Sunday, February 25, 2007

Going to Nam

Sorry for the lack of entries over the last couple of weeks. After we got into Vietnam I found it hard to both find the time to write and also to simply log-in to Blogger (hmm, the great chinese firewall caused me similar angst).

Anyways, the Spaniard and I had an incredible time in Vietnam. It's a great country with tons to see that definitely lived up to expectations. While there we traveled to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I'll get to a detailed travelogue later, but before I do here are some of my overall impressions of the country.

  • There are plenty of tourists, but the country still feels a bit unspolied. They know how to deal with tourists, but it hasn't gotten too commercialized. For example, there were virtually no western stores or restaurants. In fact, restaurants and stores were often extensions of a family's home.
  • The Vietnamese, on average, definitely tend to be on the smaller side (I'd say even smaller than the Chinese), maybe it's all the healthy food they eat. . . The spanish language has institutionalized this observation as I discovered that the spanish word for vietnamese is "vietnamITAs." For those of you who know spanish, the suffix should mean something to you. I was told by the locals a few times that I was Vietnamese sized (yes I know I'm short why did they need to point that out), but we as a group tended to stick out a bit due to the Spaniard. One of our guides provides an excellent example of how much he stuck out.

  • The people in Vietnam, by and large, are extremely friendly. Given the history between our two countries I expected more of an undercurrent of hostility or at least stand-offishness. However people were generally friendly and smiling, especially when they had something to sell. Although, even when they didn't they would say hello as they passed us on motorbikes or on the street. The Spaniard's friend, who traveled with us and works at the World Bank in Hanoi, explained that the leader of the communist party, who lost many family members in the war, posted online to a citizen's forum (which apparantely is pretty big there) a response to a question about whether he held any ill-will to the Americans. He said something like "Yes the american government was imperialistic, but we should not hold that against the citizens of the country. Plus that was the past and we need to look to the future."

  • Two types of architecture predominate and battle it out on the streets, french colonial and chinese. The influences are everywhere.

(a tomb outside Hue)

(the post office in Saigon. . . oops I mean Ho Chi Minh City)

  • There is no doubt that the country is poor. The Spaniard's friend, said that the governments goal is to lift GDP/capita from $650 to over $1000 in order to be considered a "middle income" country. That being said, it appeared that people's basic needs were being met, it was more that things were less developed. This is especially true of their infrastructure. To get between Hanoi and the center of the country and then to Saigon the options were two 1 hour flights or a total of 40 hours on a train. . . (We definitely chose the more civilized way).
  • The entire country is cheap, incredibly so actually. At 16,000 Dong to the dollar we had to get used to a completely different price level. Good meals where we'd order appetizers, entrees, beer, etc would be $5 per person. Opening bids at markets and stores would be $3 for a T-Shirt, $4 for a tie, $5 for a shawl (and quoted in dollars which are accepted as easily as dong). Even overpriced tourist bottles of water or coke would be $0.66. It almost made haggling not worth it, but fear not I still did it (remember cheapskate here.) However I would request that we negotiate in dong. I don't know. . . getting a discount of 5,000-10,000 dong felt better than a discount of $0.33 - $0.66.

  • Despite being incredibly cheap, the food was incredibly good. Full of fresh healthy ingredients stir fried with tons of exotic and great flavors. It's also pretty healthy (as long as you stay away from deep fried spring rolls. . . ) I've grown a new appreciation for Vietnamese food, which I will be indulging on Argyle street upon my return.
  • Traffic is a nightmare . . . everywhere. The only cars you see are mostly buses, taxis, and official vehicles. However the lack of cars is more than compensated by an abundance of motorbikes. Everybody in the country seems to have a motorbike which they seem to drive 24 hours a day. We read a statistic(in the inflight magazine upon departure of all places) that says there are 25 (unofficially 50) motorbikes for every car and despite the source we have no reason to dispute this. Moreover, these motos are always overloaded. . . dangerously so. . .You will see families of four perched on 1 moto all the time (Yes that little head you see is a child standing on a moto).

  • Unfortunately, despite the massive amount of motos at every turn, there are few traffic lights. Supposedly they've only started installing them in the last few years. As a result, crossing the street was always an adventure and I felt a little uneasy everytime I did it. The local trick, which is very disconcerting, was to just start crossing the street at a constant predictable clip and let the motos avoid you. The spaniard's friend employed a modified technique of directing traffic (ie using hand motions to tell them to tell them to stop or go). As you can see it took a bit for me to get used to either method.

Despite my concerns, I ended up being a street crossing pro by the end of the journey. Needless to say I survived to have plenty of adventures in the country. More on those later. . .

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Long Live the King (Now with Pictures)

So, the Spaniard and I began our hopscotch through SE Asia a couple of days ago by catching a ferry from HK to Macau to connect to a flight to Bangkok for an eventual flight to Hanoi. Quite the journey to save just a couple of bucks, but it did allow me to spend a couple of days in Bangkok on the way to Vietnam.

Bangkok was great, and we saw all the requisite sights, including the royal palace and various temples. We also ate great Thai food, and visited the nightlife areas, including Khao San Road and Si Lom. All in all a full couple of days.

One of the most memorable things about Thailand was the admiration the king has amongst his people. Every where you turned, including the airport, there were pictures of the king and signs proclaiming "long live the king!" Before getting here we had read that he is held in such high esteem that after the fall coup the new military leaders went to him for his blessing. By granting it, the king gave the new regime legitmacy and the people went back to their normal business.

One manifestation of this esteem was that over half the Thais we saw were wearing yellow shirts with some weird crest on it yesterday.

The Spaniard noticing this decided to buy one for himself and put it on. Turns out the yellow shirt is a sign of solidarity with the king and the crest was the royal crest. Everybody happened to be wearing it yesterday because this is the 60th anniversary of his reign and his 80th year of life. To celebrate this Thais wear the yellow shirt every Monday because the king was born on a Monday.

Well this action by the Spaniard endeared us to the locals. Many people came up to us thanking him for wearing the shirt, and asking how he knew to wear it. Others asked us if he worked in Bangkok since he was doing something local. This was then followed by is this your first visit to Thailand and how long have you been here?

While, all in all the Thai were a very friendly people, but after a while we figured that there was a more sinister motive for some people behind the line of questioning. Basically it was there way of determining how fresh off the plane are these tourists and how much can we overcharge them. We fell for one scam when a friendly local, who we asked for directions, told us our destination was far away and that we should see this other destination as well. Before we knew it we were in a Tuk Tuk(thing motorized rickshaw) going to our destination for only 20 Baht(70 cents). However we were also taken to a Jewelry store, ticket broker, and custome tailor where the tuk tuk driver received commissions. We only escaped the longtail boat trip after the Spaniard used his height and a loud voice to intimidate the driver into taking us to our final destination. (Note picture is before the detours. . .)

Damn it we were had, especially since we were dropped off where we started and our final destination ended up being a 10 minute walk away. Of course on the way another friendly local came up to us telling us the Sleeping Buddha, where we were heading, was closed along with the temple across the river were closed for ¨Buddha Day.¨ Instead we should go to other sights via tuk tuk which he could help us with. . . Of course, we didn´t fall for the ruse a second time and we headed to a very open Sleeping Buddha and very open temple. (Proof that the Sleeping Buddha was open)

After these stops we hopped into the taxi to head to the democracy monument just to walk around the area in which it was located. Of course it was ¨closed¨as well and the driver wanted to take us somewhere else. Yes there was a coup, but we knew the democracy monument was still there as we had driven by it several times. Plus, its just a statue in a traffic circle, so it´s always open and we got to view the now ironic monument.

I guess even though you dress like a local, you still wear a target on your back when traveling.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Staying close to home

Ever since getting back from Beijing I've been in Hong Kong, or the environs like Shenzhen. Part of it has been forced on me, since I needed to get visas for my upcoming trip to Vietnam with the Spaniard (via Bangkok and Singapore - got a love how the student budget forces some unique itineraries and connections), and a GSB sponsored trip to Bangalore India to interview applicants to the Class of 09. No Passport = No travel, so HK it has been.

Not that it has been a bad thing, as I've gotten a chance to better know this amazing city(seriously everybody should put HK on their list of places to see). The most fascinating thing has been the contrasts and blends of east and west that I've been noticing on a daily basis:
  • The street markets springing up outside Louis Vuitton stores.
  • Buildings with dilapadated facades sporting beautiful lobbies.
  • Modern skyscrapers being built with bamboo scaffolding
  • HK Chinese sporting perfect English/Aussie/American/Candadian accents (Hi Josekin and Ivan!)
  • Walgreen type stores selling chinese folk remedies, etc.
  • Whole-Food type supermarket seafood sections selling live(well live before you purchase) fish swimming in tanks

Another thing I've noticed has been a subtle sense of insecurity amongst people here. Not insecurity on whether this is a great place, everybody seems to know that. More a sense of insecurity that they'll lose what they have. It takes many forms:

  • The HK tourism board and government has plastered "HK: Asia's World City" on everything they produce. I've been to other "World Cities," and none of them make such an effort to proclaim their worldliness. It's like the kid who joins the popular crowd and has to remind everybody he's cool in order to reaffirm his position.
  • By extension, the news reports I've heard, and been able to understand, talk about improving city services in order to "continue our status as a world city."
  • People aren't shy about criticizing the Mainland, seemingly to distance themselves. In an almost reflexive manner, anytime I mention visiting the Mainland the conversation turns to how provincial and sleazy it is, esp when compared to Hong Kong. Not that they're completely off-base, but there can be some exagerations. For example, everyone here loves to cite either that everything is fake or that the need to be careful what you eat in the mainland since they have "fake eggs." Nobody themself has seen such a creation, but everybody knows of somebody who did. I find it a bit hard to belive since I've never seen these myself, and I mean why would you fake an egg when you can fake Adidas jackets?
  • Anything that shows HK as anything less than miles ahead of the Mainland gets undue press. For example, the front page of the South China Morning Post had a front page article, and requisite commentary, that HK students in Australia were failing English proficiency tests at an equal rate as those in the Mainland. The tone seemed not so much to be aghast at the high faliure rate of 45ish%, but that the Mainland student failure rate was only slightly worse.

In a way, I can understand where this insecurity is coming from. HK has come so far so quickly. Recently I went to the HK History museum and saw exhibits highlighting Japanese occupation, the extremely overcrowded tenanments, unrest in the population that occurred not that long ago. In the pictures HK looked more "3rd world" than the modern metropolis we see today.

I guess the appearances were reality back then because during the fall, my grandmother's best friend, who is originally from China, heard I was coming here and got concerned enough to reach out and give me a lot of advice like: "watch out for kidnapping, because during the Japanese war(i.e. WWII) it happened a lot. Don't wear anything valuable at all, because during the Japanese war . . " She painted a picture of an extremely dangerous place, so much so that my grandmother's first question when I talked with her a couple of weeks ago was "Have you been pickpocketed yet?" A lot has changed in 60 years, but after having been to the museum I can see where her concern came from.

Having come so far so fast, I can see why HK might be worried about losing their position, especially since they are beholden to those North of the border.

One worry is that the government in Beijing starts meddling too much or worse abolishes the special status HK enjoys. Not that anybody I know sees that as too much of a risk, China would lose too much face by going against the agreement. More importantly having a vibrant HK benefits China through having an open port to the west, and meddling too much would make "one country two-systems" an even harder potential sell for Taiwan.

More worisome is the renewed competition from the Mainland. I keep hearing the word "marginalization" which highlights the HK anxiety. A lot of HK's success has been its status as entrepot into China. However as China, particularly Shanghai, booms there's concern that people will go directly to China instead of going through HK when. That's a definite worry, but HK has a lot of expertise and as many here like to say "it's all hardware and no software" up there. It still has advantages but HK can't rest on its laurels, as the mainlanders are catching on quickly.

However, competition will do HK good, and HK has overcome many challenges in the past as it will in the future. It's a dynamic place that will always find the next opportunity. As professor Young said in International Commercial Policy last spring. "The lesson from HK is that the talented will succeed no matter what."

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Happy Valley

I've been interested in coming to Hong Kong for a long time. I think my interest sprung from pictures of the city that showed the glittering skyline and crowded chaotic streetscapes. Another iconic image of Hong Kong that I always saw in National Geographic-like magazines was that of expats and locals taking in a horse race at some track in the middle of the city. Given my uber-tourist status I made it a point of going to a horse race while here.

After arriving I discovered that there ate two racecourses here in the territory, one in Sha Tin about 5 minutes from the University and one in Happy Valley near Causeway Bay in downtown. I almost went to the one in Sha Tin given its proximity to the dorm and the fact it has more races, but upon further research I discovered that the one in Happy Valley was both more historic(the site has been used for racing virtually since the British arrived) and more scenic since it was right in the middle of the city. Going to Sha Tin to see a race would be like going to Chicago and catching a baseball game at Comiskey, er I mean US Cellular Field.

Well, I got a bunch of CU students, Faisal and Saeeda to come with me to catch a race. General admission is HK$10 ($1.29), but I had read that as tourists you could show your passports and pay HK$100 ($12.90) to get access to the "member only" places in the racecourse. I thought that it would be cool, and, somewhat foolishly, convinced everybody to pony up the cash. With our badge, we kept walking into rooms to be told it was for "members only" or even more exclusive "owners only." When asked what exactuly our access to "members only" areas bought us, we were ushered to a grandstand on the second floor. Yes it allowed us to see the race better, but I'm not sure it was work 10x the admission.

Despite the dubious admission benefits of the badge, it did give us more insight into the Asian's love of gambling because in the "members only" area it almost exclusively Asian. As the only place in the SAR to gamble, the place was crowded. Like in Macau, everybody was deadly serious with racing forms and books in hand intently watching the races. Very little chit-chat and virtually no drinking. The environment was actually a bit tense, especially after the race when the losers cursed loudly in Cantonese and threw whatever paper was in their hands.

As we were all taking in the scene, and enjoying the cool view of the buildings surrounding the racetrack I got a call from the Tuck student saying she was at the racecourse near the beer tents. She didn't buy the member pass(smart) and I told her one of us would be down to smuggle her up to where we were sitting. However, she has refused to buy a cell phone while here (how 20th century) so finding her was going to be quite the challenge.

I went to find her, and lo and behold I found a gweilo corral around the beer tents. Even more amusing, there was a McDonald's right next to the beer tents. Like moths to a flame, the beer tents and McDonalds attracted every last gweilo in the place into this concentrated area and turned the area into one giant bar. No Asians in sight, because they were here to gamble the gweilos to drink. It was as if the Jockey Club wanted to sequester the riff-raff from the serious gamblers. Frankly it was a good place to drink, it was outside with a cool view and the beer was cheap compared to LKF.

Given that it's Asia, the Tuck student normally sticks out with her long blond hair, but here that was not a defining characteristic. Almost every girl had long blond hair, and finding her was like playing Where's Waldo, but without the red and white striped hat. Since I couldn't call her it became an exercise in futility and after about 10 miuntes I gave up. Not having a cell phone is a serious handicap in this age. . .

However, it did clue me into the existance of this area, and we eventually decamped to the gweilo corral and had a beer.
The Spaniard started to play his luck and for the last race decided to bet HK$10 on horse number 9 to place which in the US normally meant a 1st or 2nd place showing. Well guess what, horse 9 came in second place, so the card was a winner or so we thought. While in line, the German read the card and said:

- "If you wanted horse 9, why did you bet on horse 8?"

Turns out, the spaniard had the window employee mark his betting form and the guy misunderstood him, because the card clearly showed horse 8 was marked. The spaniard was pissed, and we left the line to avoid the embarrasment of having the employee laugh in our face as we presented a losing card for payment. However, I went over the board to see that horse 8 was in third. I showed that to the spaniard and said that he almost won. The German then said

"wait a second it shows that a place bet on 8 wins $23, and a place bet on 9 wins $19."

Turns out, the spaniard won more than he would have because place bet means both 2nd and 3rd here in HK and horse 8 had longer odds.

Lucky bastard. . . well he became so excited that he said "who wants to jump on my back and ride me like a horse for a victory lap."

The place was called Happy Valley, but he was a little too giddy after winning US$2.50. I wonder what he would say if he won more.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Football and Scrambled Eggs

Nothing reminds you of how removed you are from your home life as trying to recreate familiar traditions in a foreign places. There are familiar elements, but it's never quite the same. Eating Christmas and Christmas Eve dinners at chinese restaurants in Hangzhou and Shanghai was my first taste of this, but going to a Super Bowl party this morning was another such instance.

Yes, that's not a typo, I woke my ass up at 5:45am this morning in order to see the Super Bowl. Given the nasty time difference, the 6:30pm EST kick-off was 7:30am here in Hong Kong. Given the timing I normally would have forsaken seeing the Super Bowl since I'm not a huge sports fan, and I'm an even lesser fan of early mornings. However, given it was the Bears I felt obligated to show some Chicago pride here in the South China Sea. I didn't have any Bears gear, so I Chicagoed up by wearing my Cubs cap and Chicago GSB T-Shirt.

Our destination was a Super Bowl party being hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce here in HK at a bar in Lan Kwai Fong that another American exchange student found out about. A number of us went, including some of the Germans and French students. Here's how early it was, LKF was deserted:

The weirdness began the minute we walked in. Given the hour, the food spread consisted of your favorite breakfast foods and the beverages of choice was coffee and OJ. Not your normal Super Bowl party spread. There was some beer, but you had to wait until 8 or 8:30 given the liquor laws here. . . Not that anybody was too eager to booze it up, especially since most of the crowd had to go to work after the game. As students though, we had no such constraints:
Not that we drank that much, I had the equivilent of one pint. I drank much more coffee, so much that somebody said "You really are an addict."

Another difference was that we received the international feed on ESPN Asia, so no Super Bowl ads!!!!! I never realized how important they are to enjoying the game until they weren't there. Also, when there are no ads you begin to realize how many commercial breaks there are in football. I guess ESPN Asia couldn't sell any super bowl ads, because during breaks for US ads we kept seeing the same promos for other ESPN Asia sports programming: Rugby, Soccer, SportsCenter, etc, on an infinite loop. The only paid ad I saw was for . . . Amazing to consider that in the states 30 seconds go for $2MM, and here they can't sell any time.

Plus the commentary was different, a lot more educational. As in "10 yards equals another 1st down for the team with possession." "Let us explain how both teams arrived here," and then proceeded to explain the playoff system.

However, that commentary was better then the Chamber of Commerce's emcee who wouldn't shut-up. There were prizes for trivia and he used it as an excuse to constantly talk. Imagine some middle-aged meathead blowhard getting control of a microphone and living out his dream of being a sportscaster on a captive audience. BTW did you know the turf make-up of Dolphin stadium? Well I found out because his company, for which he is regional VP, made the turf for the game. See what I mean? Plus, when he found out that there were non-Americans in the crowd he took the opportunity to say we were watching real football and how it was infinitely better than rugby and cricket and soccer. . . Way to show some hospitality!

All in all, I had a fun time, depsite the Bears loss which was extremely painful, but without Doritos, beer, and Bud Light ads it wasn't a Super Bowl party. Plus, I'm missing out on the civic grieving, which, I learned after the 2003 Cubs debacle, is an important part of the healing process.

HK's western facade can lull you into a sense of being close to home, this morning reminded me of how far away I really am.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Event Planning 101

At the beginning of the term the CUMBA office sent an email inviting me to attend their gala 40th anniversary dinner at the HK Convention Center. I was tempted, but after looking at the HK$700 (~ US$90) price tag, I balked and passed.

However, when I received another email saying they were discounting the price for students to HK$350, myself and a number of students decided to go, thinking it would be a great opportunity to newtwork and meet new people. Boy were we wrong. . .

Last Saturday was the event, and after class ended at 5:15 we rushed to change and get to Wan Chai to partake of the "cocktails" from 6-7:30. When we arrived we noticed servers circulating with glasses of what looked to be screwdrivers, gin and tonics, and rum and cokes. We figured it was odd to have such a structured choice, but hey those were 3 of the most popular tipples out there, and as students we weren't picky.

Imagine our surprise, when we found that the drinks were sans alcohol. That's right, they weren't screwdrivers, G&Ts, and Rum&Cokes, they were OJ, Sprite, and Coke. We go over to the bar, but all the bartender is doing is pouring more of glasses of these non-alcoholic drinks. At this point we were kind of upset, I mean to advertise cocktails but not provide them was a party foul of the highest degree. Especially at a mingling event, where alcohol is a necessary social lubricant. Its event planning 101. OK Strike 1 for the evening

Someone suggested that maybe it was a translation error, but us westerners disagreed vociferously. Yes, a cocktail doesn't have to be alcoholic, but it does require a mixture of two different beverages and none of the options were mixed. . . Well, the Tuck student wouldn't accept this situation (ah glad to see that Dartmouth trains its grad students just as well in the fine art of drinking), and took matters into her own ends by asking the bartender if there was anything with alcohol. The bartender pulls a can of beer from under the table and purs her a glass. Of course, we all then ask for the same since it was better than nothing though we found it weird not to advertise this option.

Next we noticed that all the students were assigned to the same 2 tables. . . Basically we were at the postgraduate kiddie tables, and none of us were happy about this. We came assuming that we'd be able to meet new people and now we were going to eat with the same faces. Not that we disliked each other, but we could have spent much less than HK$350 to have dinner together. OK Strike 2 for the evening.

Realizing that I wasn't going to meet anybody new at the dinner table, I tried mingling during the OJ reception, but breaking into circles is hard when people are speaking Cantonese. . . I did meet one person, and we had a good conversation butI was hoping for more than 1 new contact.

Upon sitting down, things looked up momentarily. The menu was filled with all the traditional Chinese banquet foods that I hadn't tried before. Shark Fin Soup, Abalone, Steamed Garoupa, etc. However we got such a little amount of each delicacy that many of us were hungry at the end. Plus, Shark Fin and Abalone are WAY overrated. OK Strike 3.

Strikes 4, 5, and 6 occurred when the program started. Since this was an anniversary dinner there were lots of speakers and videos about the history and future of the program. It lasted 4 hours (WAY TOO LONG) and much of it was in Cantonese. Now I understand many of the alums were Cantonese, but there was a fair number of non-Cantonese speakers in the audience as well and leaving us out for 1.5 hours was not acceptable. Especially since serving the dinner paused during this portion of the program, and I was starving.

Anyways, what promised to be a great night ended up being lackluster. I was pissed about spending $350 on the meal, but even more that I wasted my Saturday night. Anyways, yesterday, my buyer behavior professor asks us what we thought of the dinner. A few of us answer truthfully. Of course it was us westerners, as I've discovered that many of the Chinese will remain silent (or lie) when not pleased with something.

He was a bit surprised and said we had valid points, but also said that we weren't the target market for the dinner. Yes that was painfully clear, but then why in the hell were we marketed to in the first place? Wasn't that the first rule of marketing, don't waste your resources on the non-target market, shouldn't an MBA program know that?