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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vietnam's Soviet Oil Link Slowly Rusting Away

BACH HO OIL FIELD, Vietnam -- Grigory Borisov used to struggle in a temperature of minus 40 to pump oil from the icy tundra of Western Siberia. Now he seeks refuge in an air-conditioned office to escape the tropical heat blanketing the oil platform he operates in the South China Sea.

Borisov works for VietSovPetro, the only company producing commercial amounts of petroleum in Vietnam. He serves as deputy chief of Platform Four, a rusty monument to outdated oil technology in the Bach Ho oil field, 120 kilometers southeast of the southern port of Vung Tau.

Vietnam's former partner in VietSovPetro was the Soviet Union, so its collapse in 1991 forced the company to look elsewhere for funds and expertise to develop its oil industry.

Oil is Vietnam's biggest export, and the government has signed 27 contracts with foreign exploration firms to find more.

Some of the newcomers -- Asians, Europeans and, most recently, Americans -- have brought advanced drill bits and computer work stations to their search off Vietnam's southern coast. But VietSovPetro's aged equipment remains the country's only source so far of precious petrodollars.

Borisov's platform is one of the oldest in a cluster of 10 VietSovPetro rigs now producing oil at Bach Ho.

"It's been in use for eight years already," he said. "We need to improve and upgrade the whole platform."

Rust eats like cancer through bulkheads made of Soviet steel. Control room engineers read pen-and-paper gauges. Roustabouts wear sneakers instead of steel-toed safety boots.

"If you compare VietSovPetro with advanced international oil companies, we're just not as good," Borisov admits during an interview in his cramped office beneath the platform's helicopter pad.

The native of Western Siberia's Surgut City says he wants to install new pumps and compressors made in Great Britain or Germany. And he hopes to learn from the modern techniques of Western firms such as Mobil Corp. of the United States and France's Total S.A.

VietSovPetro is a relic of the fraternal communist ties that bound Vietnam with its former Soviet patron. The two countries formed the joint venture in 1981 to exploit oil from a field first identified by Mobil when the area belonged to what was then South Vietnam. Mobil withdrew after the Saigon government fell to communist forces in 1975.

Of the joint venture's 5,900 employees, one in six are natives of what used to be the Soviet Union. Ukrainians, Azeris and Russians like Borisov supervise and labor alongside Vietnamese on the platforms, manning alternate shifts of 15 days each.

Platform Four started pumping oil in 1987. Its wells yield a daily flow of 7,700 barrels of oil, which it deposits in a tanker moored nearby.

The platform also produces 165,000 cubic meters of natural gas each day. Unlike oil, VietSovPetro has no way to transport the gas to potential customers. So it burns it off.

A tongue of flame 10 meters long wags from the tip of a boom jutting skyward at Platform Four. A steady supply of gas keeps the fire burning day and night, just as it does on Bach Ho's other rigs. The scheduled completion this month of a gas pipeline connecting the offshore field with Vung Tau should help end the waste, said Ngo Thuong San, VietSovPetro's general director.

The company plans in November to begin producing oil at Rong, another, smaller field 20 kilometers to the southwest. But VietSovPetro is already hard-pressed to raise the $300 million it needs each year just to develop Bach Ho, San said.

When not pulling their 12-hour daily shifts, workers on Platform Four watch videos, play ping pong or swim in the rig's tiled pool. Alcohol is forbidden, and personal touches are scarce.

A portrait of Ho Chi Minh hangs in the generator room, while a matchbox-sized photograph of a topless woman adorns the desk in the pumping control room.

For the platform's 62 men, offshore work means long stretches of life without women -- except for the companionship of three female housekeepers. Some of the crew seem not to mind.

"For Vietnamese, 15 days is nothing," said mechanic Vu Hai Dang. "Remember, during the (Vietnam) War, soldiers were at the front for a lot longer than that."