The speed of darkness in Vietnam

As it gets hotter, we’re going to have more ‘cúp điện’ – power cuts. Depending on where you live in Vietnam, it sounds like “Coop dee’n” or “cup dee’n”

A woman cooks when there is a power cut in Ho Chi Minh City in this file photo.

As it gets hotter, we’re going to have more ‘cúp điện’ – power cuts. Depending on where you live in Vietnam, it sounds like “Coop dee’n” or “cup dee’n.” 

Some of it is planned – part of upgrading the nation’s electrical infrastructure which is quite old in a lot of places, while other cuts just happen without warning.

The speed of darkness here increases as we head towards a hot summer and 35 degree plus temperatures. But it’s fun sometimes – the collective moan of tourists in cafés as they rely on motorbike lights to find their forks, or the expats suddenly cut off from the last ten minutes of the Formula One motor race or the end of season grand final.

It is weird though when savvy backpackers use their smartphone lights to read the café bill before scurrying off in search of a working Wi-Fi.

One recent week the awesome electricity crew in fashionable yellow overalls switched over our street’s power meters. It’s the middle of the day, hot as heck and so the fans were roaring in my kitchen/office space as I was putting the finishing touches on my latest masterstroke of English teaching.

Just one one told me. Gee, thanks guys!

Accompanied by the eerie silence that dropped like a gentle sigh as all of my technology died, to myself I was thinking, hmm... middle of day, unscheduled – it’s either one of my neighbors accidently pulling down my power lines, or someone in the street. The give-away was the half-a-second later racket from my three dogs - signaling a physical presence in the street.

Fast workers those guys, like farmers running up coconut trees during harvest season, sandals and safety helmets and so much stuff attached to their belts it was a wonder nothing fell off. Ten minutes later it’s all done and they’re off to the next street. 

Now all I have to do was press ‘start’ on my laptop again and continue dreaming up my works of genius for school. Pfft!

I do get the warning email about scheduled cuts regularly, although the document announcing cuts to the area where my school is rarely gets the timing right. 

One day, I had to cancel class as we didn’t have enough back-up lighting for the classroom, and it gets pretty hot without the air-con as it’s boxed in with sealed windows. Oh well, lock up quickly and head to the beach for a consolation beer.

You get used to unexpected cuts. It’s even gotten to the point where I look at whether or not the traffic lights are working nearby to know if it’s still daylight.

Generally it’s not much of a nuisance except for on those cold days when you want hot water for a shower before work. I’m so delighted that I’m not an expat mum trying to get the kids bathed! Also, I’m not as tough as the Vietnamese, bathing in a cold water outdoor bath tub or shower. 

My Vietnamese comrades are far more accepting of these interruptions to 21st century living. I’ve learned over the years to keep candles and some stand-by electric lamps around the home and at school, so despite the inconvenience we’ll always have something else to work on. 

There’s nothing worse than sitting in the dark twiddling your thumbs waiting, except for maybe the build-up of tension in a dentist’s waiting room.

Inevitably there’s some bright (or dim?) spark who’ll shout, “Ah! You should have solar power.” Thanks Einstein, where do I get that? And how do I persuade the landlord to tack them onto the roof? And who’s gonna pay? And where do I put the storage battery and how do I operate it?

“Get a generator!” another Young Einstein retorts. Oh yeah, fumes, noise, wires everywhere. I’d rather get a cool Vietnamese haircut. Never trust anyone who begins a sentence with ‘you should...’

Mind you, Vietnam is probably not the worst place for a power cut – its mostly warm, you don’t always need hot food, and refrigerators will keep the beer cold enough for a few hours. In Australia, a first-world country with supposedly great infrastructure, there was a power cut a while ago that blacked out nearly a million homes. They’re still arguing about what to do in the future to prevent it from happening again.

Spare a thought for folks in the poorer parts of the Mekong, the mountains and the cold far north of Vietnam. It’s still a country wiring up and connecting villages in remote locations. My first-world complaint in the midst of a patient, long-suffering local population is a bit selfish, yet that’s how some expats experience it here.

Finally, here’s a tip: always have your drink within arm’s reach when ‘cúp điện’ happens. You’ll find the darkness passes much quicker.


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