Petroleum – stories behind petrol stations

Ngọc Thu

04:09 PM @ Thursday - 03 March, 2016

When I was a primary and secondary student, one of the tasks that worried our five siblings most is fuel assurance. Unlike families that lived in inner city, we resided in the suburbs by the Hong (Red) River which was home to quite a few vegetable plantations and desert gardens, so our daily activities somewhat bore rural life features. Our family kitchen was divided into two parts: one for a pair of spotless enameled oil stoves which my father was eligible to buy, and the other for a firewood stove which was suitable for various fuels such as dried firewood, dried leafs, wood shavings, sawdust, and straw. My two elder naughty brothers were in charge of looking for these fuels. My family was usually provided with goods stamp (a type of coupon) to buy gasoline. My parents used to divide the purchased gasoline into some cans which, along with other stuff, they would give to our relatives in the countryside. The remaining gasoline was used to light oil lamp or oil stoves on rainy days when we could not use the kitchen due to its leaks on the roof.

Queuing for gasoline, a time to remember

Like many other commodities, gasoline was then so scarce that it was extremely difficult to buy even with goods stamps provided. As our two elder brothers were responsible for the firewood stove fuels, our female siblings were assigned to queue for gasoline purchase. Unluckily, my eldest sister got married and lived far from home whilst my other sister was busy with her study and thought that I was not quick and smart enough so I should buy gasoline. Also my other sister thought she was prudent and experienced so she should hold goods stamps to buy rice and foodstuff (in fact she was suffered from asthma so she couldn’t stand the gasoline smell). Everything had gone as usual until one day when my parents heard that households should hoard up gasoline as it would be unavailable for a long time. For my family, it was still okay for not using the oil stove for six months, but my parents worried that if we did not use the goods stamps they would expire so it was a must to purchase gasoline at any cost. I still remembered days during which our street people made an appointment to get up early at 5:30am to buy gasoline. I and my sister were aroused from sleep early that we couldn’t even see things clearly, but we were hurried to have cold rice for breakfast and then, with two cans loaded on a bicycle, we followed our neighbours to the fuel shop. Until now, it is still clear in my mind how I had felt disappointed to see an endless queue of people standing in front of the "Women’s Fuel Shop” where oil storage tanks lying outdoors on the pavement. All feelings of joy and anger, love and hate around that practice are too many and are nothing new if I retell. However, for many times we felt annoyed as we got nothing after we had queued under the summer heat from early morning to the noon whilst we were belly-pinched. Of courses, such inconvenience was not uncommon at that time and, to some extent, any one should have experienced. Nevertheless, it was luck for families that have a family member working in the trading services, who were also highly esteemed and depended on for help by neighbours. Young people nowadays will become perplexed with the saying “not even deep rice fields and female buffalos are as valuable as a girl working in the trading services”. That’s why our grandma and mother used to encourage us to study well to take a position in the trading services, either in a petrol station, food shop or a general department selling food and drink. However, they only spoke so in our father’s absence since our father – bearing a severe mentality of a soldier – always believed that that was a merchant’s way of thinking (in the so-called thời bao cấp - the time of the centrally-planned economy when goods were purchased by coupons, not money – Vietnamese people attached much importance to production and did not encourage individuals’ circulation as they asserted that circulation did not create products and value).

Later when I was grown-up, I had chances to learn about the history of the petroleum industry and reminisce about my childhood, I realised that during the period thought to be the “thriving” of the trading services, the trading of petroleum and fuels was never quite at ease. Petroleum industry is a noxious one, causing people directly working in the industry to suffer from breathing, skin and digestion problems, among others. Of note, respiratory diseases are the most common medical condition. That time, Viet Nam was still poor so fuel distribution and selling stalls often lacked safe work practices whereas the practice of eating and sleeping next to petroleum barrels was quite normal. Under cold weather, wind hit hard. In the summertime, the degree of heat was much higher than the actual degree due to the direct heat of iron barrels, whilst there were only some standing three-propeller electric fans. When first petrol stations appeared in Ha Noi and some other localities across the country, like many others I looked at petrol station workers in tidy uniforms, wearing gloves and safety helmets with a natural respect like I had had for salespersons at fuel stalls in bygone days; I also thought that these petrol station workers represented a certain power so, as a matter of fact, they should have a “large income”, not to mention godsend amounts of money. It turned out to be wrong, too. Until now, though most of petrol stations are spacious, and equipped with occupational safety conditions and fire fighting and prevention tools... working there is still considered as one of the hardest work as petrol station workers usually work outdoors, rain or shine, and inhale countless smoke and dust.

Forever a military march

As I write down here, I remember a love affair of a Petrolimex leader. They were both working in the petroleum industry when their love sprouted. He once told me that during first days of their marriage, whenever he smelled her hair, the hair had the smell of petroleum rather than soap or perfume. ‘With such smell, any woman would have her hair lost soon. I fell so sorry for her but I didn’t know what to do!’ he said. Like him, the majority of the current Petrolimex core leaders grew up from hardships; many of them were moved from the army or young volunteers. They were moved to a new post, but in fact they were still soldiers. In the petroleum industry, besides requirements for strict technical process, employees must have a spirit to execute orders unconditionally. This quality, of course, was compulsory in the wartime but in the peacetime it is not much different. In many field trips, I still see the existence of Petrolimex petrol stations, either in mountainous areas or islands, which I’m sure individuals cannot do so. I was told that in a country like Viet Nam where three quarters of the territory is made up of mountainous and hilly regions, whereas the terrain is separated and difficult to access in many places, and severe climate, the transport one liter of petroleum to certain places is extremely challenging, with a cost many times higher than in urban or plain areas. This is not purely a trade for profit, but a national strategy, a source of national economic activities and security. The head of a petrol station in north Tay Nguyen (Central Highland) region explained: "Without petroleum, equipment and machines, no matter how modern they are, they will become scrap iron.”

Petrolimex officials and workers overcome difficulties to bring petroleum to all the corners of the Motherland

Nowadays, just a single click on Google search will result in millions of pieces of information related to petroleum. That is to say that petroleum remains attached to the daily life of Vietnamese people as it did tens of years ago, from ordinary people to top leaders, with all love and hate, joy and sadness, worry and hope. Fairly speaking, for a normal person the drop of a litre of petrol from VND20,000 to VND18,000 is a good news, which s/he looks forward to that joy forever. Nevertheless, that is only a small part of the huge amount of work and objectives that the petroleum industry targets to reach. As mentioned above, the provision of petroleum in mountainous and remote areas is hard, but it is much more challenging to supply the fuel to millions of square kilometers of the national continental shelf in the East Sea and islands where petroleum is badly in need. In order to seize control of fishing ground and protect the nation’s sovereignty over seas and islands, it is necessary to have state-of-the-art boats and ships, which also requires the increased supply of petroleum. It can be said that, among strong economic sectors, petroleum stands as one of the industries that have been and are taking fastest approaches to modern standards, which occurs as a matter of fact. Accordingly, enterprises should no longer think locally, but globally to reach out to international markets. Once talking to a director of the Vietnam National Petroleum Group (Petrolimex), I asked him “which task is more challenging: to have an internationally-recognised product like Viet Nam’s lubricant and to stabilise the domestic petroleum market in order to satisfy an ordinary consumer like me? The director did not go straight to my question, but showed me two photos in his mobile phone: one is a black and white photo featuring petrol ‘soldiers’ who stay in the flood waters managing to install the legendary oil pipeline B12 in the Truong Son range; and the other photo, sort of a ‘selfie’, features him and other officials standing in front of the Petrolimex headquarters at No 1, Kham Thien Street where stands a stele commemorating late General Director – Martyr Pham Van Dat (who died on December 26, 1972). He said, although wars were gone long ago, a sense of pride in “the soldier’s characteristics” is still clear in the mind of each official in the petroleum sector. It also reminds each individual of their own responsibility amid a great deal of temptations and slanders.

One of my colleagues, through articles, once strongly opposed the way some State-owned enterprises had approached the Government on certain matters as they often called for additional preferential policies as “they operate in a highly special area”. From that point of view the State budget would not be insufficient to give preferential treatment to all industries since any industry has its own specific features. There is a good deal of reasons in what is mentioned above. However, the reality proves that there have been State-owned enterprises that dared make breakthroughs by their own inner force and through fair competition in the integration era. Petrolimex is a typical example. During a field trip to the Central Highlands region some time ago, when travelling on endless roads through thick forests in a late afternoon, at the sight of a petrol station with the familiar-looking, orange-coloured letter P I caught myself thinking of how I had had “a respectful look” for petroleum workers during the period “people had to queue up for fuels”. That day, I did but with a completely different feeling.

Vietnam National Petroleum Group - Petrolimex (PLX)

Committed to constantly making an effort to go further on the path of development and bring the lives of Vietnamese people and all Petrolimex employees to new heights in the future