Saturday, November 15, 2008

I'm Audi 5000

One of the last things I did in town before jetting out was to hit the Audi launch event in downtown Saigon.  They were opening the first official Audi showroom in Vietnam, and showing off their A8 and Q7 vehicles.

I had neither the inclination nor the means to purchase a car, so I fit right in with the crowd.  I met the typical Saigon crowd at this thing - the wealthiest folks I met that night was probably the pair who tired of checking out the cars, the models, the cocktail waitresses and instead were closely examining the HVAC controls of this new building.  Just another night in Saigon.  But the champagne was nice though.  

So I'm out.  This is my view these days - it's not an Audi, but it's close.      

For continued interesting tidbits about the expat experience in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, check out those on the blogroll, in particular:
Tam Biet!

Last Walk-About

Recently I was on a final walkabout of Saigon and caught the following sights:

New hanging planters installed along Dong Khoi street outside of the Sheraton Hotel.  

Sorta typifies Vietnam in this time and place - it's great that folks put up some pretty hanging planters, which gets watered from municipal water trucks from time to time, but if you look closely you'll notice that they stripped the tree of its bark in a quite violent manner just to install the mounting brackets.  And no obvious attempts to close up the wound with some physical barrier to prevent insects from getting at the wood.  

Two steps forward, two steps back.  Don't be surprised to see some sickly trees on this stretch of road in the near future.

Roadway medians here are immaculately cultivated, and this is one of the reasons why.  If you drive around in the mornings, you'll see teams of people hand cutting, weeding, and watering all the government owned greenery.  Once in a while, you'll see a gas operated weedwacker, but otherwise everything else is done manually.     

I've finally found the Apple-certified store - Future World, on NTMK in D3.  Of course it was accidental, as I wasn't going around looking for it.  

 Compared to Hanoi, you don't see much in the way of food vendors on the streets of Saigon, other than the Banh Trang ladies that is.  My theory is that it is because of the office lunch delivery business that goes on in Saigon.  

You see stacks and stacks of these trays delivered every mid-day to all sorts of businesses.  Even the xe-om guys in Saigon eat their lunch via these delivered lunch trays.  A complete meal - which in Vietnam means rice, veg, meat, soup and something pickled - for 10-15k delivered drives away a lot of street vendor competition.  

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Sense of Place

There's been lots of good memories of our time in Vietnam.  One of the best was sitting at this cafe, Givral, right off Lam Son square next to the Opera House in downtown Saigon.

For those who've been there, especially in its current form, the whole place is nothing to write home, or blog, about.  

But we were sitting there with my Mom, back on a visit, having some ice cream, and recollecting about how things were when she was young.  She would have some money in her pockets, come here and eat some ice cream with her sisters and school mates, while watching the traffic, waiting to see which friend would drive up in their Honda.  

I've been back to the little side street on which we had a house.  But nothing gave me a sense of terroir more so in our years here than this short story with my Mom.  

Bookend Meal at Quan An Ngon

One of the first meals we had in Vietnam, all those moons ago when we first visited, was at the Quan An Ngon in Hanoi.  Our first meal was probably at Pho24 - yeah, cliched, I know.  

So it's faintly appropriate that one of my last meals in Vietnam would take place at Quan An Ngon, this time in the HCMC location across from the Reunification Palace.

It's Saigon, so you gotta grab a Saigon Special beer.  And it's Saigon, so it's freaking hot and therefore I needed a side of iced green tea.  And you thought I was drinking my beer with ice.  And a straw.  Dude, I ain't that local.    

First up, you guessed it, banh cuon.

Next up, some grilled shrimp.  Seeing that I was eating alone, the waiter warned me that a single order was 10 skewers and asked if I really wanted it.  Of course!  Gluttony is best when left last.  

The dish came out with 12+ skewers.  This was some of the best grilled seafood I've had in this country, so I did the proper thing and finished it up.  

You can't often order snails, outside of Escargot at Les Halles or someplace like that, in the States, so I had to get some.  Strangely, they tasted like hard boiled eggs.  
To finish things up, I answered a curiosity of mine.  In the evenings till dark, food vendors on bicycles and carts would ply their offerings on the streets of Saigon.  One fare that I often see, and wonder about, is the "Bo Bia" carts.

My limited Vietnamese translates that to 'beef and beer,' which would be an interesting product to sell on the streets.  But I doubt that I was correct, so I never bothered to flag the vendors down and order some.

I saw "Bo Bia" on the menu here and had to finally know.  Turns out it's just a version of some spring rolls.  Then I recalled going to a spring roll dinner party in Hanoi, where the dry rice paper wrappers were in cellophane packaging labelled "Bo Bia."

So I knew it all along, but I forget things.  Coulda used The Google though. 

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chicago Hot Dog

One of the best things about a layover in ORD - the Chicago Style Hot Dog.

It's better in town, of course, but they still offer Vienna Beef dogs at O'Hare:

WIth all the fixin's:

The result - a hot dog so covered with goodies that you don't even see the frankfurter:

Tan Son Nhat Rose Lounge

The Star Alliance Lounge at the International Terminal of Saigon's Tan Son Nhat Airport recently changed its name to the Rose C.I.P. Lounge.  I wonder if CIP is some sort of typo.  

Nothing really changed, including the food line layout

It was an early flight, so I grabbed this ham sandwich and some fruit for breakfast.  Don't eat the sandwich!  

The flight was delayed for about an hour - enough time to try, what else, the banh cuon

and some instant noodles
One travel tip: grab breakfast before you hit the international terminal in Saigon.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Business Pods on United Airlines

On a recent flight, I was bumped into business class on United.  It was one of the planes that had been upgraded to the "pods" style seating, which was pretty cool.  Non-pod seating business class on United's international flights are crappier than Vietnam Airlines' business class.

The ample legroom:

The controls:

The other pod people. I think it would suck to fly backwards, but those folks didn't mind.

I managed to crash - um, poor choice of words for a plane post -  I managed to render ineffective the entertainment module for my seat.  After a bit it was smart enough to reboot itself.

All these travel pics are more befitting of Tray Table than a Vietnam-centric blog.  

Falafel, Again

The Pham Ngu Lao Falafel shop that I posted about earlier has a cool little freebie for its customers.  Besides the common to Vietnam free wifi setup, it boasts free international calling.

Ok, so it's free for 5 minutes and 5k/minute thereafter, but that's still kinda cool and the sort of novel marketing idea that is impressive, especially being the first on the block with it.  

Bia 33

Recently I had some Bia 33.  If you're paying attention, then you know that in Vietnam it is Bia 333 - yeah, there's an extra "3."

I read online somewhere that the name sprouted the addendum shortly after 1975.  Maybe they changed it from the "33" to throw off former American servicemen, or to distance itself from Rolling Rock, who knows.     

What I do know is that the Bia 33 that is available locally to me in the States is made by some outfit in Binh Duong and is a heavier lager.  Bia 333 is made by SABECO (i.e. Saigon Alcohol and Beer Company), which may or may not have a factory in Binh Duong, and is a much lighter brew... like a Coors Light to the 33's Budweiser.  

WT - No ?

It's going on two years for WTO accession in Vietnam, and as a marginal market participant in this country, I'm not convinced that it is, or will be, a good thing for Vietnam going forward.

The WTO meant that Vietnam put itself on the path of competing with the world economically within its own borders, by agreeing to a set of schedules that placed timeframes on this Socialist government dismantling its trade protections.

The January 2007 accession means that the clock started to count down then, and now there are but a few years left till full implementation of the schedules.

In particular, the banking and financial industries thought it had a few years to gird itself from the expected foreign invasion, and in '06 and '07 it was trying.  But with the world markets crashing, and the resultant domestic crash, '08 was pretty much a lost year for the domestic players - if they were lucky enough not to implode, that is.

A lost year may be fine and good if you have time on your side, but the WTO clock was not paused.  Uh-oh.

There is a line of heterdoxy economics, such as Ha-Joon Chang's work "Kicking Away The Ladder," that argues the neo-lib free trade / WTO / IMF train of thought is designed not to help developing countries, you know, develop, but rather it removes the ladder towards success.

I haven't read Prof. Chang's book yet (waiting to hit my local library to borrow it.. gotta make use of those tax dollars!), but this article provides a short synopsis of his thesis.

As part of Prof. Chang's argument, he notes that places like South Korea and Taiwan have bridged the chasm between the developing and developed world within the past 30 years because of government protectionist and interventionist policies.

Will Vietnam ever become the next South Korea?  I have serious doubts.

Besides exploiting its resources (oil, mineral, land for agri- and aquaculture), and its human resources (low wage labor), what the heck is this country good in? In what industries can it become world class?

South Korea is strong in shipping/logistics, pharma, engineering and construction, consumer electronics, and autos, among others.  Most, if not all, were the results of government efforts - putting tax payer resources behind the industries as well as protectionist walls during the gestational stages.  The government helped to create the chaebols that now run Korea.   Sure, concentrated power is not ideal and the corruption in SK is kinda wild, but Korea is owned mostly be Koreans.

I fear that Vietnam was over eager to show the world that it is on its way forward, and in ghetto fab style, joined the WTO before it was ready.  Outside of the resources story, there is nothing that it does well.  And resources dwindle.

This is not to say there won't be successful companies that break out of its borders and become regional or even international players.  But the more you look, the more you see multinationals coming into Vietnam, to buy up and own things, to take over and dominate the local markets.  Colonialism without the bullets.

Here's an interesting piece from the Guardian in 2005 contrasting Mexico with Vietnam, titled "Two countries, one booming, one struggling: which one followed the free-trade route?"

How would an update of that piece read today?  And how would it read five years from now?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Missing the EPL

God, I can't believe I'm saying this.. but I miss the EPL.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Cutting Thru the Communist Red Tape

So recently I had occasion to experience the red tape in this country, and, to be frank, it wasn't so bad. 

Above is the view I had for about 1.5 hours, waiting for my number to be called.. but let's start at the beginning.

A few weeks prior to the picture, I submitted paperwork to relevant governmental agencies in order to secure a business license and, more importantly, the right to purchase one of these stamps:

In the U.S., business formalities have moved past the "sign and seal" stage of authenticating signatures.  Back in the day when most people were illiterate, the need to sign and seal documents made sense.  Now, not so much.

U.S. contracts these days may still say "sign and seal" under the signature, but this is merely an anachronism, as it isn't legally necessary.  Even the 'requirement' to notarize signatures are not technically legally necessary - it's just a safe harbor in order to expedite the process if the signature was ever challenged as being authentic.

In Vietnam, and in some parts of Asia, the seal requirement is still paramount. Documents are not legal unless they have a seal - be it from a company, a government agency, or whomever.  Documents are never accepted with simple signatures. Everything has to be original documents.. good luck passing off a photocopy of your documents, unless they've been authenticated with a government seal.

Because of this, when you're hanging out at the international departure terminals in Vietnam, you can locate those locals emigrating elsewhere by their dress (Sunday best, naturally) and by the black Samsonite briefcase that they're clutching.  In it will be all manners of original, signed and sealed documents that cost a fortune, in terms of man-hours, to procure.  My folks still have that black Samsonite filled with yellowed documents in a back closet somewhere.

So here I am, sitting in this government office, to get my own seal.  The place is packed, there is no AC and I'm in a coat and tie.  Um.. not good.

I snatch a number, like at a deli counter, realize my position in the queue, and then head towards the folks mingling at the doorway.  This is Vietnam, there are always alternatives.

After some discussion with a few folks in my limited Vietnamese, I learned that I could outsource the wait on line for between 500-750k, but that I would not be able to get the seal today.  If I personally waited, I would get my seal.  Needing to mail out an "official" document today, I bit the bullet, rolled up my sleeves and waited it out.

The room is, as mentioned, packed.  About a 50/50 mix in terms of sex. Most of the guys are either Korean or Japanese expat business folks.  The majority of the women are young sherpas, guiding these guys through this regulatory process.  I figured I could do it on my own.

And after about two hours, I was right.  There were some missteps along the way - I had to run down the street to get my passport photocopied, then head to the police station to pay 2k VND (that's like 15 cents) to get the photocopy authenticated - but the stern dude, dressed in his pea soup green army uniform, who manned the counter was pretty nice and helpful underneath that fascade.

So it was pretty good, not much different than heading to the DMV or Register of Deeds office in the U.S.

A lot of expats have a fear of the regulatory agencies in Vietnam - so they either hire someone to do this work for them or just straight up avoid it altogether and break the law (like riding around without a license).  I met a German expat recently who told me how relatively painless it was for him to get a motobike license in Vietnam.

The assumption amongst expats that nothing gets done in the government, however big or small, without a bribe attached is pervasive.  But it is certainly not true.  Sure niceties grease the wheels, but the same is true everywhere in the world. 

If you've ever had to personally go and file a deed in the U.S., you'll see the runners from the mortgage and title companies plying treats to the filing clerks, who in turn share this corpulence with the rest of their minions, in order to get better service.

It's just that in Vietnam, foreigners have a more limited skill set with respect to 'being nice' to local folks, government clerks or otherwise.   For some expats, their toolbox starts and ends with money.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Take out Pho

There is a lot to like about the national noodle dish of Vietnam, pho, but one thing about this relatively quick meal is that it is difficult to buy it to go, or so I thought.

Here is how Pho24 does its takeout:

The whole shebang, pre-assembly.  Note how many plastic containers one get just for one simple bowl of noodles.  Man, how much does this kill their margins?

This is the top vessel, containing the rice noodles and the meat portion.  This was the pho bo dac biet (special beef pho) version, I think.

Enter the veggies, mostly bean sprouts and sliced white onions and other sundries.

Don't forget the greenery.

Be careful with the splashing when you pour in the MSG goodness.  

A multitude of containers, keeping the cold side cold, the hot side hot.  This is like the McDLT or something.  And you know how that went in the marketplace.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Airport Troubles

So I'm flying in a coupla days and I read in the paper this morning that the Saigon airport (Tab Son Nhat) just burned down last night!

Ok, so it didn't literally burned down, but a fire ravaged thru the place enough to shut down the domestic terminal. Good thing they built that international terminal. 50% incapacitated is better than a 100% shutdown.

Monday, October 27, 2008

True, True

The funny thing is that McCain's wife's fortune is based off of a Budweiser distributorship.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

HCMC Falafel

Pretty darn good and worthy of Dagwood Bumstead in size. 39k makes for a good value in the Pham Ngu Lao area.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Veal at Terrace Cafe

Had some veal with a straw mushroom sauce at Terrace Cafe, which is located in Saigon Centre in D1.

Other than being super salty, it was good. Portions are teensy here, even at 85k, so I ordered a second main entrée of chicken mien (rice vermicelli) soup. And I was still hungry.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Please Dial "3"

This month, the local, which is to say, national, which is to say *only*, landline telephone company, Vietnam Posts and Telecom (VNPT), announced a change in all landline phone numbers.  

In HCMC and Hanoi, all landline numbers now grow from 7 digits to 8 digits.  Plus the two digit city code.  In the outlying provinces that used to have 6 digit numbers, they also grow by one to 7 digits.  While provinces that got recently "upgraded" to 7 digits stay at 7.

For all of HCMC and Hanoi numbers, you now add a leading "3" to the old numbers to create the new 8 digit telephone number.    

A lot of business here, even more than in the US, is conducted via mobile phones.  With no wide acceptance of voicemail, folks carry multiple cell phones.  But still a lot of folks, like us for instance, will be affected by this new landline number change.

And this change is idiotic.  The more reasonable way to go about things is to add an area code "overlay," and not to simply lengthen numbers.  Split HCMC and Hanoi into new area codes, instead of just maintaining one city code.  My hometown has four new overlay area codes since the time of my childhood - and my childhood home number didn't change for 25 years until we sold the joint and moved.  

This new VNPT edict will just create business for the print shops, because now all our business literature - business cards, letterheads, envelopes, marketing materials, etc., etc. - will need to be redone.  Arrgghhh.

And given that short term memory is about 7+/- 2 digits*, as I remember from Psych 101, these new 8-digit phone numbers will start messing with your head.  Mobile numbers in Vietnam are at least 8 digits long, plus at least a two digit mobile provider code.  No one can remember these long assed numbers, that's why people buy and peddle "so dep" - pretty numbers.  One buys a nice and pretty mobile number just to have a number that can be remembered.  

After two years, I've finally been able to memorize my own mobile number!            

* this magical 7+/- 2 standard was put forth in a 1956 paper, since then, and my time in the lecture hall, new research has suggested that we can remember 2 seconds worth of spoken content.  For English speakers, this would be 7 plus or minus 2 digits, depending on how quickly one normally speaks.  For Chinese speakers, the number of digits recallable in short term memory is closer to 10, because the words are shorter.  My impression is that the Vietnamese speak slowly and they'll be closer to the 7+/-2 measure.     

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Feds in the Money Market

Ok, I am more interested in food, with a side of business/economics, than say, a dude like Tyler Cowen, the George Mason econ professor, with a foodie side.  But the current business/economic discourse in the media just seems so wrong that I can't just talk about food here.  

So skip this if you're looking for food pictures.

I read this USAToday Op-Ed about the benefits of small banks today.  The basic argument is that small banks (whatever that means.. though the authors allude to a George Bailey-esque bank - from A Wonderful Life - as the model) are better than big banks because they make loans that do not default.  "Better" loans makes for "better" banks.  Small banks can make such better loans because they have an "informational" advantage - they know their customers and know the good credit risk from the bad. For good measure, the Op-Ed proposes some sort of special tax on securitizations.

Wow, what a load of naive crock.   

There are no banks that serves big population centers in America that works this way.  The closest thing to a "small" bank that most of us see is our local credit union.  Credit unions are not inherently better at assessing risk than my Citibank branch - the only extra information they may have on me is the activity in my accounts. What's my savings history, my checkwriting history, etc.  But if you get a regular mortgage (as opposed to those "no-documentation" ones), you've disclosed such account history to Citibank as well.

And what's wrong with making loans to folks with higher credit risks?  If there is any failure here in this mortgage business, it is the failure to properly price risk.

Now the momentum has swung the other way.  People with money (banks and investors) are charging too much for risk. That is why the markets are stuck - no one is lending at prices that are business appropriate.  

Thankfully, the Feds are stepping in to not only issue commercial paper directly (i.e. short term loans to provide working capital to functioning businesses), it also has just set up a money market facility to buy current commercial paper from financial institutions that are seeing massive redemptions from their money market investors.

If the Feds play their cards right (i.e. pay appropriate prices for the asset purchases), they (or we, as taxpayers) can end up making a killing when markets are talked down from this pricing panic.

Of course, we're talking about the US government here, so the "we" who will end up making money will not be the taxpayers, but political cronies.  Sounds like current day Vietnam.

HPV and Vietnam

I wrote this comment on Ching's blog (Real Life Online), in reference to a post about cervical cancer.
I'm a guy and all, so take this comment in that light. But I think that women get cervical cancer because of simpler reasons - namely HPV, an STD that is very prevalent, nearly a 50% infection rate, and very infectious and people die from cervical cancer because of a lack of access to medical care (i.e. Pap smears).

Condoms do not prevent HPV infections. Because of this, in the narrowly focused, conservative political right of the U.S., the scare tactics surround HPV is used to press for ineffective abstinence only sex education.

Good thing for women these days is the progress on HPV vaccines. While it does not prevent all types of HPV infections (there are like 100 strains or something like that), Guardasil is a recently introduced vaccine that is effective against some significant HPV strains.

In the U.S., again for political reasons, it is marketed as an anti-cervical cancer vaccine instead of as an anti-HPV vaccine. Guardasil faces an uphill battle for acceptance in the U.S. marketplace. And there are enough politicians who will make sure that tax dollars will not support Guardasil vaccinations for those who would otherwise qualify (medically and economically).

Interestingly, I recently read in the Vietnamese local press that the government here will start a Guardasil vaccination program for its citizens. Of course the Vietnamese government likely cannot afford to vaccinate all young girls / young women, but they'll get to some of them and it'll be a start.

Funny that Vietnam will be more advanced on this issue of HPV infection than the U.S.
There are a lot of things that are 'backwards' in Vietnam as compared to the U.S. - ok, backwards is a harsh term.  There are a lot of things here that I'm not as comfortable with.  But one thing that strikes me is that, every once in a while, this Socialist government which at its apogee is one of technocrats, gets it right with technical policy decisions.    

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tailor at Work

Here's the tailors at work. They haven't been perfect, but overall they've been decent. As mentioned in an earlier post, I've gone back after mistakes because it would cost more time and money to find someone else.

Monday, October 20, 2008

X Marks the Spot

I was doing some cleaning up and found these in a drawer.  I'm pretty sure they're not baby aspirins.  Probably left by a former tenant or something.  

If you're interested, they can next be found in an undisclosed dumper in D1.  Look out for amorous rats around Saigon in the next few days.      

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Left, Right, Middle and Joe The Plumber

The other day I was invited out to drinks by Kevin and I ended up meeting some new faces as well as reconnecting with some old faces.

You know how it goes at these things: meeting new folks + beer = a dorm room style discussion of politics.  People ended up talking like they were in college, except for the fact that everyone engaged in the conversation had actual money that they made (and lost), so it was a bit more personal and vivid.

I ended up between an earnest ultra-lefty and a concerned economic libertarian.  Through the conversations, well lubricated with beer, it occurred to me that our discussion distilled the problem with the left-wing of the Democratic party.

I disagreed with both of these guys, for I'm a pragmatist occupying the soft middle politically.  It's a difficult position to hold, because you are out-flanked, and you can't rely on stock ideology as a crutch.  But it's a reasonable position to me, as life is all about shades of grey.

While I disagreed with both guys, the lefty just sounded flat out crazy - it is hard to be taken seriously when one complains about big business and demonize it all.  The percentage of Americans who want to tend to their own subsistence garden, wear burlap and live in a yurt is, shockingly (!!), small.  Very small.  You people are crazy.

The economic libertarian was of the school of absolute freedom of contract, minimal-to-no government regulations, etc.  I was enjoying the beer too much to mount much of a convincing rebuttal, but overall I can see how folks are more easily seduced by this extreme of the political spectrum.

Who doesn't want complete freedom?  It's like asking a kid whether the school should get rid of its stern principal - of course!  Recess all the time.  How cool is that?

But in the end, most so-called libertarians do not really believe in complete freedom of contract.  If they did, then they cannot ideologically object to child labor, indentured servitude, organ harvesting, among other things.  It is neat and tidy to assume and expect that the free market will, over time, resolve everything in the most efficient means possible, which is the libertarian position.  Such ideology denies the humanity in all of us - a humanity that contains faults and inefficiencies that are culturally ingrained and will not disappear over time unless there is a concerted push back against such inefficient culture.

Overall though, the far-right libertarian position is easier to accept than the far left position, because it does not sound nutso.  The pinnacle of the far right is a successful business person unencumbered by government regulations.  The pinnacle of the left is a person who is self sufficient, unencumbered by the corporation.  The choice is between being pampered and being an ascetic.  An easy choice to make.

It all goes back to Joe The Plumber - putting aside whether he's a licensed plumber, whether he's a Mccain plant, etc. etc. - his story illustrates the left's problem.  The ultra-lefty websites have had a field day mocking the idea of the guy.  One line of mockery has to do with his complaints about the Obama tax plan.

In short, the proposed Obama plan would increase taxes only to those who make over $250k.  Joe The Plumber admittedly does not make over $250k, but he expressed concerns that Obama would tax him more.

Places like DailyKos rips Joe The Plumber for this - how can you complain about taxes 'that you will not pay, and will likely never have to pay' is the line of inquiry.

What the left does not account for is the nature and ethos of America.  We are a country of strivers - we are a country of the "PreRich."   Joe is not rich today, but he plans to be rich someday.  He doesn't vote his current economic interests, he votes his aspirational economic interests.

Just like the average person thinks that they are better looking than average, the average American thinks that, someday, and soon, they will be richer than average. And so they vote this way.

Is it a bad thing that Americans are a society of PreRich?  No, because that's just one expression of our cultural optimism.  Meet other folks and you'll quickly learn that Americans are very a optimistic sort.  Perhaps socio-economic movement is as stolid in the States as it is in the UK, but the average Briton is less optimistic than the average American about their future prospects.

I've met a few folks from the UK who've expressed to me that they're in Vietnam to, in part, escape the socio-economic situation back home.  Every single American I've met here have said that being in Vietnam was about adventure and future possibilities.  Not about escaping America.    

The left will always lose in America because they do not cater to the PreRich optimism of our culture.  IMO, Bill, Hilary, and yes, Barack, are more of the pragmatic centrists type than the Kossacks want.  This is why the strident left railed against Hilary.  And I suspect that they'll turn on Barack Obama once he's in office (assuming he'll proceed on and win).   Or, if we're lucky, they'll grow up a little.  

Beef and Tofu for Lunch

pho 2000 stir fry beef and tofuHere's a beef and tofu rice dish from Pho 2000.  I've eaten here a lot, but this is the first time I've ordered this - somehow I've never noticed it on the menu before.  It's pretty good, with a smattering of veggies to satisfy my fiber deficiency.  30-35k.

It may sound odd, but I eat less fruits and veggies in Vietnam than I do back home.  This is in part because we don't cook here, and in part because I shy away from fruits without a peel.  Ya know, "night fertilizer" and all.  

pho 2000 fried spring rollsHere is some cha gio (aka fried spring rolls, shrimp here).  Normally I don't order this, but I was hungry enough to eat something more, but not enough for a full blown main course.  That's the point of an appetizer, I guess.  29k or something like that.    

Friday, October 17, 2008

MSG Soup

One of the things I like about ordering a rice dish is the bowl of
soup that usually accompanies it.

It is mostly a bit of veggies in a broth heavily laced with MSG. But
that's ok because I like my MSG.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Indian Dinner

Good thing I am not on Atkins. Potato masala and shrimp biryiani. 102k inclusive of a beer.  

I'm starting to think that the best food values around where I live is either the Vietnamese hawker stand or the Korean BBQ place.  

Xuxu Chicken

Back to some food - here is the famous Xuxu (alternatively spelled Susu, aka chayote) chicken dish, as blogged by Kevin and Lawrence, among others.

It is good and messy for 35k or so. I don't think their prices have changed since the last time I was there 9 months ago. At 55 Tu Xuong in D3, it is too far from me to eat there on the regular.

9 Things to Do in Vietnam

As any long term (be it two week or two months) blogger in Vietnam is wont to do, here is my obligatory "things to do in Vietnam" post.

1. Go get your hair washed

A lot of guidebooks that write about Vietnam gush about the affordability of it all.  I would generally disagree with this - yes, it is easier and cheaper to live comfortably here, but this country is certainly not cheap, but maybe that is because I've been to China a few times and compare Vietnam's prices to there.

Most everything here is cheaper than the US, but also most everything here is more expensive than in China. But that makes sense, for they were all made in China!  So you won't find much in the way of inexpensive goods, but you can find mind-blowing deals (if you're used to US prices) on services.

Housework, chauffeur and childcare services are insanely cheap in comparison, and about equal or less than China even.  But the average tourist isn't gonna use such services.

Instead, take in the affordable and very Vietnamese luxury of getting your hair washed. The hair salons in Vietnam do more business providing hair washes than they do in actually cutting hair. They'll also provide other expected services, such as mani- and pedicures, Asian style services, such as earwax picking, face washes, and clothed massages.  If you look real hard I'm sure you can find places that provide other services, but I'm pretty blind on that account.

A hair wash can be 50k or less.  Just remember to tip.  If you don't like to get your hair wet then go get a foot massage.

2. Enjoy the herb

I don't me the sticky sorta herb, but rather the panoply of SEAsian herbs that are virtually part of every local meal here.  In the US, even at decent Vietnamese restaurants, you're limited to generic things like cilantro, mint and thai basil.  Here, there is so much more, half of which I can only identify by smell and taste.  Out of all the food products in Vietnam, I think I'll miss the basket of herbs the most.  The main reason I like to eat seafood on the streets here is because of the herb mix that comes with it.

3. Go to the beach

I haven't really travelled around all that much in Vietnam, but I've been to some of the beaches here and they're definitely worthwhile. With its long coastline, Vietnam has a whole host of beaches to choose from - some are small and desolate (Sam Son), some are wide, crowded and dirty (Vung Tau), and some are pretty and peaceful (Cua Dai). Sure, it probably doesn't compare to Thailand, but life is pretty good whenever you have sand between your toes while swigging a beer, looking over the sound of crashing waves to the sun peeking over the horizon.

4. Get some clothes made

Before making this recommendation, a few caveats: custom tailored clothing is much cheaper in China (about 50% less), and labor costs here are cheap. Why is the latter a warning? Due to cheap labor, the concept of measure twice, cut once isn't employed here in Vietnam.

In all my dealings with the local labor pool, I find that folks are generally careless and error-prone. At first I attributed this to a lack of work ethic.  But I've slowly come around to the thought that such errors are due to cheap labor.  It costs so very little to rectify mistakes that it doesn't make sense within the local work culture to spend extra resources upfront to minimize mistakes.

It's sorta like the low-cost manufacturing facilities in China and elsewhere - it is cheaper to make 100 items with a 5% defect rate than 95 items with a 1% defect rate. If you engage in the former, you'll pay less and get more good product.

So, even though you should expect mistakes in your tailored clothing, and even though it isn't the cheapest in the world, why do I suggest getting clothes made here?  Because you'll likely end up looking pretty good when all is said and done.

Most Americans, myself include, wear off the rack clothing that is just too big for us. The locals, men and women, almost regardless of age, wear clothes so tight fitting, it would make Fredrick's of Hollywood proud.  So the tailors here are geared towards a more fitted, slimmer cut that ends up more flattering, no matter the customer.  Just make sure to emphasize that you want a more comfortable fit, or else you'll end up with some nut-hugger pants.

A dress shirt made in D1, depending on the fabric choice, costs between a regular off-the-rack Brooks Brothers shirt and the same shirt on sale. But the fabric and the cut will be much better.

5. Go to the mountains

As a country geographically oriented like Chile, the beaches are on the forefront of a tourists' itinerary. But if you want something slightly different, head to the mountains. Places like Fan Si Pan (the highest point in Vietnam), or Dalat or Tam Dao. One of the best times we've had was when we visited Tam Dao.

Of course there is Sapa also. But be aware of the "Sapa Curse" - it's a relatively well known and well subscribed to phenomena amongst the locals.  People say that if you go to Sapa, which is home to the ethnic minorities such as the Hmong and Yao, the women there will put a spell on you and you won't leave until you end up marrying a local ethnic minority and taking them back to the city with you.

It may be an old wives' tale, but I've heard of business colleagues who went to Sapa on vacation, disappeared for months, and returned with a Sapa wife.  And I personally know of a long term Hanoi ex-pat who met and married his wife in Sapa.

6. Play some golf

If you're an American golfer, you have got to play some golf when you're in Vietnam. The courses here are generally in very good condition, but besides that, having a caddy is just something that needs to be experienced. Sure, most of the caddies are not the sort that you would rely on for tournament golf, simply because, unlike the States, the average caddy here does not play the game so their knowledge of it is limited. But if you've thanked the inventor of the Izzo dual-strap, then you'll appreciate someone else humping your bag around the course.

Again, remember to tip, because they get very little, if any, part of the "caddy fee" that is on your bill. Locals tip between 100-200k per 18 holes.  I find that the local HCMC players tip more generously than their Hanoi brethren, so pay attention to where you're playing.

7. Go nhau

"Nhau" - it's a very Vietnamese word.  Loosely translated, it means go out drinking, but it's not really that.  "Go out drinking" sounds more like something you do on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday (and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) night while in college. 

It's not really that.  It's probably more akin to 'getting a pint' - but I dunno, I'm not from a commonwealth country.

No matter the proper translation, you should go out and nhau, especially with some locals.  It's practically a way of life here.   It's fun to sit on some plastic stools, grab some peanuts and Vietnamese style bar food (i.e. stir fried stuff that you can share and/or eat with your hands) and drink the local beer. Don't worry about getting too drunk - for all the bravado of the locals, by and large they don't drink all that much. When locals drink, they end up drinking more ice water than actual beer.

8. Slow down and look around

Visitors pretty much hang in the cities of HCMC or Hanoi, and longer term ex-pats definitely count these cities as their main stomping grounds.  The only comparison to these places are other Asian cities (well, perhaps S.America, Africa and the Middle East.. but I've never been).  It's crowded, it's hectic, and there is so much going on.

But once in a while, just pump your brakes and slow down.  Really look at your surroundings, and the people that inhabit it.  Take it all in and connect with this time, this place.

I am not talking about observing folks and passing judgments, ascribing some sort of bs quiet nobility to the poor and the working poor.

Unlike most American cities, you can see all of Vietnam from virtually any street corner here.  So slow down and breathe in the beauty, the warts, the frustrations, the wealth and poverty, the yearning, and the humanity of it all.  This is current day Vietnam looking back at you, so take it all in before looking away.

9. Leave

At the end of it all you should leave.   You weren't raised here, you don't have many ties here, you're not really from here.  A life spent with an updated passport and a visa needing to be renewed yet again is a life in limbo.

Stay too long and you'll end up like the well-worn caricature - a bitter, whiny, complaining, ugly foreigner.  Do yourself a favor and leave.  Or marry someone local.  I hear the weather is nice this time of year in Sapa.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Subprime Problem in Vietnam?

This blog is mostly about the food that we eat in Vietnam, my quest to find a really decent martini and playing some bad golf in some beautiful settings. To feed all those cravings, in my non-blog life I'm usually thinking about how to make money.

As an inveterate New Yorker, some of those ideas have been of the illegal kind - such as taking advantage of all the young local idiots who have no concept of online fraud and therefore they post their personal information and bank account numbers (!) all over the internet. But thankfully I'm preoccupied with morals to proceed any further.

Given the current world economic climate, I've pondered a bit about the problems in the US (Overselling the Subprime Problem, Market Meltdown Hysteria), which, for all intents and purposes is a confidence issue. Banks do not trust each other, so they do not lend to one another = no money sloshing through the system to lubricate the economic engine. All this talk of doom and gloom in the US is fun and games, sorta like the perverse pleasure of picking at a scab, but optimism will prevail as more people will make more money selling optimism. I'm confident enough to have recently put my 2 cents behind XLF - check back in 6 months to see how that goes.

Spurred on after reading B. Hawkins Pham's post, "The New Look of Saigon," on Saigon Blues, I thought more about why at this point I'm not as optimistic in Vietnam. There are a host of reasons, the main one being that the down global market, and in particular the down US market, makes Vietnam comparatively less compelling. Life is relative, and so are economic opportunities.

As part of the doom-and-gloom trade, business commentators in the US are quick to cite thing such as the WSJ's estimate that 1-in-6 homeowners are underwater (i.e. owe more on the mortgage than the current fair market value of the house). While this is certainly not a good thing, is this really that bad? Surely, housing occupies a certain mindspace for housing consumers - likely a combination of being the largest purchase, the largest asset, the largest debt for the average person - it is still a purchase.

As long as folks can make payments, being underwater affects their psyche, but it does not mean that everyone will suddenly become homeless. "Underwater" - sounds scary and threatening, and meant to evoke the idea of drowning, but for nearly all purchases on credit you will be underwater.

Did you just buy an iPhone with a Visa card, or that shiny new aluminum Macbook? Guess what, you're underwater. Does that matter to you in that setting? No, not really. So too housing. 

Or take a look at most folks' second largest consumer purchase, an automobile. The auto trade is tanking right now, but historically (I'm young and naive enough to mean the past 15 or so years), 90+% of the folks who buy a car finance, and they on average put about 15% down. For the average consumer in the average car, with the well known phenomena of 'drive off the lot depreciation,' that means that the auto is instantly underwater. Where was that doom-and-gloom talk over the past decade? Non-existent. 

As a business/investment climate, the worse America gets hammered, the worse Vietnam becomes.

But that's not to say there are no issues here. As a relatively closed economy, Vietnam is not directly affected by the supposed US Subprime issue because banks here did not buy US debt and derivative instruments. The effect is an indirect one, caused by lowered FDI commitments and, more importantly, lowered actual FDI inflows.

But the banks here have a Vietnamese style subprime problem - that of non-performing loans (NPLs). The credit system here is relatively rudimentary and is based more on an antiquated asset-based lending standard than a modern cashflow-based lending standard.

If I was a lender, I would favor the cashflow outlook, because at the end of the day I want to know if you'll have the money to pay me back. I would not want to have an asset-based lending outlook, because I am in the business of making money on interest and fees, not on foreclosures.

Banks here that do asset-based lending typically have the infamous "red book/document" - the red deed book issued by the government and used to confirm use rights or ownership of property - as collateral. With local property price declines, and more importantly, an illiquid market, these asset backed loans quickly devolve into NPLs.

A reason for the rudimentary credit system here is a lack of credit ratings agencies. There is no such thing as a FICO score, so effectively most (all?) individuals and businesses are subprime borrowers. The indifferent legal environment makes it easy for borrowers to stiff the lenders - at worst, the borrower would walk away from an underwater property, and that action has little impact on their ability to get a subsequent loan from another bank using a different piece of collateral.

As the saying goes in the US, 'if you owe the bank a million dollars , it is your problem; if you owe the bank a billion dollars, it is their problem.'  The same is true in Vietnam, except you replace "dollars" with "dong" - and a billion dong is low barrier, so the banks are holding a lot of problems.

But I am an optimist, and I see good things going forward for the Vietnamese economy and like elsewhere, as an economy improves the financial sector will lead the gains. It's just that the American financial sector will make more gains in the near future. So why deal with the Vietnamese issues?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Weekend Eats and Other Stuff

I was walking about D1 this weekend to do some shopping.  Ended up at the Parkson's Mall when hunger kicked in.  Unfortunately their food court is undergoing renovations, so I hit the street, hit the wall of steam and quickly decided that I neede to get indoors stat.  So I ventured to the food court at Eden Mall across the street instead.  This is the second time I've eaten at this food court, and again I'm impressed. Maybe I should go here more often.   

I got the above from Little Manila, which also has a full fledged outlet in PMH.  What captured my fancy on the menu was the whole fried Tilapia, for 45k.  Not bad, especially for an aircon food court.  The entirety above was like 120k.  

I don't know if it's a Filipino thing, or if it was just prepared incorrectly, but when the menu said "whole fish" I didn't really expect a whole fish, guts and all.  Maybe someone can enlighten me.  Save for the guts, the rest of it was pretty good.   

It's been a long while since I've had pizza in Vietnam.  It's one of those 'why bother' foods for me in this country.  As in, why bother eating it when you can wait for the next trip home.  But I was lazy and therefore wanted delivery.  Ordered from Pepperoni's in the backpacker area, and it was delivered in about 20 minutes to the CBD.  It was pretty decent, considering where I was eating it.  This large, 8-slicer good for about 2 adults was 110k or so.         

Of course, once in a while one has to do "work," so I attended the grand opening of the first HCMC branch of Tien Phong Bank, which may be more commonly known as the bank FPT (with some others) started.

I didn't do anything but watch the proceedings, yet it was freaking exhausting.  Whomever thought to have a protracted outdoor ceremony in the midday sun in Vietnam should really rethink their event planning skills.    

But the expected dragon dance was still cool.  

It was late, the restaurant was starting to shutter its operations for the day, so the older lady who owns the place broke out her Wii to get some tennis in.  This was more amusing to me than the drunk dude below.

Some dude by the name of Thirsty has been stalking me.  Here he is rolling on a moto, smoking up a cigar.

And again, next to a guy who had a really, really good evening out.  

I've been on a chao kick recently; here is the way they serve it at this particular Chinese joint on Nguyen Trai, which is one of the places in HCMC to grab some late night food after having your fill of beer.