Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The End - At Last!

It is now the evening of Monday, April 30.  Having caught up on a number of lingering items both physical and mental, it’s a good time to address the final points of my trip and put this blog to bed.  And, of course, start to write new e-books about Armenia and Vietnam. 

It is a joy to actually have daylight extend past 8 p.m. again.  There is little variation in daylight hours in Hanoi….sunrise is uniformly 6 a.m. plus or minus 15 minutes, and sunset 6 p.m. plus or minus 30 minutes.  While winter days in Columbus are short and dreary, the extended summer nights make up for it.  In Hanoi, unfortunately, it is relatively rare to get out of the office, back to the hotel, and changed before darkness descends.  That tends to make one stay close to the hotel…the streets are confusing enough in the daylight!

I received quite a few comments on my training classes (2 days of product development, 3 days of sales skills, and 1 day of sales management).  Evidently, the training “norm” there is to put everything on PowerPoint (already off to a bad start!), hand out copies to each student (3 to a page), and sit while the “instructor” reads each slide to the students.  Of course, there are 2 or 3 quizzes each day to make sure students don’t nap too long.  It truly sounds like the same educational philosophy that prevails among our politicians.

Anyway, I spent more than half of the time in each course on group work, and a significant portion of the remainder in discussion, calling directly on those who didn’t volunteer.  And the students truly responded.  While I have slim hopes for the success of this immediate project, perhaps there will be some innovative teaching or mentoring approach invented by one of my students in the future, and it will spark others to learn better.  Too bad I’ll never truly know, but that would be a true measure of success for the effort.

The training rooms were absolutely sweltering, especially for the sessions held offsite.  We couldn’t get the A/C working properly, and the fans were only able to go at about half speed.  I found out later that particular building is programmed to have air conditioning start on May 1, regardless of the ambient temperature.  My jacket and tie lasted less than ten minutes into the first class.

It was better in the bank’s training center…perhaps word of my aversion to heat and humidity preceded me.  By then, I had also learned to get to the classroom by 7:30 and set all five of the A/C units down to 16 C.  That kept it reasonably bearable for the day, even when all 32 bodies crammed into the room.   Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one glowing in the 114 F heat index we experienced on my final training day.

One side benefit of training is that the cafeteria in each building prepares and serves lunch for all participants, saving us a bit of money and a lot of time hunting around for a decent place to eat in unfamiliar neighborhoods.  Sticky rice and bun cha are daily staples, augmented with several additional dishes such as shrimp, sautéed Viet cabbage, green beans, pork, chicken skewers, and the like.  I was constantly being asked if I would like a spoon, but managed to reasonably master chopsticks by the end of the trip.  My slowness at eating did seem to unnerve a few others in the class.  I also found it notable that nobody consumes beverages during a meal….and after-meal drinks are either hot tea or tepid water, regardless of the temperature in the room.  At times, I had to walk a couple of blocks to find a grocerette with sodas in the fridge.

As on my first trip, my tipping habits threw some locals for a loop.  The local advisor told me to never tip a taxi driver, but several whom I did tip got to recognize me and more than gave me extra service later in the trip.  Of course, we’re typically talking about bumping a taxi fare up by about 50 cents, which makes a tremendous difference for someone who might make $10 on a good day.  Restaurant servers, while still not expecting to be tipped, seem progressively less surprised when it does occur.  A minor benefit is that it also avoids receiving a bunch of 2,000 dong (10 cent) notes in change.

Employees of and guests in the hotel continued to be thoroughly impressed by my work ethic – I never went to meals without my laptop with me.  Everybody assumed I was working, while I actually spent 90% of mealtime chatting online with Nancy.  Several guests also told me that the laptop at meals was the first hint that I was American. 

The final day of the project was rather laid back.  It started with a meeting at the IFC office (the IFC-head of this project flew in from New Zealand for the meeting) where we finally agreed on what went wrong, what needed to be fixed, and a sequence of tasks for fixing the project.  Unfortunately the project will need to be extended if it is to succeed, but any intelligent being knew that a year ago.  The political games being played with the original schedule at the IFC and Bank level were ridiculous…they actually wanted me to complete all of my marketing training, mentoring, implementation, and analysis in one trip lasting six weeks.  Two trips totaling eight weeks were already too short.

The remainder of the day (10:30 on) was spent with the SME department head, Huyen, as we went over all of the pending and completed tasks in minute detail.  There was a nice break in the middle as she took all of us from the meeting to a local restaurant for lunch….fried tofu, pan-roasted catfish, 6-inch stuffed shrimp, salads, etc.  The highlight was watching the chef deliver oven-roasted rice cakes….they are made in thin clay containers, and the cakes are liberated by the chef tossing the container in the air, striking it with a stick, and catching the rice cake before it hits the floor along with the clay shards.

Huyen also arranged for one of the bank’s drivers (they have dozens…profit margins on loans are quite fat) to pick me up at the hotel at 9 p.m. to depart for the airport.  Much appreciated….and easier than grabbing a cab. 

So I am now finishing this final blog post on the afternoon of May 1.  Were I still in Hanoi, this would be the end of a 4-day weekend….Monday, April 30, was the anniversary of our retreat from South Vietnam (Liberation Day), and today is international Labor Day for those jurisdictions that recognize the importance of everyday laborers over financiers.  Of course, I would not have gotten paid for either day off, one of many reasons why it is better to be home.  If the project is extended, there may be another trip to VN in the fall…but this time Nancy will be coming with me and we will make side trips to Ha Long Bay and Ho Chi Minh City.  Until that possible re-start of this dissertation, thanks for reading, and know that you have missed going to a beautiful country and fascinating culture.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Winding Up My Second Trip

Friday, April 20, 2012

Well, folks, it has been a long time since I have sent you an update.  It’s 10:30 at night local time, and I’m sitting in the airport café at Hanoi International, sucking down espresso and ice cream and charging the PC batteries enough to get me to Seoul.  That is just over a 4-hour flight from here, landing at 6 a.m. their time.  4 hours to kick around, then I kill 13+ hours directly to Atlanta.  Less than 3 hours there, and I should be landing in Columbus about 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

There is a lot to talk about since my last blog post almost two weeks ago.  Let’s see if I need to break the narrative into more than one blog.

Last weekend, Tu tracked me down on Facebook…he is the high school student who rescued me from being lost, and led me to the B-52 remains.  Anyway, he is also an apprentice jazz sax player, and invited me to any of three open-air concerts his band was giving at the Luala fest, near the Opera House.  Unfortunately, Tu’s teacher was there all weekend, and he bumped Tu from playing at all.  Regardless, I did make most of the Sunday morning concert, and the smooth jazz was quite enjoyable.  I took Tu out to lunch afterwards at a lakeside café, and he regaled me with tales about Viet legends, local shamans, and similar stories I would never have heard.  He will go far in life…intelligence, personality, and a drive to always learn more about almost any topic.

I spent a few days in the bank proper last week, and most of the rest of the time since then was spent training.  The first week’s training, 2 days, covered product development and was held at leased rooms in the stock exchange training center (preventive maintenance ceased about 20 years ago).  This week’s training, 4 days of sales and sales management, was held in the bank’s training center which was a much shorter cab ride away.

Regardless, the salient point is that the bank and training truly do shut down completely from 11:30 until 1:00.  Most people had a quick lunch, as there is a cafeteria in the bank and the training centers routinely have lunch and tea breaks for any classes.  Some may go out for errands, but the others recline in their chairs (or in a row of three folding chairs) and literally nap.  Lights are also turned off, so make sure you bring a flashlight if you stick around and want to read.

I continue to be astounded by the lack of customer service orientation.  While people are friendly to those they meet in person, there seems to be an innate inability to orient oneself to the customer’s POV.  This extends to areas such as only selling what the bank thinks the customer wants, or creating products that have absolutely no reason to exist except that some mucky-muck thinks they are neat or shiny.  More on that later in this drivel.

Breaking in the new team leader, Jane, has been a challenge…more so for her than for me.  At least I had 6+ weeks of experience in Hanoi…she has none.  The streets befuddle her, and she has a hard time picking up the local accents.  OTOH, she is a tireless worker, and is not afraid of hammering at a point until she totally understands it.  That is badly needed in this relatively rudderless project.  If I could pass on some of the deeper details about what is going on, you would think I was crazy to still be here.  At our IFC/Bank meeting today, Jane found out that she was expected to stay until early July (as opposed to May 29, June 4, and June 30 dates that had been suggested earlier).  No problem as far as she is concerned, but one would expect the project hierarchy to have its act together 9 months after it started.

Boarding starts in about 5 minutes…time to power down, pay the bill, and truly start back home.      

Saturday…very early morning in Columbus, and we are about to cross the Date Line on our way across the Bering Strait.  Both flights today have been absolutely jammed, and this one has its temp set at least five degrees above comfort.  Plus, this plane has no individual air vents for passengers.  Not a way to spend 13 hours.

The training classes went quite well…students were attentive, ready to speak up (after some initial coaxing), and did not object to the sales role plays even when I gave them no prep time.  I see one of the students has already posted a photo on Facebook from the class.  There were two disappointing aspects.  I rapidly found in the first week’s class that the bank product managers know how to write, but have no concept of using Excel to create sales and financial forecasts.  Inexcusable.  During the second day of the sales training class, it began to dawn on me that the branch managers had not yet been briefed on the new path the bank is planning, and how it would affect their customer mix, daily activities, and task responsibilities.  So I took it upon myself Thursday to give a half-hour summary of the project and what might occur and when.  That will probably annoy some mucky mucks in the bank, but the people in the training certainly should have been up to speed on why there is this sudden need for new training.

Anyway, the evaluations came in with very high marks.  Wednesday evening, the sales class (probably all but 5 of the 32 in the class) took me out to dinner at Bia Hoi, a rather famous and traditional open-air garden diner.  At the close of class on Thursday, they also presented both my interpreter and me with a kilo of Viet coffee.  Very nice of them, and maybe a response to my habit of rewarding them with candy throughout the trainings.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Weekend in Mai Chau

Just before 1:00 on Saturday, April 7, and I am safely in the lodge at Mai Chau, a mountainous village about 4 hours (100 km.) SW of Hanoi, near the border with Laos.

It is steamy, with a lingering drizzle, but I cannot let that deter me because I have but one day.  Tentatively on my schedule, there is a group bike tour at 3:00, a Thai native dance troupe at dinner, and a walk thru the Sunday H'mong food market.  I leave just after lunch tomorrow.

Chilled bean sprout salad was just delivered to start lunch.  The menu is fixed, and comes with the room.

My driver picked me up right on time this morning at 8:00.  Surprisingly, I had the 9-person van all to myself.  It was pouring as I left Hanoi.  We stopped in a foothills village halfway where I bought bun cha and coffee for the driver, and sated myself with coffee and Pepsi. 

Steamed rice, steamed banana buds, and grilled beef were just delivered.  Far too much for one person.

The roads here were paved, but full of bumps and holes.  The driver was quite skilled.  Traffic rules were normal....if you have clearance, any lane will do.  If there is not enough room, beep your horn and the smaller vehicle  will get the hell out of the way.  Worked so far.  In the 20 or so villages through which we passed, I saw hordes of schoolkids heading home from Saturday morning classes.  The schools were often the best-kept buildings in the villages.  Too bad the state of public education here is so low.

The room is small, but fancy.  Two beds and a balcony on the second floor.  Internet is fairly robust, and I shall investigate TV late tonight.  Complimentary plate of fruit, bottled water, and rice wine awaited me.

Everything is so incredibly green here, a welcome change from the noise and concrete of Hanoi.  We saw rice paddies interwoven with banana plantations and sugar cane plantations our entire trip up.  Local farmers are quite adept at terracing the rice paddies to minimize erosion.  Despite that, every river and stream was the color of copper, reflecting the red clay soil that is washing down to the Red River Delta and the Sea of China. 

The sun is coming out, and I want to take a walk in town before the bike tour.  More later.

Close to 6 p.m. now.  Rain prevented the walk into town, but cleared just before the bike tour started.  Once again, I was the only one.  My guide, Duong, is a 39 YO local member of the White Thai tribe, the predominant tribe in this area (migrated from Laos and China in the 7th century A.D.)  Duong has been working at the hotel since 2008, when his livestock farm was wiped out by disease.

Duong took me on about a 10 km. leisurely tour among about half a dozen villages, some Thai and some H'mong.  We stayed mainly on the concrete sidewalks that curved through the rear portions of the villages.  He seems to know everybody, which makes sense because he has never left this area, and the largest village we visited has just over 1,000 residents (the smallest had maybe 60).  Unless you are working at the lodge or are a small retailer in the village, there really is no occupation here except for agriculture.  Rice paddies are everywhere, but the cooler weather at these altitudes only allows for two crops per year.   Winter rains did not materialize this year, so many people were out today planting corn instead of rice.  It is truly a subsistence situation.  Two women were seining a small pond for tiny fish, and another was investigating the irrigation channels for snails...all intended for tonight's dinner.  Almost every family has chickens running about, and there is a decent number of water buffalo for milk, hard farm labor, and meat.  For the most part, meals are a combination of corn and rice, along with fresh veggies from the garden that dominates every front "yard".

Each family unit has an assigned agricultural plot, measuring about 3/4 acre.  The local government has not redistributed land since 1986, so you can find families of 2 members and families of ten members with the same-sized plot.  There is no purchase of land...this is a communist society.

Duong took me into one house in his village.  Almost every house is built of solid bamboo beams, with bamboo veneer and smaller stalks for the roof, sides, and floor.  Houses are two story, more from tradition because when the tribes moved here, wild animals were still rampant and families lived on the second floor for protection.  Now, the open-air lower levels are used for storage of wood, tools, and sometimes livestock.  The living area consisted of two rooms.  One, perhaps 15 feet sq., was the kitchen with basically kettles and an open wood fire.  Wood is gathered from the surrounding forests daily.  The living quarters were perhaps 20 by 30 feet, shared by 3 generations.  A grandmother, mother, and two kids live there.  Both husbands died in the war or its aftermath.   Nylon net tents are used for sleeping quarters, and beds are mats perhaps 2 inches thick.  There is no other furniture save for a couple of cushions to sit on.  There is, however, a TV and two florescent lights (although I saw no direct evidence of electricity), and a shrine to ancestors and featuring photos of the dead husbands.  In the frist floor storage area were three coffins being built...always a cheerful sight.

If a new villager moves here (initially crashing with a relative), or a household becomes too large, it takes about three years to gather enough wood from forests to build.  Then the entire village comes together to build the new abode.

We also passed through villages where the company that booked my tour has built schools, rec facilities, and other benefits that the villages couldn't possibly afford.  Glad to see a company doing exactly what it should.

The only downside to the tour is that my phone battery died, so I got no pictures.  But, tomorrow morning we will be walking some of the same paths, and I have the sucker on charge all night.

Speaking of which, it is after dark now.  The village of Mai Chau does have streetlights.  There are no other lights to be seen anywhere.  Too bad low clouds have moved in, as the stars would probably be beautiful.

Dinner beckons. 

Just before noon on Sunday.  I have checked out of the hotel and am sitting in the outdoor patio, just above the pool, awaiting lunch (spring rolls, sauteed pork, baked apple).  My van doesn't come until 1:30, which should get me back in Hanoi just after 5:55.

Dinner was also wonderful, a combination of spring rolls, pond-raised catfish, rice, and bean sprout salad.  Fresh fruit and thick coffee for dessert.  At 8:30, we enjoyed the hour-long performance of a local H'mong dance troupe.  But my camera was still on recharge, so you will never see how good they looked.  The native costumes looked good, the drums were certainly handmade and authentic.  But, I'm not sure that the electric accordion has been a mainstay of their culture.

After the troupe, the town and hotel essentially shut down.  I was struggling with the totally sucky wifi in the room...I seemed to lose the connection at least every 10 minutes. I tried TV, which consisted of 7 channels, and four of those couldn't be watched because of audio problems.  So, I spent a while sitting on my balcony watching townspeople journey by, and called it quits just after 11:00.  Woke up refreshed just before 6:00.  The bed was super comfortable, and I probably could have stolen another hour of sleep save for the symphony of horns from the busses that started at 5:30 or so.

The hotel has a tip jar (a ceramic pig, actually) at the front desk, with a sign asking that you contribute only if you feel service was exemplary.   All tips are distributed evenly among all staff.  So I took advantage of the opportunity to stick a bill up Porky's butt!

BTW, it just hit Easter Sunday back home.  Enjoy!

I hit breakfast right when they opened at 7:00 (fresh fruit and omelets-to-order, and again thick black coffee) and headed into town.  Not much to see...the open vendors were primarily selling cooked foodstuffs.  I tried to buy a silver necklace from the one jewelry vendor, but she had nothing that would both fit the loop around my hematite pendant, and around my thick neck.  As soon as I approached her, at least half a dozen locals crowded in to watch the exchange.  No doubt they will remember me for.....minutes.

Got back to the room and finally got my cell phone camera working in time for my 9:00 walking tour.  Surprise!  It was Duong again, and I was the only one again.  In 90 minutes, we walked about 6 km. through rice paddies being worked, small ponds for raising fish (such as the one from dinner last night), the Sunday shopping fair at the local White Thai village, and some smaller villages that are not there just to sell things to tourists.  I probably have 75 photos which, when uploaded and captioned, should show the full beauty, simplicity, and poverty of this area (and, indeed, most of rural Vietnam).  People were out working their fields as early as 8:00.  I heard a number of short stories building on yesterday's short stories.  Duong's actual village is over the mountain (well...hill...maybe 500 meters above this road) across the street from the hotel.   He has climbed that mountain many times...the bamboo at the top is extremely tensile and strong, and is prized for building houses.  He is planning to build a new, smaller home for he and his wife now that their 15 YO daughter has been sent off to boarding school.

Walking through the Thai village, I did buy a few gifts to bring back...after haggling, I probably paid somewhere between American prices and local prices.  The can use the extra money...maybe I overpaid by 5 bucks total. 

In the midst of the last paragraph, the manager of this complex came over to thank me for my stay.  We ensued into a discussion of why I am in Vietnam, and he offered his opinion that none of the banks in the country (1) have unique products, (2) have a distinct brand, or (3) have decent customer service.  Duong, in one of our many mini-conversations, proffered that banks here look for reasons not to lend to anything but large corporations, and require too much paperwork and take too much time to make decisions.  All of that ties in with what we have heard elsewhere on this project.

With that, I close on this update.  I totally recommend this resort if you are ever in this area, and suggest that you stay more than 1 night to take advantage of the many activities that are not held daily.  And, come prepared to relax.

Picture show: 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Greetings, all.

Just a few parting thoughts as this week winds down, and I look forward to a weekend excursion to Mai Chau, an enclave of mountain villages about 4 hours NW of here.

Last weekend, while I was strolling a local park, I ran into the first example of a local just staring at me.  Admittedly he was only about 10 years old, but he just stopped and stood in the middle of the path, arms down and mouth open, looking at me.  Most people are more discrete.  Maybe he was just more openly honest than most.

The father-and-son duo I mentioned regarding the B-52 cache bears more commentary. I was wandering, hopelessly lost, in deep back alleys of Hanoi when I chanced upon a lake that looked like it might have been the one in which the B-52 crashed in 1972.  No luck, but a kindly gent shouted over, asking what I was looking for.  He volunteered his son (senior in high school) to walk me to the small lake where the plane remains are located.  They were most hospitable.  The father is an entrepreneur, focused mainly on importing and selling trucks.  He also mines gypsum in Cambodia and Laos to mix into concrete.  The son who showed me around is headed to college in Japan on a full scholarship, kinda following his brother who is on a full scholarship at Drexel in Philly.

The at-home son, Tu, is also an accomplished sax player.  We parted (after the father snuck off and paid the café bill), promising to meet during my trip at the jazz club where he plays.

It is just totally amazing how wonderful people can be, wherever one is.

To me, I am a bit skittish knowing I am in a country that we tried to bomb back to the stone age 40+ years ago.  Yet, to a person, if the topic comes up, the response is “The past is past.  Move on.”  We Americans should be so intelligent.

Over the long holiday weekend, I wound my way back to the bai hoi (beer today) dive a couple of blocks away.  It was pretty crowded on the sidewalk (their dining room) and decided I should have some food to justify taking up a table and (too low) stool. So I pointed to a plate of fried stuff, topped with greens, that many tables were savoring.  Well, about midway through the tasty treat, I realized that it was deep fried baby frogs.  Whole…bones, intestines, and all.  But, 3 days later, my GI tract hasn’t rebelled.

Returned to the French Hospital yesterday morning for a checkup on my cyst removal.  That incision was fine.  The doctor applied a deeper liquid nitro app to the growth on my back; then we agreed to have her remove about a dozen moles from my neckline.  Again, a very professional procedure.  Much less costly than back in the States, too.

I had to recharge my local cell phone yesterday…bought a 100,000 VND (less than $5) card to carry me through.  Like most reasonable countries (USA excepted), only the sender of a call or message pays.  I can send a text on this network for about 1 ½ cents.

One of the many attendants in the hotel saw me in the lobby earlier this week and, after a few minutes’ conversation, said he also cleaned rooms and asked my room number.  He then told me I was “neat”.  I was tempted to respond “Groovy, man!”, but figured it would only confuse.  I hope it meant that I did not leave a mess for the staff every morning.  They have better things to do than to attend to slobs.

I got a nice surprise when I returned to the room this evening.  Two surprises, actually.  There was an envelope with a cert for a glass of wine at a local restaurant.  Also, the front desk manger left a bottle of Chilean merlot, with a thanks for booking a trip to Mai Chau through the hotel this weekend.  This hotel does know how to acknowledge its loyal guests.

With that, I will close.  Many pics and descriptions of the upcoming weekend’s trip to the mountains to follow.

Enjoy your lives!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

First Week Back

Ly Thuong Kiet is eerily quiet just after 5 p.m. this Saturday as I sit at the hotel’s streetside patio, taking advantage of their half-price beer.  Normally this street is a madhouse until close to midnight, but many sidewalk merchants closed shop early this afternoon because of the national holiday, and the sidewalks were much less crowded than usual as I walked some 18 km. earlier today.  But, more on that later, as this is the first post in almost a week.

It’s gray again today in Hanoi, but the vastly reduced traffic has substantially reduced the smog, and a mild breeze makes it feel almost cool.  Rain has been threatening all day, but nothing so far.  The forecast calls for us to be pushing 90 by next weekend.

Had a mild cultural shock earlier this week – the first time anywhere I saw a woman squat to urinate in the road gutter.  I am used to seeing guys use almost any venue (including off the Long Bridge into the Red River during my last trip), but this was a first.

It occurred to me that Korea Airways was a bit inconsistent on my trip here.  Boarding in Columbus, Delta spit out boarding passes for all three legs of my trip.  Trying to board Korea Airlines in Atlanta, I had to go back to the gate desk and get a new boarding pass.  But in Seoul, they accepted the original Delta pass without any question.  I can understand needing to change passes, but not the lack of uniformity.

I also got a first chance to test foreign medical facilities this past week.  Just before leaving Columbus, I had a long-standing lump on my shoulder re-inflame, and chose to ignore it (as anyone knowing me would expect).  Anyway, it broke open just as I landed late Saturday, and by Monday I finally decided to have someone look at it.  Four trusted contacts all recommended the French Hospital as the top med facility for expats, and they seemed to be correct.  The dermatologist took a quick look, de-pained the area, cut it open, scooped out the crud, and stitched me back up very professionally.  She also did a liquid nitrogen treatment on another growth I’ve had on my back since high school.  Both are now healing quite nicely, pending a return visit in a few days.  Total tab was only about $225, plus $9 for bandages, antiseptics, and antibiotics.  For a bad situation, not an adverse outcome.

Just spent a fine 45 minutes conversing on this patio with a couple of German gents who are here advising Viet vocational schools on how to bring their training up to international standards.  I love the meeting-new-people-and-cultures part of these trips.

The week at the bank started off very badly…the project has been in disarray with the rapid-fire changes in personnel, and coordination has been a joke.  Finally, after a presentation the IFC made to the bank on Thursday, the CEO gave a go-ahead on the strategy that had been worked on since last July.  With that, the mood and focus shifted, and while a shitload of work remains for my next three weeks, at least it looks to be worthwhile work.

So, after the successful presentation to the CEO, the head of the SME department at the bank took 7 of us (2 consultants, 3 IFC people, and a couple of bank associates) to a celebratory lunch at a top Japanese restaurant here.  The food was superb.  It was truly the first time I had ever enjoyed raw fish, fish eggs, seaweed, and all of the other assorted things many of you reading this have already experienced.  I was also a source of amusement, as it took about half an hour for me to re-acquire the chopstick skills I had learned last fall.

Not wanting to be self-confined to Hanoi as during my first trip, today I booked a 2-day group tour for next weekend to Mai Chau, located in the mountain highlands about 100 km. (4 hours by bus) from here.  Leaving at 8 Saturday morning and returning about 6 Sunday night.  I’m sure the mountain villages we will be visiting are not quite as “authentic” as they are portrayed, but it is a chance to see another aspect of this beautiful country.  The tour includes transportation, full meals, visits to at least 4 villages, a cave exploration, performance by a Thai tribe dance troupe, and other stuff for $205.  Seems like a good investment.  If all goes decently, the following weekend (my last in Vietnam) I’ll book a 2-day trip to Ha Long Bay, which was just named by UNESCO as one of the seven new natural wonders of the world.  Stay tuned for many pics.

So, back to today and the 18 km. walk.  Nancy and I have become immersed in geocaching (, which involves trying to find objects people have placed around the world, using clues and latitude/longitude coordinates.  We have been pretty successful doing this in Ohio.  There are 19 sites of which I know in this area of Vietnam.  I found one last weekend, at the National Military Museum; and am still trying to find a second that involves a 7-tiered rendition of clue solving.

For today, there is a cache about 1.7 km. from here that relates to the 12-day bombing raid Americans administered to a specific neighborhood in Hanoi in 1972.  So, after scoping out the clues online, and plotting my route, I set off at 10:30 this morning.  Finally admitted defeat about 3:00.  In essence, the site is supposed to be obvious once you see it, so I was kinda looking for plane wreckage or a sign saying “American Captured Here”, but found nothing of the sort.  I stopped for lunch (wonderful fried rice with pineapple) in a place that had wifi.  Used that and Google translator to ask the server if she knew where the wreckage might be. Another server knew, pointed it out on my map, and still I couldn’t find it.  So, back to the site to gather more clues, and I will make another attempt.

But, the afternoon wasn’t a bust as I re-visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and strolled the beautiful grounds again.  I spent most of the walk in the grounds of a massive Buddhist temple, during which services were being held and many school groups came for their pics.  Much as Greg found out in Indonesia, everybody wanted their picture to be taken with the white guy, so I may be popping up on Facebook sites around the world tonight.  Many pics came from my wanderings…hopefully the hotel internet will allow me to upload them sometime tonight.

Tomorrow?  Well, there is yet another cache, located west of here past some nice parks I saw on my trip to the hospital Monday.  A whole new section of the city that I have yet to explore.

Final thought.  I converted more USD at the hotel desk this afternoon, and they rejected a $100 bill that has a small tear in it.  The local currency has a lot of plastic fibres in it to make it durable, and locals refuse anything that looks as if it may not function in an ATM.  Interesting.

Now to watch Monty Python – The Holy Grail, and catch up on sleep.  Enjoy.   

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Second Trip, Day One

Here we are, folks…back at it in Hanoi for another four weeks of enjoying the culture and food, plus being essentially on my own in this project to fight the bank and IFC on their lack of marketing knowledge and sense.  But, we won’t let that spoil my first day, will we?

The flights coming in were uneventful, which is about the best compliment I can make about air travel anymore.  Left Columbus on time at 9:50 Friday morning on an absolutely full flight for Atlanta.  Most of the plane was packed with family vacationers, many heading for cruises out of Miami.  After almost a mile walk between the domestic and international terminal/concourse/whatever, I got to the gate just as boarding was to start.  But, the gate was packed with news crews and TV cameras….supposedly some mucky-muck trade delegation was boarding this flight to Seoul.  That set us back about half an hour, giving me time to have an unpleasant discussion with a TSA rookie about getting a new boarding pass.  We left late, but easily made up the time on the 15 ½ hour flight over the polar ice cap to Seoul.  On the bright side, my section was just over half full, so I could spread out my laptops and work, and burned thru a battery starting to watch season 1 of Walking Dead (thanks, Jaye!).  We were fed twice but I have no memory of the meals, so they were apparently in line with the culinary delight we call McDs.  We arrived about 5 p.m. local time Saturday.

After killing an hour in Seoul airport (sorry – my phone battery was also dead, but I will get photos of the beautiful airport on the backhaul), and after clearing security and their usual questions about my mass of electronics, we left for Hanoi about 7:30 Saturday night.  The 4 ½ hour flight, with another time change of 2 hours, got us here at 10 Saturday night.  While first class and business class were full on this flight, my section was less than ¼ full.  I could get used to this.  Another unremarkable chicken dinner (at all 3 meals, the choices were chicken, beef, and fish, and I have learned to avoid the latter two on Asian airlines).  The immigration lines were fully staffed but long – we are apparently in a tourist season.  But, it took a long time for the baggage to be delivered, so the net time loss was probably zero.

The customs inspectors didn’t even glance at me as I walked right by (apparently old Celtic dudes don’t look suspicious); my driver was waiting for me, and I made it to the hotel room just before midnight.  Unpacking, checking in online, and snacking took me to 1:30, and it was time to crash after getting (maybe) 2 hours of sleep during the trip.

BTW, Vietnam doesn’t observe daylight savings time, so I am now 11 hours ahead of the east coast of the U.S.  DST would make it an even 12 hours, which would be SO much easier.

Despite the lack of sleep I was up just after 7 this morning (both sunrise and sunset here are just after 6:00).  Hit the fine breakfast buffet at the hotel – the same one I stayed in last Sept./Oct.  Most of the staff seems to be the same, and they seem to remember the guy who is always pounding away at the keyboard during meals.

I’m writing this over a beer at happy hour on the hotel patio.  A bus full of Aussies just pulled up to disgorge its load.  I remember about 1/3 of them from breakfast…about half of the population of Australia is in the hotel this week.  At least it is easier to eavesdrop on them than on the Germans and Cantonese who were predominant last fall.

Today I walked about 8 miles, determined to score a couple of Viet caches for Nancy and me.  There are about 20 caches in greater Hanoi (which extends to Ha Long Bay, over 150 km. from here), two of which are within a mile of the hotel.  But, I crapped out.

The first cache is a 7- or 8-stage one, with each stage in a different area around Hoan Kiem Lake.  You have to solve the clue for stage X in order to find point X+1, which makes it difficult if you can’t even find the location of the first clue.  It is supposedly across the street from the local Calvin Klein jeans store, but damned if I could find it in two tours around the lake.  I had a photo and the coordinates, but got nowhere.  I’ll check more dutifully, and take another crack at it next weekend.

The next cache was an “easy” one…on the grounds of the National Military Museum.  It was supposed to be on a captured American tank, right side, rear wheel, under the tread.  Well, the photo clue was of a howitzer, not a tank, and when I couldn’t locate it I decided to look at the same location on a real American tank.  Still nothing.  Of course, pawing around a dirty tank wheel and tread, looking for a cache the size of your thumbnail, with a bunch of “muggles” (non-caching humanoids) wandering around doesn’t make it easy.  But, I got photos of the two points where it could be, so I will try to claim credit for finding it.

Beyond that, the museum was quite interesting.  Of course, most of it was focused on the wars against French and American aggression (they have much more loquacious names for each), and I got some decent photos of the millions of dollars of still-whole and crashed equipment we left on this countryside.  Also climbed to the top of a 35-meter tower from the 1800s that was heavily used as a lookout post during the war against the French during the 1950s.

That’s it for today, other than a trip to the mini-mart for nuts, cheese, and bread.  I converted $200 into just over 4.1 million dong, so I am feeling quite rich right now.  Prices seem to be about the same as last fall, despite an unofficial inflation rate of about 17%.  As I wandered today, the upscale stores seemed deserted but run-of-the-mill shops are reasonably packed with customers.  Construction seems to have slowed a notch, which makes sense since the federal government will not allow any bank to increase its loans by more than 20% vs. 2011.  At best, that keeps pace with cost increases.

And thus endeth my day.  I’ll catch up with online work tonight, and do a little prep for tomorrow’s battles.  Saturday is a national holiday, so offices are closed Monday and I should have a 3-day weekend.  But people are expected to travel heavily, so I will stay put.  Hopefully the following weekend I can book an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay or the mountain highlands (and eat some squeezel…ask Nancy to explain) and get a different perspective on this beautiful country.

More later in the week…take care, all.

BTW, today’s photos can be found at:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Final Thoughts - Trip 1

This summary & reflection is being written about a week before Christmas, 2011…roughly two months after returning from my first trip to Hanoi.  While the business of the past weeks gave me an excuse to delay writing this, the lapse has also allowed some thoughts to ferment and coalesce since my initial impressions.

It is difficult to comprehend where the project is going from here.  The tasks of two of the three short-term advisors are done (HR and IT), although their recommendations have yet to be formally accepted by the Bank and IFC despite having long exceeded the 10 days allowed each by the project contract.  Yesterday was also the final day on the project for the team leader, who has yet to be replaced.  His strategic plan, submitted two months ago, also has yet to be accepted.

For my part (the last survivor unless we rapidly find a replacement for the team leader), I am scheduled to submit a 3-year marketing plan for the Bank by February 15th.  Leaving time for Bankworld and the IFC to review the plan, that gives me a completion date during the last week in January.  That will not be difficult in and of itself, except that the Bank and IFC was recent marketing research to be incorporated into the plan that I write.  That would be great, except that launching the research is now nearly three months overdue, and there is no way I can use it unless my report submission date is pushed back at least a month.  Were that to be done, it would be impossible to give the Bank time to translate and review the plan, schedule my second visit for implementation, and work some analysis of the initial marketing tactics into the mix.  The contractual end of the project will be here well before that.

So, once Christmas is over, I shall dive into finishing the plan, which will take more than the five at-home days I am allotted.  A good part of the exercise may be futile because a marketing plan is built to progress over time on the foundation of previously completed steps, and it is not obvious that any initial steps will actually be completed by the Bank. 

And, that is probably the biggest black cloud hanging over Vietnam as it attempts to jump into the “developed” world – an absolute lack of the basic concepts of business.  The bulk of people are solo or family earners or entrepreneurs, and they will continue to scrape by on hard work and ingenuity, as well as remaining invisible from the authorities, for the next generation.  But, those deemed to be the new generation of business and economy builders are primarily anointed because they have connections in the government, not because they have any special acumen.  Much like American businesspeople have become, the initial generation of Vietnamese entrepreneurs is ready to cry for government subsidies, restrictive laws against their competition, and exclusive licenses instead of identifying and meeting a market need at a fair price.  I see little evidence of initiative, accountability, or desire for increased responsibility among most large enterprise employees. Most are quite content to remain in the shadows of corporate hallways.

It would be interesting to launch my phase of the project and return in five years to see exactly what the end result looks like.  I would probably not recognize it.

Have a safe and relaxing Christmas and New Year (and Tet), everybody.  With luck, this series will resume in March with the saga of my second Hanoi trip.