It’s Sunday, all’s right with the world…then there’s a power cut.
I’m writing this in the now abandoned, darkened coffee shop in fashionable, downtown Hoi An which has become eerily quiet as music systems freeze and the soft rush of steam from the coffee making machines is replaced by the chatter of staff wondering what to do next.
It’s part of the way of life here. Power cuts, called cúp điện in Vietnamese, whether they’re pre-announced or without warning, are such a normal occurrence that I don’t even blink when it happens. And as we head into summer, it’s going to get worse…
It’s a confusing phenomenon often blamed on Vietnam’s struggle to produce enough electricity to meet its economic needs. But just as often, it is a result of the enormous amount of new construction requiring new connections to the power grid. Include in that blame list the never-ending electrical infrastructure upgrades to handle higher capacity power lines, new transformers and the growth of new suburbs all requiring street lighting, water pumping stations and so on and you get the idea of how often power cuts happen.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Vietnam is still installing power lines to far-flung villages that have never had electricity before.
As a Westerner used to energy consumption in developed countries, it is still hard to imagine that anyone on the planet has never experienced the benefits of electricity. No fans in the summer, no TV, no hot water and no lights at night. Just wood stoves, gas lamps, a bucket of boiled water and studying by single oil light in a wooden or iron shack probably no bigger than my kitchen. And those situations still exist barely kilometers from Hoi An.
In the scheme of things, cúp điện is no biggie. Yet it’s still surprising when I can land in Ho Chi Minh City at a comfortable hotel and still have my day stuffed up by an unexpected blackout. It’s even more annoying when it happens in a posh expat bar that doesn’t have a back-up generator. Gourmet hamburgers by candlelight, huh?
Now, you’d think that Hoi An, a major tourist destination, a city that generates millions of U.S. dollars in income, would have a totally reliable power supply – not so. Sitting in a pub that’s doing great business on a hot sultry summer evening with the lights failing as the demand on the power grid by air-conditioners and fans cuts out the power again and again throughout the night is seen as funny by tourists. The howls of “arggg” and “ahhh” greet every attempt to restore lighting, music and a functioning kitchen.
Years ago I bought a generator for my house in Hoi An. It was a large, barely able to be carried brick of a thing that pumped out petrol fumes. Even though it was brand new, it had a fiddly start-up mechanism and attempted to break my hand every time I had to pull the start-up cord to get it going. Finally I realized that I shouldn’t curse the darkness but embrace it and got rid of the stress-inducing nightmare.
You learn tricks as you live longer in Vietnam. A candle within reach, knowing how to walk around the house in pitch blackness, having back-up canned gas supplies for cooking and routinely topping up the battery power on portable electric lamps and torches. Using my smartphone as a torch made me feel clever (yes, I finally bought one of the horrors…) although I never remember this until ten minutes of fumbling around in the darkness. The fringe benefit of these lessons learnt was being ready for the big typhoons.
EVN, Vietnam’s state-owned power provider, does send me emailed lists of power cut timetables in my area which I think are quite funny as the dates often don’t coincide with the reality. What I don’t get is the number of helpless newbie expats frantically posting on Facebook on the last legs of their smartphone power wondering when it will all end - hell, we don’t know! Asking the locals is no help as they often can’t be bothered to check or simply can’t remember what their EVN warning text said or worse, make up an answer to avoid losing face.
Well, that’s it. I’ve successfully finished this article and used my time during the cúp điện to do something instead of staring at the ceiling. I think it’s interesting that we modernites struggle to cope with boring power cuts yet our grandparents probably took it their stride and read a book by candlelight or went outside during the day. Poor old us…
No wonder the Vietnamese think we are crazy!