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Sunbathing in Vietnam, kind of

To battle the energy crisis, the perpetually humid Ho Chi Minh City is encouraging people to use solar water heaters instead of traditional electrical ones.

Solar water heaters like this one are getting popular in Ho Chi Minh City. Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive

Editor's note: CNET editor and Crave contributor Dong Ngo is spending part of December in his homeland of Vietnam and is filing occasional dispatches chronicling his impressions of how technology has permeated the culture there. Click here for more of Dong's stories from abroad.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam--It took me a few minutes to realize how crowded Ho Chi Minh City is, and a few hours to experience the first power outage. Welcome to the dry season of the South.

The season lasts from November until April. It's when this part of the country experiences its most severe energy shortage, with rolling blackouts taking place in HCM several times a week, if not daily.

(Unlike the four-season North of the country, the South of Vietnam has only two seasons--dry and rainy. Nonetheless, it's generally sunny all year around in Ho Chi Minh City. It's hot, too, with the exception of a few weeks around Christmas when it gets a little chilly, around 60 degrees F. However, it's always humid here and you'd probably want to shower a few times a day.)

Most businesses, and even some households here, have a backup power generator. Drive around the city at any given time, and chances are you'll see some of these in operation.

With the sharp population increase, Ho Chi Minh City, now home to about 10 million, is facing an apparent energy crisis. According to HCM City Power Company, the city's power demand is now in excess of 1,000 to 2,500 megawatts every day.

To battle this, the city has turned to a source of energy that it has a lot of: the sun. Since July, it has been developing a program to support businesses that produce and sell solar-powered appliances, including water heater and lighting systems.

I found out about this totally by chance when I got on the rooftop of a friend's house to view the city. There I ran into something I've never seen before: a solar water heater.

The machine includes a large solar panel and a water tank. The panel consists of 18 glass tubes made of stainless steel aluminum nitride cermet that work as the solar-absorbing layer. The gathered heat is then used to warm up the water in the tank.

According to Chau Nguyen, the owner of the house, the 180-liter (40 gallon) tank is enough to replace four electric water heaters previously used in four bathrooms of her house. This replacement saves her about $10 a month on her electricity bills.

(If you have followed my series of blogs from here, you'll notice that there are a lot of Nguyens. The truth is about 7 out of 10 Vietnamese people have the last name Nguyen. During my trip, it seems like almost everyone I've run into has this last name.)

From the top of her house, I could see many other buildings and houses in the city with the same type of water heaters installed. There are many sizes, though, with the one used at Chau's being the most popular for a private house.

Chau said she paid 13 million dong ($760) to have the machine installed, both parts and labor, including new pipes and other accessories. That price is after a 1 million dong ($60) subsidy by the government, an incentive for the switch from using a traditional water heater to the solar one.

The Vietnamese government has been giving this incentive since the beginning of the year, with a goal of putting about 30,000 solar water heaters into use by 2013. As it turns out, many parts of the country have participated, but HCM, thanks to its particular weather condition, has the biggest penetration.

This five-year program also aims to make people aware of the benefits of using solar energy, though it seems to me that many here care more about savings and resource availability than going green. "Now we still have hot water, even during blackouts," Chau said.

Nonetheless, the country now imports hundreds of thousands of solar-power-related appliances annually. According to HCM City's Energy Conservation Center, the 30,000 solar water heaters could help save up to 57 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23,541 tons every year.

While these numbers are hard to comprehend, I thought it was really cool to know that the hot shower I just took in the hotel came in part directly from the sun.

It's sunbathing redefined. And I love my tan.

Another sunny day in Ho Chi Minh City. Unlike the four-season North of the country, the South of Vietnam has only two seasons--dry and rainy. Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive