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Pre-Tet: the grey zone

In Hanoi, every year begins on standby. For a month, between the Western New Year and the lunar Sino-Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, the city, if not the entire country, goes into suspended animation. The weather is grey, damp and chill. Government ministries are paralyzed by the shift to the new fiscal year. Everyone is gearing up to return to their native villages in late January or early February for Tet, a holiday which officially lasts 4 days but for which both senior officials and everyday laborers frequently take off a week or two. It's hard enough to get a responsible official to agree to an interview on a pressing news issue in this reticent, Confucian-Communist country; add in the Tet factor, and you can pretty much forget about getting any information of value in the month of January in Vietnam.

I've always rather enjoyed the Tet season in Hanoi, but that may be because I'm a bit of a masochist. I spent my first Tet here in 2004. My wife and I came here in mid-2003, she to work at a health care NGO, I to practice the dark art of journalism — a field viewed by the Vietnamese government as a necessary evil, with the same resigned contempt medieval Christian rulers had for bankers. My wife, who hails from Holland, hated that Tet. I think it reminded her too much of home, the damp cold that never dropped below freezing, the low grey sky that never showed the sun. She works in development in part because she loves the tropics, following the sun as her ancestors in the old Dutch East India Corporation did when they colonized Indonesia in the 18th century.

I, on the other hand, have always gone abroad largely in search of the weird, be it hot or cold. I spent a year in Israel as a child, then became a Russia-head in college, and wound up in the Netherlands and then West Africa before landing in Vietnam. I found Tet in Hanoi fascinating. Houses in Hanoi are unheated, and built of uninsulated concrete and brick. Families spend the cold weeks huddled in the communal front room with the doors open, wearing parkas, drinking thermos after thermos of hot tea and waiting for guests to arrive.

This year there's a sense of foreboding hanging over the city. The export-driven economy, which has generated unprecedented new wealth in this once impoverished country, is crashing, as orders from the US, the country's number one export market, dry up. The tourism industry has already felt the hard times. Hotel room rates have fallen 30 percent  in recent months, and the government is ordering Vietnam Airlines to slash prices by a similar amount. Today, tourism ministers from around Southeast Asia are meeting here to try to drum up some renewed vigor in the industry, but all they have to offer are coordinated tours of the region — something which, amazingly, used to be difficult to do, because of different visa requirements in each country.

Anyway, it's an odd time to be in Vietnam. The country's story is changing. Up until last year, the story was of a country emerging from its Communist-era poverty and isolation, and reaping the rewards of globalization. Now, it's about a country about to encounter the perils of globalization, and one whose authoritarian political structure is being tested in an atmosphere where the government is no longer able to promise endless improvement in the standard of living. 2009 is going to be an interesting year. We'll see where it goes.

http://www.globalpost.com/notebook/vietnam/090109/pre-tet-the-grey-zone