Friday, June 27, 2008

Jerry Springer!

So the Miss Universe thing is happening in Nha Trang in a few weeks.  There is a faint buzz in the country, as the contestants have been hopping from town to town for photo-ops.  They were in HCMC last weekend for a dinner at the Sheraton - apparently, my invite was lost in the mail.

Reading the paper this morning, I learned that Jerry Springer (!!!!) will be the co-host of the Miss Universe (along with Mel B of the Spice Girls).  Jerry freaking Springer - that's gold!

I would go to Nha Trang just to meet Jerry Springer.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Seat Guru

Living as an expat means lots of airline travel.  

Picking a good seat on those long haul flights is essential for some rest and relaxation.  That and the free drinks.  

How to find those seats?  The wonderfully useful SeatGuru site is at your service.  How did I ever manage to live without the internet?  

Monday, June 23, 2008

Obama + Energy

As the political race in the States has now winnowed, the candidates are starting to spout off their ideas to energize (pun, ha!) the public behind their campaign.

One such recent tack is that taken by Obama under the CNN headline of "Obama Wants Energy Speculator Crackdown."

Reading the piece, it sounds like he wants more governmental intervention and oversight into energy commodities futures trading (but not other types of futures, let alone commodities futures, trading).  Hmm.. while regulation per se may be not all that bad, knee-jerk regulations surely are ripe for mistaken results (death of habeas, anyone?).

The Dems are smart to throw around the term 'closing the Enron loophole' in their petitioning.  I had no idea what this is, so I read up on it a bit.

First up was - hmm, wonder where they stand:

Additionally, through the so-called "swaps loophole," financial investors can "game the markets" for pure profit by buying up positions in the energy markets,without any limitation on the size of the positions they can take.  One recent estimate suggested that they now control one third of the commodities markets, or $150 billion - a 1,000% increase in less than five years!

What exactly is wrong with taking large positions on bets that you think will go your way?  That's like saying you, as an individual investor, can buy as much Google stock as your wealth allows!  Oh, no!

Look at this May 2008 Baltimore Chron commentary, talking about the Enron Loophole:

In 2006, the "Enron loophole" allowed Amaranth Advisers hedge fund to shift its trades from the regulated New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) to the unregulated Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) in Atlanta. 
That let Amaranth corner the natural gas market, betting that futures prices would rise. The hedge fund lost about $6 billion and imploded as natural gas prices fell to a two-year low in September 2006. 

Haha - that second 'graph is where all these Enron Loophole types are missing in their comprehension.  The spot price for oil is what people pay for it today - so higher prices hurt the buyers and help the sellers of oil.  Spot prices, for the most part, depend on demand characteristics.  

Futures trading is about bets on future price movements - you can use it to bet future prices will be up or down from today, and trade in and out of those positions before the maturity date to make money based on intra-contract price movements of the underlying asset (here, oil).  A futures trade is a contract - there are two sides of the transaction, and neither side is an actual consumer (nor producer) of oil.  It's just a bet between two people, and if you're on the wrong side of the bet, you have to pay up.  

Is this speculation?  Yes, but so is making any investment.  As from the example, just because you "corner" the futures market doesn't mean you'll make money.  It could mean you blow up spectacularly and be used as a whipping boy in hedge fund conferences.  

Complaining about things like 'energy speculation' makes Obama sound more and more like every other poltico and less about the "change" that we need.  After all, when I go out and buy a Prius, I'm an "energy speculator" too!    

Cantopop Movies

Unless you set up a Slingbox, or buy tons of bootlegged DVDs (I've done neither, unfortunately), living overseas means watching foreign TV.  

The English language channel selection that I get in Saigon is about twice what we had in Hanoi - here I'm getting Cinemax and HBO, as well as the usual culprits, Star, Discover, Nat Geo, ESPN and the African sports channel, Super Sport.

I've supplemented that English mix by watching korean shows on KBS, Chinese movies (mostly in Cantonese w/English subs), and once in a blue moon Vietnamese versions of British gameshows (1 v. 100, Who Wants To Be A Billionaire in VND, etc. etc.)

The fun KBS shows are all 'reality' type of shows. Not survivor style, but more like documentary/Oprah-style shows delving into common folks' daily lives.  There are a few recurring themes of the KBS shows: 

(1) daily economic struggle of the Korean working class - I saw a show about a family that had 6 y/o twins who made their money selling homemade kimbap (Korean style sushi rolls) to morning commuters.  Seemed like a tough life.  The kids had their birthday party on the show.. their parents got them each a pencil case for school.  The kids really liked it.  I remember when a pencil case was a nice gift, but I also remember my nephews getting things like a N64, Gamecube, PS2, Wii, PS3, etc. 

(2) how cross-cultural marriages, mostly between Korean men and foreign brides, function, from the wooing stage to years on.  One show was about how Korean men in various stages of their relationship with Vietnamese foreign brides - the guys were going to a language center to learn the language prior to going overseas, or a married guy was learning to speak better so he could speak to his father-in-law over the phone.  They filmed a phone conversation and typically, and hilariously, the entire limited discussion was about whether each side ate yet!  Another episode was about the foreign brides' families visiting their daughters in Korea.  Frankly, it was a bit amazing to see the diversity of the foreign brides - the Philippines, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Uzbekistan, etc.  Vietnam is a (relatively) large net exporter of brides to Korea - I met a caddy who's sister was happily married there, though her family hadn't physically seen her in about 5 years - but in the last 6 months the Government here temporarily stopped issuing visas for such travel because of shady bride purchasing promoters.  

(3) how young married Korean couples are doing - it would be interviews of newlyweds, to probe their emotions before and after marriage, with the overarching theme being "marriage is a good thing."  Are young kids in Korea putting off marriage that much that TV needs to encourage such couplings?          

But the best thing on the non-English channels has to be the cheese-a-rific Canto-pop movies.  Charlene Choi, Gaile Lok, oh my!  Some Cantonese speakers complain about these silly movies, with their simplistic plot lines and over the top acting, but when one is reading subtitles, simple story lines and exaggerated motions really help one along.  And the pre-Kung Fu Hustle work of Stephen Chow is laugh out loud enjoyable too.  But he's not cutesy enough to link to.  

So ditch the DVDs and check out the foreign language stuff on the tube.     

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Business on 747

Flying domestic airlines kinda sucks after being relatively pampered
on Asia-based airlines.
Recently, on my trans-continental trip from LAX to the East Coast, I
was offered the option of buying some crap food for $5. Good thing I
was more interested in satisfying my sleep deprivation than my hunger.

Look at how full your airline tray gets on a simple sub-2 hour flight
on Vietnam Airlines - mains, salad, dessert, roll, drink, coffee/tea,
wine, full compliment of utensils (fork, spoon, knife, chopsticks,
napkin, and of course a toothpick and the mandatory wet nap), full
compliment of condiments (salt, pepper, butter, cream, and of course
hot sauce) - by the time you're thru, the plane is on its descent.

Once you switch over to the international segment on the domestic airlines, it does get better. The service is still not up to the standards of Vietnam Airlines, but it's tolerable.

I was on a United flight and got bumped up to business class - the upper cabin of a Boeing 747, too! - on the international segment. It's pretty neat to sit up there, with the limited number of seats, it feels like you're traveling in real style. Service was decent, but the accommodations felt old and outdated. I had the hardest time with adjusting the seat until I figured out that, unlike the seats on Vietnam Airlines' biz class, these things were manually adjusted. Bummer.

Rainy Afternoon, HCMC

Rainy season here means brief, brutal downpours at times.

This is looking down Dong Khoi street in District 1 of HCMC during one
such spurt. You would be hard pressed to find this street as empty at
any other time of the day or night when it isn't raining.

Vina Miata

Sweet, an M1 Miata. There are more Bentleys, or Ferraris, or Rollers
in the country than this most capable sports car.

Goat Hotpot

Had some goat the other day, in the pretty popular format of a hotpot
place. You find this all over the north and the south here - look for
signs that say "Lau De" (lau = hotpot, de = goat).

I came to learn that I really did not care for goat, at all. Notice
the cool goat themed cast iron plate though.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rainy Season Upon Us

It's finally getting into rainy season here in HCMC. Today there were
three distinct periods of heavy dowpours, lunchtime, mid-afternoon and

I was planning on heading elsewhere for dinner, but the rain started
and I ducked into the old standby, Pho2000.

iPhone 3G - Will It Sell?

The forthcoming 3G iPhone will be a hit in the US, with the new low $199 subsidized price and all, but I wonder if it will be a popular grey-market option here.

The iPhone 1.0 is pretty darn popular here in Vietnam - one sees all ages of local folks pulling it out these days.  Will the  3G be as popular?  Will the 1.0 fall off the list of trendy things to own?

Perhaps the 1.0 phone will retain a higher level of "cool" in Vietnam vis-a-vis the States because of the culture of new (that exists everywhere) is tempered by the culture of expensive here.  With the US price drop, on the grey market here, the 3G phones should cost about 1/2 of what the 1.0 iPhones cost ($850 when it was $499 in the US, about $600 when it came down to $399 and unlocking was less cumbersome).

While newer + cheaper generally means greater demand, sometimes cheaper means less demand here, due to the down market connotations.  Phones like the Vertus and the Mobiado are used here because they make a certain statement.  

It'll be interesting to see how this dynamic will play itself out.  The fact that the 1.0 and the 3G will be visually distinguishable will help one gauge this scenario.      

Monday, June 16, 2008

Soccer and Beihai

So a good friend (or two) of mine has moved to the region - they've landed in Beihai, China, which is only a stone's throw away from Hanoi.  Check out the southern China seaside action here.  

These past few days I've been trying to get to bed early so that I could wake up to watch Tiger and his wounded knee at the U.S. Open.  After 4 rounds, with some amazing shots, he's managed to eek into a playoff tomorrow.  So that basically means an early night and a getting-to-the-office late for me in the next 24hrs.  I'm watching golf on TV.. yeah, I'm officially old.

In addition to the US Open, I've been catching Euro 2008.  There was a great game this morning between the Czech Republic and Turkey.  I caught it late, so I saw the big comeback and a red card on the Turkey keeper with minutes left in injury time - exciting, crazy stuff.  I'm sports deprived enough to start getting into soccer now, but watching soccer here is a whole different experience than in the US, mainly because the skill level high is so uniformly high that the action is relatively interesting.  The top-flight, tournaments - AFC Cup, Euro, UEFA Champions League - are really enjoyable for a soccer newb.

Some English Premier League matches are also world class, but as an outsider, sometimes the EPL is frustrating to watch because the teams sit out top players all the time.  This is due, in part, because the EPL season coincides with the FA Cup tournament and the Champions League tournament.  It's like watching the Lakers sit Kobe for a game against the Timberwolves so he can have energy for the Celtics matchup.  Quite an annoyance as a spectator.  

Finally, speaking of the Lakers-Celtics show, I caught a snippet on ESPN about how Doc River got turned onto the word "unbuntu" while reading about the Rev. Desmond Tutu and that it has become a mantra for the Celtics during these playoffs.  Now all the geeks in the world, like Orangwutang and SaigonNezumi have something in common with the (eventual) 2008 NBA Champs.  Maybe the Lakers should retaliate by yelling "Vista!"

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Grass Jelly Drink at Post Office

Went to the main HCMC post office on an errand and before I was
through the skies opened up. I could say I forgot my umbrella but
truthfully I never carry one unless I'm out golfing.

Thought about grabbing a cab, but the curb is so far away, I'll get a
drenching just hailing one.

So I dithered my time away by going thru the souvenir and postal shops
(book of stereotypical postcards are only 6k vnd) and this Yeo's brand
grass jelly drink (also for 6k, but in coins only) from the vending

It looks like a Pepsi and not grass jelly you say? Well, that's
'cause you're expecting the vending technician to stock the right
product in the right vending slots. Can't expect the world ya know.
Just enjoy the Pepsi grass jelly.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lunch at Sushi Express

Had some nigri and then this katsu.

This place quotes menu prices in USD, and then converts over at 16,400.  Yeah, that's a bit below the black market rate, but is above the official exchange rate, so you pay more in VND than you would expect to.    

I don't like it when places quote in USD.. isn't that illegal, actually?  And they give you a shitty exchange rate and force it upon you if you pay in the country's currency.  This is wholly different from places giving you a shitty exchange rate if you pay in USD - that's your 'fault' for not having the local currency on hand.  The pricing tactic by Sushi Express just says to the customer, screw you, our menu prices are high, but in actuality they are *higher* unless you happen to carry USD.  So basically, all locals and all tourists who's home currency is not USD gets the shaft.

Um, yeah, I'll vote with my feet and not come back here again.  For a 200k lunch (for one), you would imagine they would try a bit harder to not make one feel taken advantage of. 

iPhone 3G

The new iPhone 3G (aka the iPhone 2.0) was released via an announcement today - new features, new lower prices, what's not to love?  Oh, right, you still can't buy it officially in Vietnam.  

The iPhone is mainly sold locked to a carrier elsewhere in the world - Vietnam doesn't do subsidized, carrier-locked phones, so it's a no-go.  Plus it's such a small market, the grey-market importers will take care of the domestic needs.  

Being in Vietnam, the new 3G features are unnecessary - they are only in the 3G testing phase here - and the enterprise features are likewise useless.  A robust enterprise solution here means using computers *without* unlicensed software.  And the GPS is based off cell tower triangulation (I think), so another unsupported feature.  

What I am looking forward to is contacts searching.  Thankfully, the 2.0 software can update on the 1.0 phone.  

Even with all the 2.0 features that are pointless here in Vietnam, you can be sure that there will be many folks in the coming months sporting the white 3G phone - the black 3G ones will not have the requisite cachet.  Apple marketing knows how to cater to the lux-consumers.    

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Where's My Trailer?

This is a picture of the closing credits to Iron Man.

A bit ago, feeling a mentally tired, I ditched work and headed to the
Megastar Cineplex out in District 5 at the Huong Vuong plaza. As
compared to the one in the Vincomon Hanoi, this one has fewer theaters
but they are a bit bigger individually.

Saw about a third of the movie before I realized that I wasn't
mentally tired, I was just straight up tired and falling asleep. So I
walked out while taking a call on my phone. Would rather be perceived
as an ass who walks out because of a call rather than an ass who
doesn't like Iron Man.

A few days later I went back, this time to the Galaxy Cinema, which is
in District 1. It is not as nice as the Megastar and the opening
inhouse production skit to remind you to be quiet, no smoking, no cell
phones, etc. was a horrifically funny rap number that revolved around
the concept of being a "cultured moviegoer."

Saw the movie, which was pretty good. I am surprised at how quickly
these summer blockbusters are being released over here. Iron Man was
released within two weeks or so of the US release date. Last year,
Transformers and Spiderman and things like that were a month or two
behind. Progress, eh? Or is it just a Saigon vs Hanoi thing?

So why was I taking pictures of the closing credits? Well, in the
States they show a pretty interesting trailer after the movie -
something about The Avengers - so I was waiting around for it while
the rest of the audience left. I was still hangin' about when they
made a cleaning sweep thru the aisles. And then disappointment washed
over me as the screen just went blank. Bummer. The opening rap number
does not really make up for it.

All Night Dim Sum

So I heard about a dim sum place next to the Caravelle hotel downtown
and decided to check it out one evening.

They serve dim sum from 9am till 230pm and again from 10pm till
closing, which is pretty late - 2am.

Guess when I showed up? Yup, in that slice of time when half the menu
was off limits.

Did have this large serving of chow fun though.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Traditional Vietnamese at Hoang Yen

Here is some Canh Chua Ca (fish sour soup, though it is more like
sweet and sour soup) at a local family style chain restaurant called
Hoang Yen.

The food is really good, but the most interesting thing about this
place is how high the prices are and how popular it is. Here they just
serve regular, everyday Vietnamese food yet one would be hard pressed
to leave this place paying less than ten USD per head for lunch,
exclusive of drinks outside of iced green tea.

Yet it is always full - a crowd of local business type and older
overseas Vietnamese here on business and/or vacation. Considering that
three course set lunchs at mid and upper-market western joints are
eight bucks or so, the pricing here is a bit out of line. But I guess
they cater to different markets... so well done to these local

Snails in District 4

Went and had some roadside seafood again, which basically means
steamed shellfish. This joint was just inside the cartographic
boundary that separates D1 from D4. Costs were about thirty five
percent less than the backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lau - so about a
buck a dish. Most of the local customers here just dropped by for a
light snack after dinner and therefore grabbed only a dish or two - I
was the exception using this as my main meal.

Underground Stout

The Underground is an expat/tourist bar right in the middle of the
Dong Khoi area of District 1.

It serves a local stout called Amber. Not bad, but not hearty enough.
It is tough to get Guiness locally though, so this will have to do.

Saigon Post Office

So I had to mail some things off locally the other day. Dropped by the
main post office in town, which is next to the main cathedral in town

While this place is crowded, service is relatively quick as the crowds
are mostly tourists taking pictures.

This picture shows my shipped items after they were deftly packed by
the postal workers. It was an extra service that cost 4k VND per item.
I think it would have cost me more than that just to pay for the
scotch tape if I were to have bounded the packages myself.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama Clinches

Just got to the office after hanging out late in my pad watching Clinton's speech this morning - pretty decent speech, even if it didn't contain the concession that folks wanted.  But facts are facts and Obama now has the required number of delegates.  Good for him and hope he takes down McCain.  

What has struck me in this primary battle - or at least in the web 2.0 content in this battle - is how much people hate Clinton, while on the flip side non-Obama supporters are merely indifferent to the guy.  They're all politicians, they're all roughly the same, yet people hate her with passion.  I don't get that.  

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cleavered Results

Duck A La Carte

Was going somewhere else for dinner and passed this, so I gave it a
chance and asked if they would sell me half a duck. To my surprise
they said yes (for 85k). This is the first place that did not require
one to purchase the entire fowl - an understandable limitation at
those other places.

So this guy grabbed a whole duck and hacked half of it for me. The
next person to enter a half order will not get that luxury, but to
make up for it they will get the duck's head.