Thursday, March 29, 2007

Singapore Trip

One of the benefits of moving to this region is the close proximity to other points of interests in the world. Recently, I took a business trip to Singapore, my first time there. It was a short 3.5 hour flight from Hanoi, made comfortable by Singapore Air (good food, good service - man, Stateside airlines kinda suck).

Besides the heat and humidity, it felt like NYC, only cleaner and more verdant. And everyone spoke Singlish. And Mandarin.

(Toyota Crown, the Ford Crown (Victoria) of SG)

Singapore is ranked first in quality of life in Asia; upon stepping out of the airport, you can really feel it. The air quality difference between there and Hanoi was marked. It it is a relatively small city-state, so traversing it by taxi was quite reasonable. The average taxi tab was $5 SG, or $3.5 USD.

(Read and Heed)

However, if one takes taxis in Singapore, one must be aware of two local conditions: (1) good luck trying to find a taxi when it's raining - the drivers just take a siesta, 'cause they don't like driving in the rain; (2) when it's busy, forget trying to hail a cab and book one instead. That $4 SG booking fee is worth it.

You can book a cab by calling the companies, which all have great IT systems for booking. During prime time, pretty much all the cabbies refuse to pick up passengers and wait around to get a booking call before letting you in. They are smart enough to skirt the periphery of a taxi stand, waiting for a call and the extra loot that comes with it. The country should really increase the base taxi rates to discourage this behavior.

For a well developed country, Singaporeans are surprisingly not fat. Seemingly everyone was tall, lean, fashionable and in 3" heels. Apparently I only noticed the women in town.

Overall, I could easily live here. Prices are reasonable, except for real estate. The food is really good - I enjoyed the Pepper Crab more than the national dish of Chili Crab. And who can complain about Chicken Rice?

I can live here, save for the Singlish. It may be cute on women, but I don't want my kids to speak like that. It's all about American (East Coast) English; everyone else, including the Brits, have weird accents.

Random Pictures

Recent random images:

A sign outside the Dong Da market in the Old Quarter, for VA's bemusement.

Chaly Time.

Everyday view. Dual screens means you have more real estate to do less work.

A view on the weekend - Hanoi Opera House. Actually, we were pretty much right in front, with the Singaporean conductor's odd choice of fabric for his suit distracting me the entire night. Darn fashionistas.

Ssadest, Ssorriest looking passenger vehicles in the world. I can't believe they put it in production; I am flabbergasted that folks actually choose to buy them. They list for $30k USD, which is reasonable for a car that is not lilliputian. There are quite a number of these eyesores around, in part 'cause I live in a Korean ex-pat neighborhood.

Monday, March 12, 2007

What Is a Bargain?

I use Google Reader as my RSS manager; it's pretty decent, but at times buggy. A recent bug caused it to load some old posts by Vietnamese God about Pavement Pounders in Hanoi. Finally, a good bug, 'cause I hadn't seen these posts. Check them out.

One post, about basket sellers, he spoke about the need to bargain in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. 'Cause I recently bought a small little basket, I thought about this post a bit.

It also reminded me of this by Hanoi Life:
We then wandered around the Old Quarter for a while, stopping to buy some oranges and bananas. Once again the same ethical question came up. Just because people are poor, should we overpay? We found a small bunch of bananas that seemed not overripe and asked "how much?" She asked 20VND which is outrageous although still only $1.25US. Ira said 6 which may still be a bit high. She countered with 10 and he wound up giving her 6. It is easy to rationalize either argument. Perhaps the tourist should overpay while the expat should not. Perhaps both should. The vendor most likely hawks her fruit in the Old Quarter to benefit from tourist trade. We can salve any pangs of conscience by noting that she wouldn't sell them for 6 if she wasn't making something on it.

What is a bargain, anyhow? A voluntary, arms-length transaction between two parties with the exchange of consideration would be one familiar definition.

I haven't really haggled prices down since I've got here, especially on the street. If it seems a bit too much, I just tell the vendor that, politely ask for a reduction and just walk away from the deal. If it seems reasonable, then I'll buy it.

I am not advocating paying any quoted price, but why this fascination with grinding down folks' margins? I cannot reconcile on the one hand haggling like you're subsisting on 30k VND a day, and on the other protesting the "scourge" that is Wal-Mart (or some other big-box store) entering the neighborhood. If Wal-Mart should not be a corporate bully in paring down vendors' (and employees') margins, then why should you?

The "fact" that the vendor accepts the deal does not mean it is indeed a "bargain," for voluntariness is a component of a bargain. It is not an issue of being patronizing and parochial - without things like minimum wage and labor laws in the US, people would accept compensation packages far below what is legally mandated /socially acceptable / morally defensible.

Let's go back to Wal-Mart, who got dinged by the DOL for, among other things, failing to properly and timely pay wages, including overtime. Yet those people who didn't get paid still showed up for work.

But just because it is acceptable does not mean it is fair. It is a fine line to walk, to be sure, but be reasonable, will ya? Bargaining is fun and games unless you're destitute.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Legal Tender

Coins, an envelope, some pieces of gum. What do these things have in common?

Other than blurriness from a phonecam, they are all, apparently, legal tender in Vietnam. The first time I received some candy with my change for paying a bill, it was the coolest thing ever. Yes, free gum. How nice. How considerate. Gum as an after meal treat - works for me.

Then I counted my money. Hey, they're short, if only by a minuscule. Ah, I get it - gum instead of my 3 cents USD.

But now, I'm a little annoyed at being forced to make such purchases. Gimme mah money!

One of these days, I'm going to pay in candy. Let's see how that goes over.

Friday, March 09, 2007

International Women's Day

As I went looking for some flowers, I'm thinking 'wasn't Valentine's Day just a month ago?'

Yes, indeed it was. IWD is sort of mix between Secretary's Day (um, make that Admin Assistant Day) and V-Day. Staff expects a little something to mark the day, so a little something was to be had.

In the first party, thirty-some staff went out a few days ago for dinner. Parties for large groups invariably result in "lẫu" (hotpot) being the food of choice. Being the newbie and nominally a supervisor, this meant I vainly parried offerings of just-cooked morsels all night.

In the second party, I took the office out for lunch. This time, a more manageable 9. And yes, it was hotpot again - but it was a few days later, with a wholly different group of folks, so I was more than game. They also know me a bit better, so I didn't have to work so hard to refuse their offers and just help myself to the food. Of course, drinking Bia Hanoi in the middle of the day led to the levity as well. [$3.5/head, including drinks, at a local, sit on plastic stools sorta joint. I would go back if I knew where it is.]

For dinner, VA and I went to Mai Kinh, one of the better local restaurants we've been to. [$5/head, incl. drinks] Just a slight contrast to how we spent Valentine's Day here, going to dinner at Bobby Chinn's (as an aside, Christie Todd Whitman was also eating there that night; it felt like we were back in DC eating at a politico joint. Small world. Unlike DC, on our way out we stopped by her table to introduce ourselves and said hi. She was friendly, as expected.).

Before calling it a night, we went to a bar/cafe, Cafe Z, situated across the street from the US Ambassador's residence. It was packed with young couples out celebrating IWD. It's pretty obvious that, compared to Valentine's Day, IWD is more widely celebrated here.

The bar was, unfortunately, crap. They made the mistake of serving a drink made by mixing draft beer and grenadine. I made the mistake of ordering it. The only thing that should be mixed with beer is whiskey or more beer.

And the final bill included a line for tax. Tax! After 6 weeks here, I'm getting used to not tipping and not getting charged tax. In every place but this one, tax is inclusive in the price. Not going back there again.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More Switching News

Some more Apple-centric info for myself:
  • place to buy Apple hw in Hanoi: FPT at 1A Yet Kieu Street, Hoan Kiem, 84-4-9420886
  • if you run dual monitors, you'll want this freeware gadget, DejaMenu, which allows for hotkey menus on the "daughter" screen.
  • in Excel, the windows F2 key is replaced by Ctrl-U

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Belated Tet Pictures

The necessary interior decorative element in Hanoi for Tet, a "Hoa Dao" branch (peach blossom). It flowers and sprouts leaves if one waters it, particularly with the rinse water when preparing rice. In HCMC, you're more likely to see Hoa Mai instead, which blooms white or yellow.

Flowers at the market outside the temple/shrine at Westlake.

One of many stalls lining the road to the shrine. Take care to select your purchases because after offering it to the spirits, you take it back home and eat it. No waste here.

One of the four shrines at the temple. Most of the folks here would categorize themselves as Buddhists, but it is more like Confucianism. If I remember correctly, this shrine was to ask for better intellect.

Who said Westlake couldn't be traversed by foot?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Returning To The Village

"Ve que, nhe?" was the offer and, with a nod towards learning more about our in-laws and the culture, we obviously accepted.

Two days before Tet, the first day most businesses let their employees off and closed down, is our planned departure. We head out mid-morning to "ve que," or return to one's village. This idea is shared by millions of other Hanoians, who consider home somewhere other than this metropolis that's about to take a slumber.

We are conspicuously cramped in a little European sedan, driving through the city to reach the main artery heading south. Buzzing around us are mainly the chariots of choice, Honda motos. You look at other travelers and imagine their stage in life: the entire family going to visit the grandparents; the college kid with a backpack strapped to their person, filled with gifts of alcohol, cigarettes and perhaps dirty laundry for their parents; the grizzled divorcee, with a suitcase bungee corded to the rear rack, or more impressively, clutched by the handle. I envision a lapse in physical stamina 30km into the trip, a loose grip and Johnny Walker Gold being inadvertently dispensed for his deceased homies. Offerings are part of this holiday, he would think, in consolation.
Upon reaching a divided four lane highway, I settle into my discomfort and begin counting down the two hour trip. It's a beautiful day and the constant airing of one's grievances via push button horns begin to meld together and fall into the background. I can handle this for two hours, I think. The respite is short lived, as the road narrows and becomes undivided.

We are outside the city now. The easily traversed highway disappears along with the brick and glass towers that led to their creation. Rice fields and smaller hamlets along the way only support this slim corridor we're on. How soon will the burgeoning middle class, traveling en masse alongside in this hallway, demand that their travels be expedited by the promise of wider roads? Or will the bureaucrats of those same localities obviate these complaints by laying down a ribbon of asphalt-cum-yellow bricks?

The incessant traffic leaves little time to ponder. A motorbike passes on the right. A motorbike passes on the left. They are both oncoming traffic. Don’t worry, this is Vietnam, you’re going the right way. To make better time, we start to play chicken with incoming vehicles on the other lane. Staring down a truck, horns and lights ablaze, bearing down on you is quite an effective remedy for clock watching. I can’t take my eyes off the scenes constantly unfolding through the windshield. If there is doom to be had in such driving techniques, I want to see it happen.

After a long ride filled with latent fear, we make it to the village. It takes about five minutes on packed dirt roads which frame family rice paddy plots to get to the house. Along the way, we nearly squeeze every bicyclist or moto we pass into the flooded crop beds. I wonder if they resent all the village folks who’ve left for the city. I wonder why they don’t know the hand signal for flipping the bird.