Saturday, May 31, 2008

How Long to Halong?

Vietnam time: 9:20 PM Saturday
DC time: 10:20 AM Saturday

The answer is 3.5 hours and let me tell you, it was amazing. We had a boat all to ourselves which was just incredible bonding time. We laughed, drank, swam and ate. The day was a bit cloudy, but seriously it doesn't matter with beauty like this.

Words can't really describe it so I'll let the pictures do the talking.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Even Flow

Vietnam time: 6:05 PM Friday
DC time: 7:05 AM Friday

So things have changed a bit in the last 24 hours.

We went to Hang Bo 66 on the recommendation of MetroDad once again. Dude, I owe you huge since my knowledge of Vietnamese restaurants is making me quite popular. The highlight was the spring rolls which came on toothpicks in the side of the pineapple. The pineapple was carved out to hold a little candle. Bizarre but delicious.

Stacy & I both got fried rice, but I opted for the meat version. I mean come on, the whole point is to the experience all the tastings. You know where this is going right?

3:00 AM rolls around and my stomach is making noises I have never heard. So I head to the bathroom...and I didn't leave until 7 am. I would have TOTALLY traded the two sinks for two toilet bowls because the turnaround time I needed to use it in both directions was ridiculous.

I have never been in so much agony. After 90 mins of laying on the bathroom floor, I called Steph to bag out of the meeting and the two cultural events today. I tried sleeping but laying down made me more sick. I ordered toast (which didn't stay down) and bananas (which didn't either). I've mostly dined on water and two shortbread cookies this whole day.

One of the women here does homeopathic medicines. She brought me an electrolyte mix. It was disgusting, but I know it probably did some good. I'm going to the happy hour in the hotel since they serve Perrier & crackers. Dinner of champions and then off to bed.

The only good part of today was that I learned that Hayden Panettiere from Heroes really does know her cheer leading moves. She was the lead in Bring It On: All or Nothing. I highly recommend it if you are vomiting for 4 hours straight. It completely makes you feel better about your life.

Tomorrow is our day trip to Halong Bay. A 3-hour drive one way, but it will be amazing. Another wonder in the world that I am lucky to see. We fly out first thing Sunday morning to Ho Chi Minh City, so my postings may be a little spotty until Sunday afternoon (er...Saturday night for you all).


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Master of Puppets

Vietnam time: 6:15 PM Thursday
DC time: 7:15 AM Thursday

Overall it's been a more negative 24 hours than positive, but you take the good with the bad. But as you know I try to the find the positives in things first.

OK, now that you've laughed your ass off, I will actually try to highlight the good things of the puppet theater. This art form was used in the early 12th century as a way for workers in the rice fields to entertain themselves when the fields flooded. Characters range in size from a few inches to a few feet and can be quite animated moving their mouths, hands or heads. The puppeteers control them with poles that are under that bamboo backdrop. The whole performance is in native tongue and uses the traditional music. There were 17 small acts but my favorite was this character because most of us with small kids decided this was the inspiration for "Boo" in Monster's Inc.

Truthfully, this wasn't my thing. The musicians were completely bored given they perform this show several times each day. It was a little too "traditional tourist" with over priced gift shops and idiot Americans on tours (hey wait, did I just....nevermind). In many way, this would resemble The Mousetrap in London or kissing the Blarney stone in Ireland; probably not the highest quality activity, but a 'must-do' in the city.

To experience a little puppet theater yourself, feel free to watch one of the many hundreds of youtube movies. And remember, if you watch this about 12 times in a row, then you've truly experienced it all.

Today we spent all day with Bitexco, an import/export company that's become a conglomeration in search of public funding. While you might think our cohort would have presented, the groups on Economies of IPO and Bubbles in the Financial Markets did5 minute presentations. (See, the other groups took the professors' suggested topics and are interacting with these companies. Dave and Ceci--I am not using acronyms anymore since I just don't care--picked textile trading and that is why we don't have a lot of presentations as a group.)

Bitexco has a variety of businesses from real estate to hydro-electricity to bottled water. We met with their president, who had about 20 other colleagues in the room. What an opportunity to meet counterparts in all our arena; marketing, accounting, IT, however there was no format to interact.

One thing you should know about university professors is that they also have consulting businesses. That's pretty much what today turned out to be. Besides sitting there for 7 hours straight to hear consulting speeches, the room was at 84 degrees. Seriously, these buildings have air conditioning. Use it people!

Our class could not get into this event at all. There was nothing remotely connected to our studies or personal lives. Due to the heat, lack of air movement and droning on of the professor, people began to get distracted. That's Mark doing the crossword puzzle and Pete checking his blackberry. Rebecca and John both have their shoes off, while Pete was in bare feet. The woman on the phone is one of the Bitexco people, clearly just as bored.

The highlight of the visit however was having to wear headsets to hear the translations. It was almost like being part of the United Nations...minus the boredom and bare feet.

Four days into the program and people are really beginning to get on each other's nerves. We used to see the whole class only one day a week and now we are with each every day from breakfast to bedtime. Any small nuance which used to be overlooked is becoming a major irritation. Since my team has the most issues at home, those are exacerbated here.

Dave & Ceci are just literally driving me crazy with their lack of social skills. Dave doesn't join anyone for dinner and constantly hangs all over me like a 5-year little brother. He has awkwardly inappropriate conversations with people. Yesterday at lunch he was telling classmates that he doesn't "do #2 in public unless he stands over the toilet." Katrina, my dear friend and fellow mean girl said to him, "I don't think we've reached the sharing part of our program, but you could save that one again until then." I am literally ignoring him and purposely sitting down in places with one chair or with Steph. This is him below. He listened to most of the presentation in Vietnamese for fun. BTW, he doesn't speak Vietnamese.

Cecilia is acting like a fucking hostess in this country and introduces herself to speakers even before the professors. She's like the Vietnamese Cathy Lee Gifford and it so inappropriate. Speakers will be talking and she'll shout out things to the class as if to help give more insight into their business practices. She nods during talks and adds commentaries in every meeting as if she were presenting this two-week program. Personal space is constantly violated and she spends too much time invading people's conversations.

As you can imagine, we haven't really prepared much because Pete (the other teammate shown above) and I are completely over them. Both of them selected the textile trading topic. Since I did a lot of the last Finance paper, I didn't really prepare for the presentation. Only one of them needs to present and personally, and I thought Ceci would be ideal given her language skills and understanding of the country. However she explained to me on the way home from the puppet theater that "I not understand Vietnamese so well since I be gone away so long." Kiss my ass, woman, you are talking to everyone. I don't even care about it anymore. There is so much other value from the rest of the meetings.

We have dinner on our own tonight so that will consist of ditching the ones we don't like again and trying to spend more time on the town. I also need to find time (and space) to do a bit of bathroom sink laundry. Socks and underwear are running lean.

I'll be better tomorrow. I promise.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

'Cash'ing in on Homes

Vietnam time: 6:00 PM Wednesday
DC time: 7:00 AM Wednesday

We went to a great restaurant in the old quarter last night called the Green Tangerine. It had this amazing prefixed menu of soup, scallops, spring rolls and something beef. Another one of the best meals I've ever had.
Thanks to MetroDad for the recommendation.

The food here is so flavorful and again. I'm reminded as I travel internationally how much Americans eat. The portions here are so much less and yet, completely adequate. I will say that international meals definitely change the way your body processes food...OK, we'll just leave it at that.

We didn't get back until almost midnight, so I was little tired this morning. As expected on our first free night, the class has cliqued off exactly the way we expected. Don't fool yourself that even at 40 years old, things don't organize themselves exactly the same the way they did in high schools. Three main groups emerge and Stephanie & I have of course, named the groups.

The jocks all went to Bobby Chins steak house. There are four main guys who head up the group and two others always seem to hang along. The chess club consists of the rest of the guys. They were still at the hotel when we left and most ate dinner in the hotel. Steph calls us the "Mean Girls" which is the four main girls, myself and Shane who helps administer the program. We by no means trash people anymore then the other groups, but the name seems to fit.

Four others seem to do their own thing independently. They are affectionately known as the foreign exchange students and library geeks. You'd think we'd past all this by now...but we're not.

Today, the group met with two other Vietnamese companies. Vietnam Land Company Limited and CB Richard Ellis (Vietnam). Real estate is a huge issue in Vietnam. As values change, most people are no longer living in multi-generational families, so young couples are purchasing homes for the first time. As mentioned previously, banks are not readily used and that is directly reflected in mortgage industry.

Less than 1% of all of housing purchase go through a bank or mortgage company. Everyone here pays in cash. A three bedroom apartment will go for about $2000/square meter. (Seriously, it's a lot but remember I got a B in Finance so you don't want me converting this.) 30% deposit is given on signing, 30% at 6 months and 30% at 18 months. Companies have almost full payment by the time the unit is complete which provides for amazing cash flow. It takes almost 2-3 for complexes to be ready. We saw the models for the 24-story building being constructed. For the record, the model was furnished by IKEA.

This complex on the right is another strange but common occurrence. You can buy the shell and then build the apartment yourself. This helps families save money on the purchase of property...whatever. We renovated a kitchen once; I don't think I would go this route.

Companies are financing these complexes through partnerships with investments firms and the creation of power plants. By partnering with global hedge fund companies, these local construction companies can leverage the branding and build partnering relationships that otherwise are not available in this country.

Prior to our visit with CB Richard Ellis, we had about an hour to kill so they dropped us off at a mall. A bunch of us thought shopping for Izod and Nike was a little silly, so we headed two blocks off to the art district. It doesn't take me a long time to find a piece of art I like. Larry, I followed the "must be less than $500 rule" and purchased this without your approval. It is an oil based canvas featuring three workers in a flower field. The fields are done in molding paste to allow them to 'pull' off the canvas. I couldn't be happier.

My bathroom (like everything else) kicks ass. There is a giant walk-in shower with a rainfall spout--we are totally getting one of these, Larry--and big jacuzzi tub and two sinks. One of my strange quirks in hotels is that I will actually use both sinks; one of shaving and one for brushing my teeth. I'm not sure why that is, but I feel compelled to do it each time. I won't do it if Larry is there, but when I travel by myself, I don't want to exclude either sink. Weird, isn't it?

We're heading to the famous water puppet show tonight. More on that in the next installment.

For those who asked, those 'baskets' outside my window in the water are actually small boats. People use them as transportation in the rivers.

And if you think your commute sucks, try these:


The Motorcycle Diaries

Vietnam time: 5:30 PM Tuesday
DC time: 6:30 AM Tuesday

I'm still struggling a bit on sleep patterns. I have returned to my Western ways and am finding myself waking at 5:00 AM. Truthfully, that's pretty much the time I normally wake up at home, however my classmates like to hit the bars in the evenings. Last night, after an interesting 'fusion' dinner, 6 of us went to bed while the others went to a cowboy bar. Seriously, if I'm in Vietnam, going to a cowboy bar seems bizarre.

It was hard to tell if last night's dinner was just 'off'' or I was still suffering the remainders of jet lag. I'm concluding that it was a combination of both, but I didn't care for the meal as much as lunch. We had a choice of two meals and I picked the one with the better dessert, lemon sherbet and fruit. I totally violated my "try everything" rule and you know what, it bit me in the ass. The sherbet was NASTY. Imagine lemon ice with sweet (REALLY SWEET) cream. This is one of my worst traveling traits; trying to find one thing that is a comfort of home. It never turns out to be what I hoped for and just pisses me off that I didn't stick with trying something new.

The camera is fully functioning again. You can tell this is a hotel that caters to Americans since the outlets actually accommodate US-based plugs. That actually took me a day to figure out since the outlets have a million holes and I never would have guessed they could take a laptop plug.

Today we visited three companies: State Bank of Vietnam, State Securities Commission and CMC Group. The State Bank again highlighted the relationship of the foreign banks moving into the markets and increasing competition for local banks. This influx of the foreign system has actually helped Vietnam improve their technology, training and service to the citizens of the country. The State Securities Commission (shown in the photo on the left) discussed how companies go public to sell stock on one of the two exchange markets in Vietnam. Private and state-funded companies have different methods and the SSC is also implementing country-wide training programs to teach people how to invest in these traded companies. Currently, there are only 293 companies being traded on the market and only 98 licensed security firms.

CMC group was a company that focused on outsourcing. Their primary market is Vietnam and they are expanding into Europe and Japan. One of their key customers is the higher education finance, IT and enrollment markets which was particularly interesting. I was able to contribute to the conversations since my company deals with the business offices of colleges & universities. In America, you see most of the outsourcing in service areas like food or even security. Rarely is it done in the business office to the extent it is done here. It was very interesting

One of the most interesting aspects of the culture here is the motorcycles. This is the vehicle of choice and most families will only have one with which to handle all of the family's duties. Cars are too expensive and are taxed quite heavily due to quantity restrictions. Most families will even bring their motorcycles inside the house in the evenings since parking spaces are limited.

It is not uncommon to see 2-4 people or giant bundles of groceries/goods balanced on the bikes as they swerve and in and out of traffic. Rules are generally not followed and no one yields for traffic. As an outsider, there seems to be no laws, but rather a general understanding of what the other drives expect you to do. Weird and yet awkwardly refined all at the same time.

It is like watching a school of fish. One person takes the lead into the intersection and then everyone fills in behind from all directions. The light turns green and it is a mass, chaotic dispersal and the bikes all go in different directions. Some follow in unison and others cut their own way only to be replaced a different 'school' of bikes. No one travels in single order or follows a protocol and yet it just works itself out. Motorcycles cut across intersections and swerve next to buses all the time like a graceful ballet.

Now this beauty comes at a price. It is said that 30 people per day die from traffic-related deaths due to motorcycle accidents. The helmets most people wear look like our bicycle helmets and you can see babies sleeping in passengers arms as the drivers speed through traffic. Commuters do their best to get where they are going and still find themselves being crowded to the curbs by buses or trucks. While it can be beautiful to watch, we will still cringe as we witness this daily commute.

All motorcycles are parked on the sidewalks and it is the pedestrians who must walk into the street if needed. You can find 30-50 bikes parked outside buildings and 400-500 under the ramps of the highway.

We have dinner on our own tonight so I'll let you know how that goes tomorrow. Here's a few more pictures for your enjoyment.

A typical street scene

My hotel room is the middle one on the lower level