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Rich, elderly among Opium addicts By Le Thang Long in Hanoi February 14, 2005 From: Agence France-Presse
RECLINING on a cot made of ornamental wood, Hai carefully prepares balls of opium that he takes turns smoking through a bamboo pipe he shares with a friend, their fourth for the day.
A strong acrid odour pervades the scene. Nicknamed "Hai xi ke", or Hai the addict, by his neighbours, he seems quite proud of his mastery over the art of preparing the opium ball, acquired after long years spent in Hanoi's opium dens during the war years.
"The quality of the opium and its preparation before each smoking session are the two decisive factors in our satisfaction," says Hai, who is in his 50s but looks a decade older.
The opium, he says, should be fired by a lamp fuelled by pork fat and not kerosene. "Its grease smells very good," he explains, sipping a cup of strong, bitter tea spiked with tranquilisers to take the effect of the opium further.
While the poor have to make do with third grade opium mixed with medicinal plants, Hai is wealthy enough to smoke four or five "bi", or balls, daily, costing between $3 and $6 each.
He spends in a week almost double the monthly wage of an average worker.
"My father was a rich businessman during the French colonial era," Hai says. "It is thanks to him that I began smoking very early and got to know how to choose and prepare the opium.
"With moderate usage, it's a miraculous medication."
Hai still owns two workshops in the suburbs but has had to sell off two houses in order to finance his addiction. But he has no regrets.
"When you have muscle pain, headache or throatache, they vanish instantly after smoking one or two balls of opium," Hai says.
Moreover, it "also helps men to boost their sexual capacity", his friend adds, echoing a widely held misconception.
But in the shady world of artificial heavens in Vietnam's big cities, the opium addicts seem to be conservatives - aristocrats whose time is past, still sticking to ways that are "classical but noble and traditional".
Young Vietnamese urbanites today prefer ecstasy or heroin, amphetamines and other synthetic drugs.
"Opium is mostly smoked in the affluent circles, by middle-aged or old men," says Cao Nhat Phien, who heads a department charged with combatting "social evils" in Vietnam's health ministry.
"It's rather chic and fashionable to maintain a long-held tradition or to return to it," Phien says. "But today's youth prefers heroin because it can be directly injected into the blood."
Hai is disdainful: "They're just children. ... They don't know they're slowly killing themselves."
Vietnam has some of the world's toughest drug laws. Anyone possessing 300gm or more of heroin or more than 10kg of opium faces execution by firing squad.
But Vietnamese judicial authorities' war against drug trafficking and the numerous death sentences passed every year on the smugglers has made little dent on the open sale of opium in many of Hanoi's streets.
"It's as easy as buying a packet of cigarettes," says Hai, a former soldier, who lived in neighbouring Laos for many years.
The police are more focused on the youths who inject themselves in public parks than on opium dens, seen as vanishing remnants from the past.
But the destruction by the authorities of poppy crops, which once pervaded northwestern Vietnam, has driven addicts to opt for foreign supplies.
"More than 90 per cent of opium and other drugs brought into Vietnam comes from the Golden Triangle (Laos, Burma and Thailand) and is consumed locally or re-exported to Asian or Western markets," says Do Van Thanh, a member of an anti-drug squad in Hanoi, admitting that hundreds of dens still operate in Vietnam.