raising the capital?

The relative costs of finance are also an argument in favour of PV. Increasingly investors are looking for greener projects to finance. I mentioned at the outset Asian investors taking on board ESG considerations, as are EU and American investors. New guidance from the G20’s Financial Stability Taskforce will strengthen this move and a price on carbon amongst other things is widely anticipated. So in terms of accessing finance, RE has its benefits[8].

Job creation – job losses?

But how about the poor farmers in Lamu that sees selling the family land to the power company as a way out of poverty?  Well, they can be offered the opportunity to diversify and install some PV on their rooftop or to sell up to the PV plant.

Taking on board the positives: Making Money from Storing Carbon

Considering its land and reforestation potential, Kenya can get close to zero carbon and also generate revenue absorbing other country’s carbon as it is already beginning to do (See this IFC forest bond project http://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/news_ext_content/ifc_external_corporate_site/news+and+events/news/first-forests-bond-on-the-lse). Getting as close to zero GHG emissions is possible and worthwhile. That way it can use its land to generate returns. If it expands coal-fired generation it will simply have to offset its own emission.

 Conclusions: why Kenya can and should leapfrog Asia?

Kenya is one of the big losers in what at worst is beginning to look like a 100x worse version of the Grapes of Wrath[11]. Climate change is expected to mean more extreme and regular drought, causing conflict and migration. There are not many Kenyans who don’t know what drought means – forcing people to the towns, children going hungry to school, and national parks full of bleached bones.  This rather cruel situation is already playing out as climate refugees[12] flee  to look for a better life elsewhere.

Considering its extreme vulnerability, Kenya has the most to gain by holding the Paris Agreement together, keeping the world on a trajectory to net zero emissions by 2050.  This means even Kenya playing its part and showing what is possible. No point just complaining that it’s the rich countries fault and they should pay. Just isn’t going to happen, as people vote for Donald J Trump!

By going down the renewables route, it can minimize the financial risks on its industries of fossil fuels. A 2°C world means new policy measures can be expected worldwide – including carbon prices and border tariffs so that those with high emissions are penalised for it. Kenya could be hit by these if it goes down the coal route.  Moreover, these are the sort of measures that Kenya will need to push for, and it is important that it doesn’t tie itself into a system that will tie its hands so that it cannot demand the policies that it needs to save its citizens.

Investing in renewable energy will also help save the pristine spaces on the coast, with its coral reef and marine parks, critical to Kenya’s Vision 2030 tourism plans, from air pollution. Kenya’s attraction is in its natural environment.  A more distributed form of energy generation will also reduce the need for a vast and expensive transmission network, and help provide electricity at a competitive price to all those parts of the country that need it.



[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.ELEC.KH.PC  https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1860/Kenya%20_IG_2015_05_03.pdf

[2] http://www.vision2030.go.ke/projects/?pj=2

[3] IRENA 2015

[4] A Roadmap for a Renewable Energy Future, IRENA, 2016


[5] IRENA 2016

[6] IRENA 2016

[7] Irena – Rethinking Energy 2017 http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_REthinking_Energy_2017.pdf

p11 and p.21

[8] Irena 2017 p. 22 and p.38

[9] http://dspace.africaportal.org/jspui/bitstream/123456789/34928/1/Situational-Analysis-of-Energy-Industry-Policy-and–Strategy-for-Kenya%20(1).pdf?1

[10] Irena 2017, p.9

[11] 5th Assessment Report (IPCC)

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/01/climate-change-trigger-unimaginable-refugee-crisis-senior-military



Living in the New Territories

We have moved again. Seems that once you move, you don’t want to stop. This time we’ve simply crossed the water from the HK Island side to the other – sort of the Kowloon side but sort of not. Strictly we are in the new Tseung Kwan O metropolis, Sai Kung District, the New Territories. Tseung Kwan O, by the way is Junk Bay in English. I now know where the word junk came from.

Our new “building”/development  – 17 tower blocks of 50 storeys each with 8 flats per floor  – is so vast that it makes the last one (5 tower blocks only) seem like a little close-knit community. It takes 5-10mins to walk from one side to the other. On top of the MTR station is another substantial development, aptly named Metroland, and a vast public housing estate behind.

Before it became Ocean Shores or Wai Geng Wan Boon (which means something about a view of Victoria Harbour – of which there is none at all. Something similar between how HK names its buildings and Donald Trump), our development was the site of the old Rennie’s Mill.  Rennie set up the HK Milling Company making bread and flour along with stalwarts of the old HK – Paul Chater and HM Mody. They live on, with roads named after them etc, but poor Paul Rennie wasn’t so fortunate and ended up drowning himself when the business failed. Apparently just off shore from here!

Its hard to tell exactly where our building is on the photo. A fair bit of the bay in the foreground has been “reclaimed” from the sea and our development I believe is along the headland you can see on the left hand side. Difficult to be sure. It would be nice to be living in a place like the one in the photo but I guess it wouldn’t be great to have to take the road snaking over the mountain to get to work every day.


The place we actually live in looks like this. Our buildings are behind the tall ones on the right and they are right on top of the MTR station.  I am a bit of a fan of compact high rise development, saving the space for walks into nature etc. So our block with its “reasonable size” apartments about 5 kids playgrounds, 4 swimming pools, gym, tennis courts, reading room etc is not a bad place to live.

We tend to walk to the next MTR station, Tsung Kwan O for restaurants and shops. But last weekend I thought I may walk the other way and then get the MTR too Ikea (as one does universally these days – go to Ikea at least – these days). Here are a couple of views of what the footpath looks like – a plug for high density living!


Its nothing special really and if I had more time, I think I’d try and get involved in a management plan to bring back more diversity. But still I am not complaining! And one day we will catch the Wilson Trail at the top of the hill and walk all the way too Kowloon Peak which we looked out over from our old apartment.

I enjoy looking out for the little forgotten snippets of an earlier time, when these hillsides were full of squatters and recent immigrants. There are still huts hidden in the hillside and even a temple of beaten red metal, on the final stretch of my walk to Yau Tong MTR, with its oranges, incense and collection of gods inside. I didn’t manage to snap the temple but here is what must have been a temporary home for one or more families.



The other aspect of New Territories living is cycling! People despise bicycles on the island – an embarrassing memory of one’s past which one doesn’t want to even contemplate. Before the times of the shiny aircon MTR, or before the time of the shiny BMW or even Tesla. But here they love their bikes and the Tseung Kwan O metropolis is fully cyclable. So we have had a lovely day exploring the rather amorphous metropolis –cycling along the shore, and pushing up our bikes uphill and then freewheeling downhill to Silverstrand Beach.

There is lots that could make this place really great (again) – its in the middle of nature but still so removed. I have found a perfect little beach for Tseung Kwan O swimmers, though I suspect it will soon disappear to a road or a tunnel. I am trying to get in touch with my district councillor and become one of those difficult, demanding residents. Lets see if one can get things done that way!

Vietnam – peeling back the soft sheen and the sepia


Communism in Vietnam 

Order and planning – maintaining our culture and heritage in the face of modernity

Hindered by short-termism and a focus on growth

Our Toyoto Prius cab glides along the airport highway towards the Red River and then to Hanoi. This feels like some mix between Bangkok and Manila: a fascinating hotchpotch of houses along the road – tall thin, some with European influences, solar panels, bill boards. The usual medley of shops, homes and eateries, of any ordinary South East Asian city – though on the orderly, prosperous side of the continuum.

carpet_bombing_by_archangel72367-d45yc37Yet for many of us, when we think Vietnam our minds are swiftly flooded by a succession of dark images, the war time scenes: terror at Mai Lai, B52s dropping bomb after bomb like frog spawn -so close together – on idyllic tropical forest and paddy fields[1].  For others, like me, we also hold in our minds images of exquisite beauty from the An Nam coast or further south – glimpses of mountains that reach down to the sea, the luxurious dark wood of the sailing junks, the lacquer reds and blacks of the Buddhist temples. Essentially indigenous Vietnamese but incorrigibly French, viewed through the lens of movies like Indochine.


boats-and-waterAfter spending a short summer break in Hanoi, following in the footsteps of the Hampstead crowd, I am going to make an attempt to peel away the soft sheen of Indochine and the anguish of the war to get a sense of a modern day Vietnam. I’ll experiment with seeing Vietnam through non-Western Eyes. It was Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake set in Vietnam that inspired Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism”, so let’s see what can be done with other eyes.

Western influence is the wrong place to start – the Westerners had little more than an overnight stay, whilst China was here for centuries. The real history is perhaps best read in Christopher Goscha’s History of Vietnam – the story of the Sinicised elites, the warring north and south for many centuries – from the area North of Hanoi to Hue in the Champa south. I like the story of the sisters Trung who wrest control of the country from the Chinese state – there is a hidden matriarchal culture in this part of the world, I note again.  The Confucian repertoire of enlightened monarch, good governance and social harmony apparently existed by time the colonial French arrived on the scene. According to Goscha, Vietnam was a pretty modern state by then.  Here is a rather lovely Chinese view of the western aggressor, armed to the hilt leaving nothing to chance.



Moving on a century and a half, like most visitors to Hanoi, we make our way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, and wonder around looking at the photos of this man of the early 20th century who it seems was really a man of the people – more sailor/lascar than elite of Cambridge or LSE. It is quite tiring in the heat. After finding some warmish fresh coconut water by the One Pillar Pagoda, and a coffee and sandwich at some sort of café chain, we find the energy to continue to Uncle Ho’s “humble abode”. Ho Chi Minh – remains a hero; not tarnished by time and horrors like Stalin and Mao. He has a slightly saintly look, and his home is plain and simple, more Gandhi than Stalin. Just a couple of rooms built in wood and on stilts. No love of grandeur – neither pomp nor ostentation.


It is hard not to be struck by the longevity of the Communist Party of Vietnam, symbolised by the mausoleum buildings, reminiscent of Havana more than Beijing – swapping Uncle Ho for Jose Marti.  The roots of Communism in Vietnam are in the resistance to French colonialism from much before the 2nd WW. But in many ways this Communism is just a continuation of the old Confucian culture. After the collapse of Japan’s Asian Empire in 1945, the north quickly declared its independence with Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh, in charge. De Gaulle’s determination to re-establish colonialism after the war, by force if need be quickly alienated many and no doubt strengthened this local communism. This victory before long kicked off the “American War”, which only ended in 1975 when the tanks of the communist north finally entered Saigon.

Communism in its Chinese form continues despite the end of the Cold War, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the old ally, as in neighbouring Laos and China too. In Vietnam, according to Bill Hayton, the BBC’s man in Hanoi, the Communist Party is determined to remain the sole source of authority. “Everything depends upon the Communist Party maintaining coherence and discipline at a time when challenges to stability are growing by the day”. In that way, it looks more like China and from the stories I read, the Party controls things in the same way –  freedom on a leash. Perhaps our little hidden away Hanoi hotel owner symbolises this. On the one hand crazy artist and dancer, but with his roots in the secret police hanging out with artists and dancers to ensure they didn’t go off track.

Like in Cambodia, there was a period of harsh control but it seems to have been a great deal shorter. It took just two years to decide that collectivization of farms wasnt going to work. In fact Vietnam did rather well taking the learning from the famous International Rice Research Institute of the Philippines. Contrast this with Pol Pot’s “idealism” that let millions starve, and the fear and oppression of the time.

In economic terms, it is a miracle. It’s GDP per capita (with purchasing lower parity) is at $6100 per annum, and PWC’s 2008 report put it at one of the fastest growing emerging economies in the world. It predicted that by 2040 it could have an economy 70% of that of the UK.  However, despite all the talk of Vietnam as a rising dragon benefitting from liberalization and FDI, that does not seem to have been the facilitating factor. World Bank efforts to encourage liberalisation including $300mill in structural adjustment credits in 1997 were for many years just turned down.  The country was making enough from exports and commercial foreign investment to not need cash.  Deal after deal was rejected, and for a while Vietnam held out perhaps giving its local businesses a chance.  Eventually things moved on and there has been greater liberalization and private enterprise promoted.

Though there are plenty of big foreign companies based here, apparel to heavy industry – European to Taiwanese – many charming boutiques in Hanoi andhanoi-street rather a lot of tourism, state ownership remains widespread. The party can still control the economy through state owned enterprises. The law has categorized businesses into 4 different groups and in 1 – with 16 business sectors – 100% state ownership is required. These include electricity, irrigation, railways and air terminals. In the lowest category – including water/sewerage and chemicals and fertilisers 50-65% Government ownership is required. The Government’s strategy includes making Vietnam a centre of ship building amongst other things. So it has a planned economy at least.

Compared say with Cambodia where one is immediately hit by the kids that would like just $1 –  or Manila, the absence of visible poverty is striking. Whether this is the result of a China style hukou policy or a smooth rise into the ranks of middle income countries, is not too clear. Its more a country of bikes than the inequality of big cars and worthless pedestrian. See here – Hanoi on a Friday night.


Modern Vietnam also has a sense of freedom and a sense of the rule of law. It appears to have a strong civil society with legal challenges allowed against the Government, judicial review provided for since 1996. Though apparently the grounds for challenge are “legality”, rather narrow. However, Hayton challenges this too. The Party doesn’t really tolerate dissent – though perhaps more about Confucianism than Communism here.

Perhaps there is too much order, too much of a drive towards modernity, too much short termism. At Halong, there is a series of glass box waiting rooms for the 300-400 junks licensed to ply the water – more Gatwick. Minibus after minibus pull up to collect the previous nights occupants and take the new ones onto the boats. Lunch breaks are at the vast Viet style service stations where you can buy pricy artisanal products – but anything from expensive lacquered bowls to ceramics apparently dug out of some ancient shipwreck. Bill Hayton takes away some of the pleasure– saying they have found quick ways to lacquer – more car spray than layers and layers of resin, and clever ways of turning ordinary ceramics into century old stuff.

But the junks are beautiful: wooden boats, with wood floors and decks, spaces for Tai Chi, cozy rooms and delicious food; and the marine water looks clean enough. We hear the government is not too keen on wood  – before long they will all be metal. It plans to expand the number of junks on the water too, and move the boat dwellers onto dry land. they are at risk from the typhoons that batter this coastline for sure and no doubt their presence leads to pollution of the water. But there is a risk of soullessness and loss of the feel of the local community. Is this the westerner in me talking? I hope we will get a bit of a rethink here – character, heritage, identity are invaluable for the national psyche in my view and need not be lost. Pride in ones history and culture is an intangible asset that mustn’t be lost. How about the fascination with modernity being channeled into keeping the water as clean as possible, the boats as energy efficient and pollution free as can be done?



Its not only this but the evidence suggests that the water isn’t as clean as it should be, the environment not as protected as it could be. Junks discharge sewage into the water, mangroves along the edges are destroyed for neatness, over-fishing continues at a disastrous level, factories pollute the rivers, a new shipping terminal for no good reason has been squeezed into Halong City. The conservation minded bureaucrats in Hanoi seem to have lost the battle against those looking for growth.


I am beginning to see now why the Hampstead set are rushing to Halong Bay. Best to visit now before this rather lovely world is lost.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre