Wednesday, April 29, 2009


With very few exceptions, it has been the experience of me and my colleagues here during our very brief time in northern Vietnam that the Vietnamese people are extremely friendly and interested in helping and understanding foreigners.  The most prominent example of this is their use of the exclamation Hello!, which seems to be the most well-known English word, to greet any Western visitor.  This may have happened somewhat more frequently in Hanoi, which has a surprising amount of Western tourists, than in Haiphong, where I haven’t seen a single Western tourist outside of our hotel.  There is one very good reason for that, which is that Haiphong is a heavily polluted industrial wasteland.  It has tremendous potential for economic growth, but doesn’t attract any tourists that we can see outside the occasional Westerner passing through on their way to Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

My colleague Jean-Michel and I have been getting up and going running along the main street in front of the hotel at 5:30AM every morning for the past 3 days.  Neither of us expect this to be a sustainable model, so to speak, since the only reason I’m up is because after 4 days my body still thinks I’m in New York and I can’t sleep past 4AM, and also because as time goes on we’ll probably be more time-constrained than we are even now.

Apparently, for whatever reason, Vietnamese people don’t usually go running.  According to some of my travel books, the idea of taking a walk just to take a walk, even, isn’t something they’re familiar with.  They can’t imagine you would want to walk or run unless you needed to be somewhere or unless someone was chasing you.  So when we run the 8-10k at 5:30 in the morning along one of the main drags into Haiphong, we get a lot of blank stares with mouths open, and pointing.  That’s probably mostly because a) we’re two of the maybe 10 Westerners in the city of population 2 million, b) we’re running, and c) Jean-Michel wears black spandex shorts.

A lot of people are sitting in the front of luncheonettes – I don’t know what else to call them but I wouldn’t really call them restaurants – having breakfast and watching the city wake up.  When we run by, everyone stares, and some people, younger ones mostly, have enough of their wits about them this early in the morning to shout Hello! or to wave.  It makes you feel like a celebrity to wave back, and they always smile in return.

Monday, April 27, 2009

major topic of discussion upon meeting clients: drinking goat’s blood and eating dog meat

Today our group met went first to the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry building, where we met with our interpreters and then waited to meet the respective directors of each company we’re assigned to help.  My guy was last, since his business is one of the furthest from VCCI, and it turned out that the director couldn’t make it, since he was away in Hong Kong.  His son, the vice-director, showed up instead.  We then drove back in a black Chevy SUV.

The company is called Toan My Company Ltd. The Ltd is in part to distinguish it from the much better-known Toan My Company.  They gave me a tour of their pretty impressive administrative office building, which was a cozy 3 minutes, and said they would give me a tour of the factory tomorrow, which is a few hundred yards from the other building.  Then the vice director sort of apologized for not being prepared since it sounded like his dad may have just dumped the “project” in his lap until he gets back from Hong Kong. 

So after the brief tours and some pseudo-business discussion, we went for a 2-hour or so lunch at the most authentic Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been to thus far.  We had some dish which included fried goat meat, rice, and chicken, followed by really strong Vietnamese tea.  Me, the translator, the vice director, and the vice-director’s driver got to know each other a little better, by doing what Vietnamese are well known to do on first introductions, which is to ask the most personal questions possible of the new acquaintance.  Age, marital status, number and ages of children, other family details, and work-details are all fair game. 

They asked me if I wanted to try goat’s blood.  I said yes, but then the translator said (before translating) that she didn’t think that would be a good idea so I took her word for it.  I guess we’ll save that for next time.  The inevitable conversation about whether or not I’ve ever tried dog meat (not kidding) came up, and I said no.  Men here eat it pretty regularly.  I asked my translator, whose name is Anh (pronounced “Ein”) whether or not she’d ever tried it, and she said yes a couple of times.  I asked what it tasted like and she said she didn’t know, “like … dog”.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Morning at Uncle Ho's

Originally uploaded by newton10471
There were so many things that happened today, most of them fantastic, and too many to describe here, especially since I have to go to sleep and wake up relatively early to go and run 6 miles (we’ll see about that) with two of my colleagues.

The most notable event was our trip to Ho Chi Minh’s (he’s known as “Uncle Ho” here)tomb and mausoleum. The line, not surprisingly, was massive, thousands of people long, but moved also surprisingly very rapidly. Most of those in line were Vietnamese; in general they tend to be very nationalistic and Uncle Ho is the national hero. At the same time, there are a shocking amount of Western tourists in Hanoi, and they were well represented at the mausoleum.

After waiting in line for less than an hour, but walking the equivalent of what was around a mile, and after leaving our cameras before entering the mausoleum itself, we were rushed through the tomb by intimidating guards, some of whom supported rifles with scary-looking bayonets which I couldn’t tell were sharp or not.

It’s hard to know if it was the real Ho Chi Minh in there. It could have been a wax figure for all I know, and we were whisked through quickly enough (2-3 min) that I swear I saw his hand move at least once. It could have been the guard pushing me in the arm, though.

After we got our cameras and bags back, we were still within view of the mausoleum, which you see me standing in front of here, along with the yellow star on red field flag of Vietnam.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hanoi day 1 agenda: a) get hit by motorbike

Today being my first full day in Vietnam, I decided it would be best to get hit by a motorbike. So that's exactly what I did this evening. It really shouldn't be much of a surprise since statistically it's almost impossible not to get hit at least once in, like, a one-month period, unless you never try to cross the street. I'm fine - all I got was a minor scrape on my left elbow. More painful was the bruised ego, as it happened in front of all 6 of my colleagues plus the coordinator from the Australian NGO.

In my own defense, I believe it was a one way street, and I was looking in the direction (to the right) of oncoming traffic when I must have popped out from behind a van right into the path of a motorbike coming from the left. The guy didn't hit me very hard, but it did knock me to the ground on my side, which was the most ego-bruising part. He yelled a minute before hitting me, and while I was lying on the ground I instinctively said "sorry, sorry". He sort of paused, a little shocked - he had a young woman passenger - and when he saw me get up and say I was OK he drove on, which I was very happy to see him do.

It was definitely my fault. Even though it looks like it was a one-way street, there really are no traffic rules in Hanoi from what I can see. They're more like guidelines. People sometimes stop at stoplights, and there's definitely a protocol to crossing the street which I haven't yet been able to figure out but probably should in a little more detail before I try it again. Or I could just look both ways.