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.