IN Cua Lo, a fishing town on the poorer fringe of one of Vietnam's poorest provinces, Japanese televisions are stacked five-high outside houses. Televisions, videos and karaoke machines lie sandy and exposed in puddles, gardens and under banana trees. Old women arrange three sets in one front yard to sit on, and gossip under the shade of a jackfruit tree. Two boys steer a buffalo and cart piled high with appliances down the main street. One trader sweeps a ring-encrusted hand across his illegal booty: 'They are from the sea,' he says when asked of the origin of tape players piled high under the balcony. 'The fishermen bring them in.' As he speaks a line of small boats threads its way past bluffs and reefs into the bay as autumn mists close in on the bleak coast of Nghe An province in central Vietnam. Children race carts to the beach to bring the catch ashore. If you are waiting for fresh shrimp, crab and tunny - traditional delicacies - you are likely to be disappointed. The fishermen of Cua Lo are not interested in fish anymore. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are now filled with shops parading the latest products South Korea and Japan has to offer. But the people in the provinces are waiting for their slice of the action. And Cua Lo's range of smuggled secondhand goods is providing it. Now the fishermen dodge typhoons and squalls to sail up to 30 kilometres out into the South China Sea to meet state cargo ships en route to big Vietnamese ports after trips to Japan. The fishermen clamber aboard and buy up the sailors' private cargo of hundreds of secondhand guarantee-expired Japanese appliances - Tokyo's rubbish. Many of them need repair, having been dumped by Tokyo's salaried masses the first time they broke down. In Japan it is cheaper to buy new than to repair. But that does not bother the sailors linked to large buying syndicates now targeting Vietnam's poorest, most isolated regions, long starved of even the most basic modern appliances. The goods are wrapped in old plastic sheeting, placed in the hold among old nets and hauled ashore. 'We take big risks with what we buy,' says another smuggler, a retired shipbuilder from a prominent state firm. 'There is never any chance to test them out before we bring them in, but still we can make big profits,' he says. 'I can make as much as 20,000 dong (about HK$14) for each unit. If I keep it up I'll be well on the way to a good retirement, certainly better than the state can offer.' Such money quickly builds to a small fortune in a ravaged province like Nghe An, where many people earn less than the equivalent of 50 US cents (about HK$4) a day. 'The market for us is huge and the work is basically easy and safe. We have radios on shore now, so the fishermen can plan their trips to the big ships only when it is safe. Everyone doing it is a small operator making relatively small money. If you are big, the authorities will catch you and take away your goods. 'If you are small, I don't think they really mind, so long as you keep up with your payments.' Corruption and smuggling are constantly featured in campaigns in Vietnam's state and semi-official press. Communist Party and government leaders in Hanoi have launched a public drive to clean up its vast bureaucratic ranks. But the problem is huge and cannot be underestimated as the country seeks to attract foreign investors, particularly manufacturers eyeing a market of 74 million people. Along Vietnam's jagged 1,640 kilometre border with China, smugglers' porters take to jungle trails to hump everything from Chinese beer to water pumps into Vietnam. As they toil, shops ply the coast in reverse, spiriting valuable rice surpluses to southern China. In the northern port city of Haiphong, smuggled secondhand cars quietly emerge from the holds of coastal trading ships as they creep into port. Up the Mekong in the far south of the country, on the border with Cambodia, Vietnamese gunboats struggle to seal a border as smugglers bring in gold and even Thai ceramic toilets. Vietnam's customs chief recently declared that palm-greasing at the borders was now so serious that the state was losing one fifth of all tariff receipts to smuggling. That adds up to some US$200 million at 1994 figures and more than the government spent on health care. Out of economic necessity the clampdown on smuggling is now a priority. But it all seems a long way from places like Cua Lo where the activity is brazen. Cua Lo lies on the coast near a city called Vinh, completely flattened by American bombers in the war and now an eerie place with rotting monolithic public buildings built by East German architects. As Vinh's wide streets give way to scrappy farmland ravaged by the province's frequent floods, droughts and typhoons, it is quickly apparent business is good in Cua Lo. Once much of the arms and equipment moved down the Ho Chi Minh trail to be used against American forces came ashore at Cua Lo, before disappearing into the jungle and emerging in the southern battlefields. Now the road out to the port is choked with motorbikes, each with one man riding pillion, carrying a television set under each arm, aerials protruding above his shoulders. The sets are destined for underground markets in Vinh and, increasingly, the poorer more isolated parts of the province, one of Vietnam's largest. Few among Nghe An's 2.7 million people have any sort of appliance in homes often made from rice straw. But according to the smugglers they are fast developing a taste for life's comforts. 'They don't mind that the goods are secondhand, but they want top quality makes from Japan, they don't want anything else,' one smuggler said. 'And now our operation is so well organised we can be sure that's what we can give them.' For the authorities, Nghe An has many pressing problems and Cua Lo is considered one of the least important. 'We know it is going on and we try to take action against the big operators,' said senior provincial Communist Party official Le Thi Hoa. 'These goods must remain prohibited to create favourable conditions for domestic development,' Mr Hoa said. 'But we have learnt that the smuggling at Cua Lo could help to feed the pockets of the people.' One of those alleged 'big operators' was captain Nguyen Toan. He was caught by border police off Cua Lo just days after Mr Hoa's remarks, steering his 500-tonne ship in the pre-dawn darkness, loaded with nothing but televisions and videos. His crew apparently hurled dozens of sets overboard as the police approached. More than 1,250 units were found aboard, along with washing machines, refrigerators and several motor bikes, all worth more than US$100,000, a figure beyond the comprehension of most people in Cua Lo. Captain Toan, now in jail, has denied responsibility. The goods, he told the police, had nothing to do with him. Instead, they should ask the fishermen of Cua Lo.