I subscribe to the paper edition of The Wall Street Journal Asia. It is printed in Thailand and flown to Vietnam each day. Sometimes my newspaper arrives with content related to Vietnam blacked out with a heavy marker.
From the January 12 edition of The Wall Street Journal Asia:
This reminds me of a story from our Japanese-run server hosting facility. Our guy there told us that the first time a bunch of guys from VNPT, a Vietnam telco, visited their facility the guys marveled at the neat, Japanese-style bundles of cables coming out from the backs of the server racks. They just couldn't get over it. I guess they had never seen order like that before.
Before I moved to Vietnam I took a 5 day motorbike tour with Explore Indochina. It was awesome. Five days in the Northeast region of North Vietnam. Breathtaking scenery and remote locales. You can check out my pics here.
I was reminded of the trip by this video from Explore Indochina, below. While I didn't traverse raging rivers, I did have plenty of adventure. I want to do another tour, this time in the Northwest of Vietnam, including Sapa. Explore Indochina is a reputable outfit and I had an excellent experience.
I bought some bananas from this woman, then asked to take her pic. She thought that was hilarious. It looks like someone took advantage of her distraction to pinch a piece of fruit -- see blurry hand, at left.
I snapped these pics in Tokyo's Narita airport in September. These hilarious illustrations were in a small travelers' health advisory office. There was a giant world map on the wall that was color coded for diseases like malaria (parts of Texas included) and dengue fever (Vietnam 100% included).
I don't read Japanese, but the main message I get from these posters is "Whoa! Scary stuff outside our island nation!" [Love that little red guy with the arrow and the expression on the victim's face.]
I read recently that a majority of young Japanese won't consider going outside the country because they consider it unsafe. Sounds kinda like a lot of Americans.
The talk of the [expat] town lately has been the opening of the first American fast food hamburger joint in Saigon, Carl's Jr. While there are some fantastic burgers in town (American-owned Black Cat and Mogambo's spring to mind) there aren't fast food burger joints. Well, there's the Korean fast food hamburger chain Lotteria, but it just doesn't cut it. Sometimes you just have a hankering for a real fast food burger. Well my friends, that day has arrived.
After wandering around for what seemed an eternity in the bowels of Vincom Center, Saigon's newest and swankiest office tower-cum-high end shopping mall (shown at right), we finally stumbled across the entrance to the promised land in the food court.
The girl behind the register chirped "May I take your order?" with
impeccable English. After I ordered the "Western Bacon Burger" [sounds
good eh] she repeated the order back just to make sure she got it
right. Damn good training. The rest of the staff were well-scrubbed,
bright-eyed and bushy-tailed like the kid on the right.
Rather than wait at the counter for my order, I received a plastic number and a staff member delivered my delicious meal straight to the table. They also offered to refill my drink. To my friends in the USA, when was the last time you got service like that at a fast food joint?
On the way in I bumped into another friend of mine with his girlfriend in tow. "It's my second night in a row!" he crowed. Indeed.
Here's the meal:
Before the meal, my burger-loving colleague Carlton and I drooled in anticipation.
Amid all the excitement, I've heard a few Westerners lament the fact that restaurants like this are coming to Vietnam. A place like McDonalds opening its doors somehow marks the end of indigenous civilization [there's a rumor McD's is coming in the next few years]. "Aww," they say, "Vietnam is getting Westernized and losing all that makes it unique." This is baloney.
Vietnam will *never* lose what makes it different and special. Look no further than Japan. Has Japan lost its "Japan-ness" in the 65 years it's been open to the world post-WWII? No, it's gotten even weirder and more Japanese. Those who have been there know exactly what I mean.
Does the popularity of sushi or Mexican burritos, relatively recent imports into America, render America "less American?" I don't think so. There is little risk that sushi or burritos will crowd out stereotypical "American" staples like meatloaf, hamburger or fried chicken anytime soon. Similarly, there's little risk that Carl's Jr. or even McDonald's will cause Vietnamese people to stop eating pho.
I suspect some Westerners like being able to tell their friends they live in or visited a country without McDonald's in the same way that some people like to talk about the fact they don't own a TV. I don't hear any Vietnamese complaining -- the place was packed with Vietnamese when I went.
So to the anti-Carl's Jr. crowd I say "Relax. You know you want one!"
Vietnam's consumer culture is developing rapidly. I see a promotional events all the time.
Here's a pic from a Samsung 3D TV promotional display. There were characters from the animated 3D film "Monsters vs. Aliens" and the ubiquitous young promotional girls.
I had to get a pic with these guys, they looked so great!
Here's a promo setup for Sony Vaio laptops outside a big electronics store near my house. I snapped the pic on the way to work. I like the girls' outfits -- kinda like sexy space stewardesses. The smarmy expression on this girl's face is excellent. I'm pretty sure she saw me take the pic and struck an appropriate pose. A budding model for sure.
One of the things I love about living in Saigon is the incredible mix of history sprinkled throughout the city. There are beautiful old examples of French colonial architecture, historic pagodas and even a mosque. Each tells a story of the different cultures that have influenced Vietnam. So far as I can tell, one of America's lasting contributions has been ... fire hydrants.
I've noticed old American fire hydrants throughout the city. Here's one manufactured by the M&H Valve Fitting Company of Anniston, Alabama. It's located on the corner of Đồng Khởi (formerly Tự Do) and Lê Lợi streets in District 1.
Another shot from the top.
And lastly, an establishing shot showing the historic "Nhà Hát Lớn" (literally, "house sing big"), aka the Opera House.
Occasionally I see old American Jeeps around town. As far as I can tell, they're driven by cops or soldiers. They've been restored immaculately, with new paint jobs and new stenciling. Here's one I snapped parked on Suong Nguyet Anh one Friday afternoon.
Note the yellow stenciling on the front bumper that reads "America" and "USMC." Also note the word "Army" on the passenger side. I don't know if this vehicle originally was owned by the US Marine Corps, but I'm pretty sure USMC vehicles didn't have the words "America" or "Army" on them.
Several museums in Saigon showcase captured American-made equipment such as helicopters, planes and tanks. All have US military markings instead of the former Republic of Vietnam markings. I find this odd, because by the time Saigon fell was liberated in April 1975, the American military presence had been reduced to a relatively small number of advisers and security personnel. Most equipment left behind was transferred to Southern forces and repainted by their new owners. I would expect a lot of the equipment on display to have the old Southern military markings.
So what explains the preponderance of not-quite-accurate US military markings on the captured equipment? My guess for the first reason is pride. The Vietnamese government derives no small measure of its legitimacy from the fact that it beat back the American imperialists and their puppets to liberate the South Vietnamese people, thereby ushering in an unprecedented era of freedom and prosperity under a one-party system of government. Displaying instruments of war ostensibly captured directly from the American military makes a more powerful trophy than anything captured from the South military.
My guess for the second reason is the authorities are loathe to display any yellow and red symbols of the former Republic of Vietnam. Public display of such symbols may stir memories and cause trouble.
So it makes pretty good sense to me that they would repaint all captured equipment with US markings. If I were them I'd do the same thing.
As long time readers of this blog know, the Vietnamese are crazy about Christmas. Every year it gets bigger.
Last night I visited what I can describe only as a "Christmas Depot"
next to a church not far from my house in District 3. I needed to pick
up some supplies to decorate my office area. There were Christmas
supplies galore -- snowmen, snowflakes, santa outfits, lights,
Christmas trees (fake), everything. You nameit they had it. I snapped some pics on my swanky new phone.
There were several shops set up, each with different proprietors. An efficient market at work. I bought some snowmen from these cheerful women. Definitely into the Christmas spirit!
The "Santa Suit Shoppe," Saigon outlet.
A nativity scene done in signature Technicolor Vietnam style.
Christmas tree section showed impressive variety.
For more Christmas goodness, check out my Christmas post from last year here.
On weekends there are always groups of boyscouts, teenagers and 20-somethings getting together to play games and have fun in Tao Dan park near my house. I happened upon these lively young people a few weeks ago. Each of them had a balloon tied to one ankle. The objective was to stomp other people's balloons while protecting your own. Hilarity and pandemonium ensued at the whistle. I stopped to watch for a moment and snap a pic.
I snapped this photo at the corner of Nguyen Du and Truong Dinh in district 1. It's a great example of the juxtaposition of "old Saigon" and "new Saigon." Slowly but surely, decaying buildings and infrastructure are giving way to shiny new buildings and bridges. It's changing the character of the city. Of course, some will lament that something is lost, and they're right. But something is gained too. Change is unstoppable, and brings the good with the bad.
It's a real shame, though, when historic old buildings are demolished to make way for plain-vanilla office towers (see Beijing). The Society for Historic Preservation is a bit, ahem, underfunded in Saigon.
There are tons of similar-sized office buildings going up all over districts 1 and 3. Judging from all the "for rent" signs, I imagine each new building contributes to the surplus of space on the market. No doubt all this space will be absorbed over the next 2-3 years though. I can feel things starting to pick up again, slowly but surely.
I think the building on the left is a residential building. Looks like it's at least 50 years old. What's your professional opinion, chu Mel?
POST UPDATE: Thanks to readers Tyler and Mel, the old building has been identified as the Meyerkord BOQ from back in the day. I found this roughly 40 year old pic on the internet. Looks like time has been unkind to the Meyerkord.
Tonight I joined some colleagues to play tennis at the Rex Hotel. As some of My Public may know, the Rex is quite famous for being the main lodging place for American officers and for military press briefings during the Vietnam (aka "American") War.
It was pretty cool playing on top of the hotel, surrounded by a sea of Saigon neon and a sense of history. I haven't played in over a year. Forgot how much I enjoy it.
I saw this guy while eating dinner with the VietnamWorks Tech Team in Vung Tau in April. He and his buddy were traveling from restaurant to restaurant singing romantic songs and selling trinkets. His enthusiasm and passion were contagious. I got the feeling that he didn't care a whit if they sold anything, he was just thrilled to have an audience.
Another reason I like this pic is because it shows well the Vietnamese love affair with massive, over-the-top audio amplification.
I was walking in Soi 8 Sukhumvit in Bangkok and did a double-take of the cab on this truck. "Wait, is that Al Pacino? Holy cow, it *is* Al Pacino!" It was so weird I just had to take a pic. Any of My Public know which film this is from? My guess is "Carlito's Way." Pacino didn't have a beard in "Scarface."
Christmas has come to Saigon once again. This will be charvey's fourth Christmas in Saigon. The first was five years ago during my first ever visit to Vietnam. Christmas struck me then as totally, completely, utterly nutty. Well, 2003 was nothing. Over the ensuing five years it's gotten even nuttier. This year is head and shoulders above last year -- the decorations are more elaborate, the crowds are more frenzied, there are more tiny children in Santa suits. The Vietnamese love pageantry and parties. They have embraced Christmas and made it their own in a special Vietnamese way. I love it.
Last night I went out for a walk on the main drags of Saigon. I took some pictures and an eight-minute video tour (narrated by charvey, of course). Enjoy!
One of the things I love about living in Vietnam is the weird moments and visuals that meander across my daily routines. The other day I was walking to work when I saw a woman approaching me. She was walking and balancing a cage of birds on her head.
Tôi học tiếng việt 2 năm rồi. Cô giáo tôi tền là Cô Cúc. Cô ấy rất dẽ thương và vui tính. Cô ấy luôn luôn nhớ nhiều từ tôi quên và cô ấy nhác tôi. Thường chúng tôi nói chuyền về cuộc sống tôi ở Việt Nam, and tôi học từ mới như vay.
Dào nay, Cô Cúc và tôi mặc áo mầu tím. Vui quá, tôi phải chục hình!
Một ngày khách Cô Cúc mặc áo với từ nay: "I [shamrock] Irish boys." Vui quá nữa! Tôi phải chục lại - đây là phòng cách khách của cô ấy.
The Vietnamese continually amaze me with their capacity to sleep anywhere, anytime. Whereas people in the USA generally sleep behind closed doors or in a secure environment, Vietnamese sleep pretty much anywhere at the drop of a hat -- kids on mobile motorbikes in heavy traffic, xe om drivers on top of their bikes, people at construction sites grabbing 20 winks, pushcart operators, etc. It's remarkable. I've snapped a couple pics and will try to get more.
This worker is catching a snooze around lunch time. Busting up pavement sure is hard work.
Here's a guy dreaming of sugarplums while perched on his bike. I snapped this one at about 11pm walking home one night. It's a bit grainy due to the low light.
When I arrived in Vietnam in May 2006, I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of goods in local supermarkets. I could buy Washington State apples, batteries, my favorite cereals imported from the USA, Tide laundry detergent, shampoo, pots and pans, whatever, in a relatively modern environment without haggling. The supermarket was small and cramped, and the aisles set haphazardly, but most things were there. It was similar to the supermarket where my mom would drag me as a kid in the '70s, although a slightly smaller and more crowded version.
I was there again last weekend after a 3 or 4 month hiatus (I eat out a lot, plus I'm lazy). Wow, the place is changing fast. The store is bigger. The aisles are taller and more orderly. The meat section much bigger. I even saw an elegant wine display rack that could have come from Whole Foods a swanky, high-end grocery chain in the USA. And construction is still happening in one part of the store. Disposable incomes are increasing rapidly in Vietnam and a lot of that extra spending is going straight to consumer goods. Vietnam is a marketer's paradise -- totally virgin territory. Rising incomes and the fact that choice and cool things to buy are a relatively recent phenomenon recent is fertile ground. The sense of optimism and, yes, joy, is palpable as the country sheds 30 years of material privation. It's exciting to see.
Here is a pic taken from an escalator leading the second floor of the "Co-op Mart".
And here's a shot closer to ground level. Note the promotional displays and Oral-B toothbrushes. The woman in the conical hat in the foreground is a nice juxtaposition. Turns your preconceptions of Vietnam on their ear, doesn't it?
The air in Saigon this morning was fresh, clean and cool (mid 70s). Gotta take advantage of days like this so I grabbed my camera and hopped on my bike to snap some pics.
There are mobile bicycle vendors galore on Dien Bien Phu Street in District 3. I bought some grapes from this friendly woman and she let me snap her pic. There were also bike vendors selling onions, flowers, motorbike rear-view mirrors, handbags, books, etc.
I've never seen a "fish-in-a-bag" vendor before so I had to get a pic of this one. Although I didn't buy a fish, the proprietor let me take a pic anyway. She doesn't look happy though. Maybe she's thinking "What am I gonna do with all these freaking fish?" I doubt they can last long in those little bags.
Another of the ubiquitous construction sites and signs around Saigon. This one is a pretty huge site at the former location of Saigon Square, which until recently boasted the best selection of pirated DVDs in Saigon as well as various other sundries and shops. This development is being led by a Korean group. The Koreans are everywhere in Saigon.
Another construction site, somewhere in District 3. Serviced apartments are going up like mad. One long time expat friend is convinced there will be a glut of empty inventory on the market in a year or two. My sense is that it all depends on the demand side of the equation. Time will tell.
Ok, so I didn't take this pic today but had to include it. Until recently, I've caught only fleeting glimpses of this dinner boat plying the Saigon waterways. When we had a company party on another boat a few weeks ago I was able to get up close to admire the sheer artistry of this massive, floating neon piranha. Our boat was nowhere near as cool. Vegas, move over.
Happy New Year, or "Chuc Mung Nam Moi!" The Vietnamese love a good party and have adopted the Western new year as their own. Crowds were out in force last night and the streets decked out in holiday finery.
I tried to capture a bit of the magic in this pic, taken on Le Loi Street at about 12:30am on January 1, 2007. Those little white lights above the streets are snowflakes.
VietnamWorks is ushering in 2007 with a spanking new office to house
our crack team of Tech, MIS, Sales, Marketing, Customer Care and
Product specialists. Pic taken Friday, December 29.
A few of the advance guard waited impatiently for the movers to deliver the tools of the trade so they could get back to work crushing our competiton.
There is an amateur softball "league" in Saigon that started up today after a rainy season hiatus. I traveled out to the end of the Earth in An Phu (District 2, about 10 miles from my house) to play. Phil , the athletic director from Saigon County Club, hosted.
We attracted some attention from some onlookers curious about what the foreigners were doing hitting balls with sticks and running around like madmen. I wanted to get a pic of the action with an onlooker with a conical hat on, but wasn't fast enough with the camera. There goes the Pulitzer.
Most participants were Canadian or American, with a few Aussies thrown
in for good measure. Rhonda, the organizer and globe-trotting Canadian
expat, had an intimidating T-shirt that said "Middle East Softball
Championship." The level of play was surprisingly high for people who
haven't played softball for many months -- the final score was 22 to 16
after about 5 innings with several dramatic hits, plays and catches.
In traditional softball style, we capped off the workout with pitchers
of cold beer. It was excellent.
To my Saigon readers: Come on out and play! We'll be there every Sunday at 3pm barring the country club's need to use the field. Shoot me an email if you're interested and I'll make sure you get on the mailing list.
By the way, I found out about this from a website with an outstanding summary of business and social events in the expat community. It's called "Upcoming Events, Eh?" by a guy named Graham Potter. Check it out.
Last weekend I went to Bali, island of the Gods, to meet up with some friends from San Francisco. Bali probably is the closest thing to a tropical paradise I've ever experienced, with Costa Rica a close second. It wasn't too hot (about 80 Fahrenheit), had beautiful beaches, mountains, great food and friendly people. We also stayed at a totally pimping villa. It was great.
The weekend consisted of eating, lounging by the pool, massages, reading and touring the island. This is a shot of the gang after eating a decadent multi-course grilled seafood meal prepared by the staff of our villa. Having a staff was cool, but was also a bit weird. They were there all the time, even all night. I suppose I could get used to it though. Hungry and want a snack? Have the staff whip it up and serve it to you next to the pool.
One day we took a tour of the island. It was a fine, but quite generic and especially touristy. One stop was at a quarry where the Balinese cut stones for use in building the many temples of the island. As our guide explained, nearly every family has a temple. These women were transporting cut stones from the bottom of the quarry to the roadside. Each stone weighs about 5 kilos, so they are carrying 15 kilos on their head in each trip. The vertical was about 60 meters. It seems that women do most of the hard labor in Asia. Sweet.
A pastoral scene of terraced rice paddies on the tour. All the green kinda reminded me of Vermont, except different.
Last weekend I went to the city of Can Tho, a major provincial capital in the Mekong Delta. Some local companies had organized a jobs seminar for students at the University of Can Tho. VietnamWorks was invited to attend, say a few words and sit on a panel. Needless to say, we ruthlessly exploited the event to deliver our message, but in a friendly and added-value way for the students. Seeing all those fresh-faced youngsters grappling with existential job angst reminded me of my own college days. Nice kids.
Charvey giving a brief speech which contained several shameless plugs for VietnamWorks. On the right, her face partly obscured by flowers, is Chi from Customer Care. She was my interpreter, and fortunately was able to cover my inarticulate ramblings with an elegant Vietnamese translation.
Students of Can Tho laughing as one of their own went to the stage to practice firm handshakes and good eye contact. Read the newspaper story in Vietnamese here.
After the event I had lunch with bigwigs from the University and other sponsoring companies. I felt like I was at a fraternity party. One guy was a dead ringer for a Vietnamese Chevy Chase, I swear. A couple guys kept toasting me and saying "50%!" or "100%!" which means chugging half or all of your drink, respectively. I was advised not to go toe to toe with men from the Mekong since they are legendary drinkers. Sound advice that I ignored anyway.
Mmmm, yummy giant snails just like mom used to make. I was served several of these by the host. Actually, they were kinda tasty. But once I thought of the slimy snail foot in my mouth (that was the chewy, rubbery part) my I had to suppress the gag reflex. It's all in the mind.
Last weekend I went on the first annual VietnamWorks company trip to a town on the coast about 4 hours from Saigon. It was a chance for all VietnamWorks team members to put their party hat on, and wowie what party hats there were!
Some of the gang before loading up the bus on Friday. Spirits are high. With all the giggling and excitement going on, I felt like I was on a middle school class trip. Everyone was very psyched about the weekend.
First night at the resort. After dinner, people self-organized into a human tug-o-war. I found it funny that women made up the chain, but men were officiating. Game on, fellas!
Another view of the tug-o-war. After a few seconds the human chain would snap like a rubber band and both sides would go flying back into the sand in a tangled, giggling heap.
The next day we played lots of team-building games. The object of this game was to toss a water balloon over to the other side with a plastic sheet. Two teams of two on the other side had to catch the water balloon without breaking it. The first to miss or break the balloon would lose. Lots of great drama and heroic saves.
Saturday night was skit night. Several teams put on comedy, dance, acting and singing skits. We had Tahiti dancers, story-telling dance, fabulous costumes, pathos, farming scenes, pom-pom girls and a made-up Karaoke song about our business in both Vietnamese and English. All the skits were very clever. Who knew such creative juices lurked below the surface? Now if only I can figure out a way to harness them to advance our business!
Ah, Oktoberfest. How I love it. A lucky few of My Public experienced a San Francisco Oktoberfest chez charvey a few years ago. A good time was had by all.
I don't have time for a long post tonight, but suffice it to say the the Vietnamese *love* Oktoberfest. Good times, good times.
A German host instructs two young Vietnamese on the good ole saw logging contest. Ah, the German love of hard work und discipline!
I yelled out "Ein, zwei, drei" and the band leader finished with "zuppa!" (or something that sounded like that). I got a huge kick out of it. The German drinking culture rocks. This band also sang 1950s American do-wop songs as well as the Deutsch boozing favorites.
Two cherubic patrons get into Teutonic party mode. I was walking by and saw these guys posing for a photographer's picture so I snapped one too. I think the right word for their expression is "beatific."
Me and my good friend B, enjoying excellent weissbier and the overall Vietnamese / German melange, if you will.