Friday, August 31, 2007

So When Are We Overthrowing the Iraqi Regime (Again)?

The drumbeats are getting louder. See this Op-Ed by David Ignatius in the Washington Post.

The basic allegation is that Iran pumped money and people into Iraq to influence the much touted democratic elections that placed Maliki in power (and removed Allawi), and that the US missed the boat in not covertly funding political propaganda to support Allawi and his political cronies.

Of course this wholly ignores the billions America was already pumping into Iraq - if those billions are doing good, then wouldn't the locals associate pro-US Iraqi politicians with good also? - and the fact that Iraq is mostly Shia (Maliki is in the Shia wing of politics there). But one can't be an op-ed writer by sticking to facts.

Apparently the current BushCo thinking does not include the thought 'that you have to deal with the elected government you have, not the government you want.'

Have we not seen this movie before? And what's the over/under on a coup here? I say 9 months - so summer, 2008.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

BO or Mildew?

One of the things you experience in this country is BO, on other people. And you know how people say that Westerners smell different? They're right - there's a specific pungency with tourists/expats that is difficult to pinpoint. Reminds one of college, when vegetarians on campus would claim the meat eaters were stinking up the joint. They were right too, and most would have agreed with the chubby vegans, if not for the cloud of patchouli that permeated the air.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, one of our wisest purchases since getting here was an electric clothes dryer. Sure, it doesn't help the energy crunch that this country experiences, but, like most people, we're selfish like that. This past week I mistakenly did some laundry and left the house for a half a day prior to sticking it in the dryer.

So the clothes were washed, spun dry and sat around in the laundry tub on the balcony of the apartment for 8 hours. That night I dumped it in the dryer. It came out smelling a tad mildewy, I guess, but I thought I could live with it.

Next day, I wore a pair of pants that were from that load of laundry. Man, it kinda smelled like spilt milk all day. So perhaps there's not so much BO in Hanoi and the wafting scents are caused more by the line drying that most everyone does here. With the humidity, it takes at best a few days to line dry something.

But to be safe, all you Hanoians should wear some deodorant anyhow. The local selection is really weak, unless you like roll-on stuff. I actually loaded up on stick deodorant while visiting Singapore and elsewhere, but found the above stock of aluminum chloride delivery devices in a shop along West Lake.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

First Golf Round in Vietnam

So I finally had a chance to head out to a course and get in some golf, and man what a great idea that was. Hanoi doesn't have the availability of courses that Saigon does; heck, the whole country has on the order of 25 or so courses, with another 15-20 under license. But the lack of courses are made up by their quality.

I chose to play at Tam Dao Golf & Resort for two reasons (1) like a few other courses around Hanoi, King's Island and Chi Linh Star being the others, they have special discount days during the week, and I'm all about saving a buck or two and (2) like King's Island, they offered free transport.

Free transport was key - you can't navigate outside of the city through maps or GPS around here. You better know your way.

Here is what the course looked like:

In short, this was the nicest place I've ever played. Back in the States, I would play muni and mid-end public courses, so besides the overdressed greens, the conditions here were fabulous. Conditions are helped by the fact that utilizing a caddie is mandatory on this course - and the caddies are diligent in filling in all divots on the fairway.

The whole experience is more akin to a vacation golf round - beautiful course, great clubhouse, excellent service - yet, besides the long drive there (2+ hours for a 70km (42 mile) drive - yeah, the roadways need improvement here), this is a course that you can (sorta) afford weekly. If every course in Vietnam is similar to this, then I'm in for a treat.

I paid for everything - greens fee, caddie, tip, food and beverage for the day - with $100USD and got change back. Nice.

P.S. re the prior question by Blazer, yes the greens fees posted on the local course websites are accurate, so are the (new) membership fees. Memberships can be resold and are significantly discounted on the resale market.

Friday, August 17, 2007

More Golf in Hanoi

Haven't yet hit the links, but recently discovered that King's Island golf course runs a free shuttle bus during the week from the Lang Ha driving range (or just across the street) at 7:30 in the morning, returning at 2pm. And it's free too - great way to manage that 50km trip.

Additionally, the Hanoi Golf Club - which is not to be confused with Hanoi (a golf travel and booking site) or the Hanoi Golf Club golf course - is a local membership organization that post events and tourneys on their site. The tournaments are actually cheaper than greens fees - an oddity from the States - so being the budget golfer that I am, I may just subject my woeful game to tournament pressure.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Environment Protection in Vietnam

A lot of travelers (or expats) complain about the lack of environmental protection demonstrated in Vietnam. Never mind that, like virtually all low or middle income countries, the per capita environmental damage is much lower here than in high income countries (of which these foreigners are from).

Environmental protection is not just about carbon output, I know, but if one measures using this currently favored metric, that flight to Vietnam is worse than what most locals could do in a year. Same for those quick weekend jaunts on Air Asia for some sun and sand.

Or course this does not even touch upon past environmental damage. The industrial revolution was not exactly kind to Mother Earth; a great philosophical debate is underway as to the propriety of those countries that have benefited from unchecked industrial development to turn around and constrain the industrial development of countries (such as India) that are undergoing their own revolution two centuries later.

But enough about that - this post is more about the government's recent policy to ban water skis in Ha Long Bay. What a great idea, and about time. When we were there last year, the water skis out and about were kind of a hassle when we were swimming in the bay.

This policy action was spurred, in part, from the government's desire to keep the Ha Long's UNESCO stamp of approval. Even in a high income country like Japan, lack of environmental care for the area around Mount Fuji has prevented this source of Japanese pride to be granted UNESCO status. I didn't know people care so much about the opinions of the powder blue brigade.

Doesn't really matter why the new policy came into being, just glad to know that it's a step in the right direction.

For those who are interested in reading another opinion on Vietnam's development, check out this post ("The Exit Sign") by Preya from a year ago.

Managed Traffic

These days major urban centers are implementing things such as a "congestion" tax to manage traffic during the work day. Examples include London, which is attempting to expand its current congestion tax to levy higher rates on 'Chelsea Tractors' (aka SUVs), Bloomberg's plan (recently defeated) to impose a congestion tax in NYC, and Beijing banning cars via a lottery, in preparation for the '08 Olympics.

Here in Hanoi the traffic is pretty bad. But just imagine how bad it could be without the current congestion controls. Within the city delivery trucks, sized more like lorries than American delivery vehicles, are prohibited during the morning and evening rush. The morning rush is between 6am and 8:30am and the evening rush is between 4pm and 8pm. These smaller Hyundai Porter and Suzuki Hi-Jet trucks have a a bit easier time than the bigger delivery trucks, which can only travel the streets from 9-4 and then after 9pm or so. Every bit helps, I guess.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bottled Bia Hanoi

My beer of choice these days is Bia Hanoi, well, because we live in Hanoi. It's like if you were to live in St. Louis - if you have any sense of civic pride, you drink Bud. Bia Hanoi is only brewed in one local brewery, which I pass on the commute every day.

I usually drink my Bia Hanoi in a can, as opposed to the draft Hanoi Beer (Bia Hoi Ha Noi) that is very popular. So popular that there is a Vietnamese language wiki on it. Who knew?

The other day we were at the local grocer to stock up. Bia Hanoi in a can, 6000 VND. Bia Hanoi in a bottle, 7500 VND. Cans are 330ml, bottles are 450ml. As a consumate comparison shopper I see that the bottles are cheaper, so I load some up.

It's a pretty nice discount; drinking out of bottles is better than cans; 'having to finish' 450ml is better than downing 330 and going back for another.. what's the catch?

Curious, I spoke to the checkout woman and she told me that the bottles have a 3k VND deposit on them. She also laughed a bit at me cause she wasn't sure I understood. Am I really gonna lug empties back to the store? How good is the factory really with the sterilization? Do want to think about the latter while trying to enjoy a beer?

Ah, forget the discount, I paying premium to have a clear mind while attempting to cloud it with liquid sustenance.

[edit: on a more recent shopping trip the cans are actually 7k VND and the bottles are 7.5K VND. Darn, I really should go the glass bottle route.]

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dumbass Minsk Rider

Going to work this morning a bit late meant more traffic than usual, so it was a long, hard slog. Yes, Rumsfeldian-speak has infiltrated my beautiful mind.

Near the office, the road widens and clears out a bit, next to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is the heart of city. Ah, finally, a little peace.

Then you hear it, the annoying brappin' of a Minsk. He was speeding up the street, with visible pollution trailing about 10 meters back. Thinking I'm all indie and cool in my army fatigue cap.

What an asshole. It is one thing when a local rides around in a Honda Dream that emits excess fumes due to lack of maintenance. It's another thing when a fucking interloper chooses to buy and ride around in motobikes that are best used as scrap iron. I am sure your hypocritical ass bemoan all the SUVs and their environmental impact back home too.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Construction Methods in Hanoi

One of the things you quickly realize upon getting here is how home and office construction is much different than typical for the East Coast of the States. It's not a big deal until the weather gets either wet or hot, so basically it's not a big deal for about 2 months out of the year in Hanoi.

I'm not in the AEC field like Mel, but this is the internet so my critiques here are imbued with the certainty of the uninformed.

There is a lot of construction going on in town, so it's easy to spy on the construction methods employed here. Most building, be it narrow 3 story in-town villas, or 10 story office towers, are built using concrete rebar pillars:

Every once in a while, you see steel i-beams used as the structural element, but not very often. This is one of the few i-beam buildings going up in Hanoi:

The walls are almost invariably built with bricks:

These brick walls are not structural (or at least I don't think so). Bricks + concrete walls are used because it is cheap and flexible in construction. Rebar and brick construction means you can literally shave floors off the tops of buildings, which was what happened to an apartment tower that was built one floor too high over their permit.

You can also knock holes into walls and patch them up again with ease. Witness the holes in Kevin's house.

The funny thing about brick wall construction is that the local builders can simply 'build around' obstacles, such as these trees. In a flight of fancy, one can imagine nature punching holes through man-made constraints on life. Or not.

On occasion, I do see bicyclists and moto riders transporting gypsum boards (aka drywall) around town, but I have not noticed drywall installed anywhere I've been. Maybe I need to go out more.

So what is the criticism of all this, besides the visual heft of all these concrete buildings?

Well, for one thing, I wonder how sturdy rebar pillars are. They may be strong in compression, but how about under tension? Hanoi does get its share of earthquakes. I kinda don't want to think about it, living a few stories up myself. A steel i-beam backbone seems so much safer.

And the brick walls sorta really suck when it comes to the weather. Unlike say a Stateside house in the 'burbs, covered in Tyvek, there are no vapor barriers to homes or apartment towers in Vietnam. So you get condensation on the interior walls, much like a moldy basement. Except that it happens 5 floors up in an apartment tower in the humidity of Hanoi.

And brick walls sorta really suck when it comes to insulation. You pretty much have none. The dense walls serve as heat sinks during the day, and radiate discomfort all night. It's reverse in the chilly winter, when the walls suck heat from the interior outwards.

How much does the construction methods employed in Vietnam tax its electric grid? At least everyone uses fluorescent bulbs in this country. My pallor is due to the lighting, honest!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Big C and Me

A few weeks ago we suffered from poor groceries planning so I had to head to Big C hypermarket for foodstuff on a weekend. Not exactly a recommended activity one finds in a Lonely Planet for ex-pats, if there were such a thing (NewHanoian sorta comes close though).

For most of the people in Big C, the shopping experience is more like a fun weekend activity rather than a chore. People languidly stroll the aisles hand in hand with three of their friends. Entire extended families peruse the wares while leaving their little ones in shopping carts-cum-baby strollers. Instead of typically ambling about interlocked, young women share the duty of carrying the plastic shopping baskets, each responsible for one of the handles. It doesn't really matter that the basket only contains a 12 oz baguette - it's more about maintaining physical intimacy than shouldering the load.

Were these activities taking place in a local park, I would quietly muse about the low key nature of this society. But I'm shopping, so you people are cutting into my weekend time. Buy something or get out of my way, pretty please.

Before finally leaving the bedlam, I score a small moral victory in maintaining order in the checkout queue.

Big C management makes a mistake in not manning their checkout lines more efficiently - they skimp on one of the cheapest inputs for business around here, unskilled labor. They should have baggers, but they don't - penny wise, pound foolish and all that. Because of this, the lines are pretty long. Invariably this leads to folks trying to jump in line.

In such occasions, I remember what my high school track coach taught us - run with wide, sharp elbows. So I strike a pose not unlike Captain Morgan and thereby thwart all but the most fool hardy. An attempt is made by a twentysomething male. I shoot him a dirty look and ask, in English, what the heck it is he is doing. A feeble reply, in Vietnamese, of 'oh, you are waiting on line?' is made before he slinks away. Of course I am on line, and so are the four people behind me. Two young women slowly creep up, pretending to examine the chewing gum packages offered on the endcaps to the checkout lane before sliding into the queue. I was about to yell at them, but the 50ish man behind me beats me to the punch.

Expat or local, the people in line are not suffering any fools this morning. Even though all the bump and grind of this morning resulted in broken sunglasses - I made a mistake of not leaving them on my head but rather placing them in my front pockets - this little victory leaves me partially happy, as I squint into the equatorial sun on the way home with the spoils of the effort.

Monday, August 06, 2007

No Warrant, No Problem

So the US Government can tap international communications of its citizens freely now. Nice. Living abroad has its privileges. And you thought communist governments monitoring public blog postings is worrisome?

Didn't know that Strict Constructionalism means you can turn a blind eye towards things such as the 4th Amendment. It's a good thing, because the number 4 does not have positive feng shui anyhow.

Work Blues

Nothing much going on here (for me, at least) besides work. Something I've been working on for a long time fell through recently because the other party introduced a functional requirement that completely altered the mechanics of the deal.. after 6 months of negotiations. Nice.. nothing in business is done here until it is signed and sealed, and even then parties have no compunction in coming back the next day to request insertion of additional clauses. I don't get that sort of negotiation style, and it make for very sluggish progress. How does anyone expect to get work done in such a business climate?

I understand why business people here are like this - it's because everyone and their mothers have five things they are juggling at once, and they're willing to come to the brink on five separate deals before evaluating which one to go with. That's just a recipe for deteriorated trust amongst business partners. And lots of frustrations for those who are more forthright.

To knock off negative mojo, I'm going to try and find a ride to a real live golf course around here, and chase a little ball around in this heat. I've walked 18 in the DC summer before, so the Hanoi heat should be somewhat tolerable. Ok, so I wilted by the 14th hole, but still.. too bad we're not in Saigon, where there are courses much, much closer to the central business district.