How Vietnam fares in terms of inbound travel, compared to its peers

In this post, I will do a quick comparison in terms of inbound travel between Vietnam and other Asian neighboring countries. Data is from United Nations World Tourism Organization. To simplify the calculations, I used a static exchange rate of 23,100 VND/USD.

I was a bit skeptical about my country’s appeal to international guests, but as it turned out, Vietnam does pull in more than 15 million international visitors in 2018, a quite respectable.

However, we slip backwards on the receipt scoreboard, behind countries that have fewer visitors.

As a consequence, among the 12 countries surveyed, we pull the third smallest receipt per arrival.

It’s quite disappointing to see the receipt figures. Vietnam has a lot to offer. We have an amazing cuisine that was revered by the late great Anthony Bourdain. We have beaches throughout the country and untouched mountainous areas, including some famous sites.

Trang An
Ha Long Bay
Ma Pi Leng Pass (Source: Indochinatravel)

We should develop our service offerings even more to increase the receipts. We already manage to pull in a lot of visitors. Now, it is a matter of making those visitors come back and/or spend more money while in Vietnam.

What gets measured matters

One of the main products that my company offers is credit cards. The question we constantly have to ask is: do we evaluate ourselves by the number of credit card signups or how much revenue/profit we generate from the cards? If the objective is to increase the number of credit card users, there will be some unintended issues. There will be gamers who sign up for credit cards to take advantage of incentives or bonuses and leave the cards unused. Since we are legally required by the laws to set aside funds to cover for credit cards’ limits on the books, that will be money uninvested and financial losses. Also, bonuses may lead to net financial losses for our company as the revenue generated from revolving balance or interest isn’t enough to cover for the bonuses. Nonetheless, as a business, we are not in operations to lose money. Hence, the objective should be geared towards profits. As a result, our strategy, plans and actions should reflect that objective.

I used to work for the advertising industry in Vietnam. Back then, there was a time when brands raced to accumulate likes on Facebook. There was even an index to show which fanpage received the most likes. However, that metric was misleading. If the goal is to get likes, the marketing team or advertising agency will do whatever it takes to get likes, regardless of where the likes come from. If your brand is in Vietnam, yet the likes come from outside the country, will those likes matter? Plus, if users like the page and have no consequent interaction and later unlike the page, does the initial like matter in the first place?

In Vietnam, a lot of brands prioritize publicity. Being on the most popular newspapers every week or month is more important than the reason for such presence. Brands pour a lot of money to be featured with no meaningful or helpful content. Take Cocobay as an example. The company tries to sell luxury condotels in Danang and usually shows up on the most popular newspapers in Vietnam. They even managed to have Cristiano Ronaldo advertise for them and host high-profile events. Yet, the company recently announced failure to honor financial commitments to investors.

Publicity is great. But it should come with authenticity, credibility and good will. Enron is famous in the business world, but I doubt you want to be associated with it. Hitler is a well-known name, but would any brand want to be associated with it?

The recent backlash against unprofitable businesses is another example. A plethora of startups received a high valuation which, to be fair, is more about an agreement between founders and private investors, despite no path to profitability. The high valuation is largely based on a prospect of future growth on revenue. But if the revenue comes at the expense of cash and without any profits ever, is the company a good investment? Uber, Lyft and Slack have seen their valuation drop significantly after their respective IPOs. WeWork even had to shelve its own plan to go public. The market suddenly realized what matters more and it’s profits and free cash flow, not revenue growth.

Weekly readings – 7th December 2019

How busyness leads to bad decisions

Why Taxpayers Pay McKinsey $3M a Year for a Recent College Graduate Contractor

How I Get By: A Week in the Life of a McDonald’s Cashier. Reading about her week is heartbreaking. The sad thing is that it’s common in America. Hustling is great, but it shouldn’t be used to describe the economic difficulties a normal person has to face in arguably the richest country on Earth

Israeli scientists find way to treat pancreatic cancer in 14 days

A revelation on how employees suffered emotional toll while working at Away

Apple will start the wireless movement on smartphones in 2021?

Travel to Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Trang An is where the movie Kong was shot. I had long been interested in seeing the place in person, but could only do so this year. Below is my experience in this largely untouched and breathtakingly beautiful place

I had limited time left in Vietnam. So I only did a day trip to Ninh Binh which could only allow me to visit Dance Cave and Trang An. If you want to visit Bai Dinh and Tam Coc, 2 days will be a better choice.

I took a limousine to Ninh Binh and a train back to Hanoi. The limousine ride was comfortable and the trip took 1.5 hours. If you intend to ride a limousine back to Hanoi, it’s highly recommended that you make a reservation in advance. My friend and I couldn’t find any available seats on our way back so we decided to go by train. A limousine seat for one person on way is around 130,000 VND.

The train takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes from the gas station in Ninh Binh to Hanoi, a bit longer than a limousine ride. The ticket is more or less at the same price. The train wasn’t the best in my opinion, but it did the job.

Dance Cave

The attraction is a cave called Dance. However, the main point is the 400-something-step climb to a small mountain that stands next the cave. It’s highly recommended that you go there early in the morning to avoid the heat, wear sports clothes for easy movement and bring water!

Trang An

Our next stop was Trang An. If you are not with a tour operator, you can go from the cave to Trang An by taxi. It cost us 80,000 VND. Do bargain to avoid being ripped off.

Trang An is a marvelous place. It looks surreal and untouched. Just like Halong Bay, Trang An is proof of how remarkable Mother Nature is with her creativity and patience to produce such a beautiful painting over thousands of years.

A boat ride lasts 3 hours and costs around 200,000 VND per person. There are three different routes to experience Trang An. Route #3 is the latest one. The construction for Kong movie was removed in September 2019. So don’t expect to see any of it.

I learned from the trip that local farmers were allowed by the government to carry passengers on boats once every two days in addition to their farming work. They are paid a meager amount of 200,000 VND for their ride, a ridiculous sum for 3 hours of physical work and some more idly waiting time. As a consequence, it’s expected that passengers tip the women around 50,000 VND per person.

The start of Route #3 in Trang An
Boat rides in Trang An
Magnificent Green
Space opening up
The entrance to a 1km-long cave
Not a friendly cave to tall people
A typical rural house in the past
Entrance to a pagoda in the middle of Trang An
Right at the exit of another cave, to the eagle-shaped moutain
Eagle!
Ninh Binh Train Station

My photos don’t do Ninh Binh enough justice, not even close. I urge that you visit the place soon as it is still in an excellent shape with little human impact. To feel the might of nature and the beauty that it brings. To feel humbled. To feel alive. I never got enough of that green color on top of the grey of the rocks.

Travel to Halong Bay

Two weeks ago I visited Halong Bay. Here are a few tips I learned from the trip and some photos for your reference

There are different types of tours to Halong Bay: within the day, two days and one night or three days and two nights. The cruises vary as well. You can have your pick from a litany of three-star, four-star and five-star ships that offer more or less the same activites but presumably different levels of services.

There are two ways to reach Halong Bay from Hanoi, the capital. The highway is significantly faster and takes roughly 2.5 hours, compared to 5 hours taken with the usual heavily-trafficked roads. You can choose to travel in style with limousines which offer limited yet comfortable and spacious seats or go with a normal coach that doesn’t cost much less, but offers far less comfort.

There are two harbors in Halong Bay where the ships usually leave to start a tour. The old harbor has far more traffic than its newer counterpart. So, it’s worth asking your tour operator about this point.

For reference, I booked a two-day-one-night tour on Athena cruise with Vietravel that included all meals (no drinks included), limousines from and to Hanoi, my own cabin, a visit to a cave, kayaking in the bay on a less busy route and cost approximately 6 million VND.

The first stop of the trip was to a pearl farm. At the farm, you can listen to the staff explaining about how pearls are formed and what they do on a daily basis. There are some live demonstrations of how a pearl is retrieved from an oyster and how a pearl “seed” is planted in an oyster. The following videos are for your reference

The next activity on the card is kayaking around a local community. You can have a local operate the boat for you, but if you are physically fit enough, I highly recommend that you kayak yourself. One thing I learned from this activity was that kids in this community attend a floating school till they are 18, old enough to attend a university in Vietnam. They then come back to the mainland for college.

Halong Bay is magnificent. It’s humbling to be in the middle of this remarkable creation of Mother Nature. It’s highly recommended to watch the Bay during sunrise and sunset

Halong Bay during sunset
Halong Bay during sunrise
Sunrise in Halong Bay

The last activity on my trip is to a 200,000 year old cave. It’s mind-blowing how beautiful a cave created out of erosion can be. It is just impossible not to be impressed by Mother Nature and her imagination

a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay
a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay
a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay
a 200,000 year old cave in Halong Bay

All in all, the tour to Halong Bay is worth the time and money. I was struck from the very first moment by its wonderful beauty. Kudos to the local government for keeping this attraction in pretty good shape. I didn’t see trash during my trip. If you visit Vietnam and have two days to spare, do consider Halong Bay.

One more thing before I end this entry: do get yourself a good mobile data package. There is no Wifi. So your phone’s mobile connection will be the only way to keep in touch with the modern world: a.k.a your Instagram, Whatsapp, Facebook and so on!

Vietnam – Raging Growth on Fragile Foundations

I am about to conclude a short vacation trip to my hometown in Vietnam. Coming back to Saigon, or more officially and formally known as Ho Chi Minh City, after two years away is an eye-opening. Areas that used to be abandoned are now inhabited. New businesses pop up in town, ranging from speakeasy bars, restaurants to a new airline. Incumbents are trying to reinvent themselves to stay competitive, as in the case of Grab. The city is littered with construction bonkers, even in the business area and main attraction site such as Ben Thanh Market. Changes seem to take place over night in arguably the New York of Vietnam, but they seem to be on fragile foundations

Infrastructure

If you are in Saigon, it won’t take you long to see the old and largely insufficient infrastructure that is being used by more than 10 million inhabitants. Streets most of which were built decades ago are now too small to accommodate the number of citizens that only increase over time. Big buses and a rise in car ownership worsen the situation. The streets across the city, especially in the downtown area, are almost undrivable between 7am and 8pm. It creates so much inefficiency when the time taken to travel a certain distance in this city is a lot more than what it should have been.

I was traveling to Hanoi, the capital, from Saigon last week. I arrived at the airport at 4am for a 5:30am flight, thinking that it would have been a breeze through the check-in and security. How wrong was I! The airport in Saigon has long been running way above its capacity. Funding for a new airport was just recently approved, yet the project has been in discussion for years. It won’t be another 5 years at least until Saigon can have a new terminal.

Public health

Ever since I touched down in Saigon, I have been warned about the hygiene of the food here. There is an accepted truth around here that unless you eat at fancy and pricey establishments, the food is likely drugged and doesn’t meet the hygiene standards, ranging from sugarcane juice, beef, pork or fruits. The number of cancer cases in Vietnam has been alarmingly increasing over the year. Is it just a coincidence or is there some correlation or connection between the lack of hygiene in the food and the explosion of cancer cases?

Another challenge that the city has to face is air pollution. There is virtually no regulation on the exhaust from scooters or vehicles in Vietnam. As the city is packed with folks, scooters and cars, the air is increasingly contaminated. Here is what it looks like around 8am from an airplane. I am pretty confident that it wasn’t fog

Skill labor

I’ll let the following excerpt speak about the quality of skill labor and education in Vietnam

Vietnam is 11th out of 12 Asian countries in a World Bank ranking of quality of human resources with 3.79 points out of 10.

South Korea tops with 6.91 points followed by India with 5.76 and Malaysia with 5.59, Chung Ngoc Que Chi of the Ho Chi Minh City Technical and Economic College listed these numbers in a presentation at a forum on enhancing Vietnamese workers’ skills held in Hanoi on Friday and Saturday.

She also cited a survey by the World Bank and the Central Institute for Economic Management (CIEM) of 350 businesses in production and services in Hanoi, HCMC and neighboring provinces, which showed that 66 percent of businesses employed foreign laborers and 36 percent of domestic businesses were dissatisfied with the quality of education and training of Vietnamese human resources.

Chi said Vietnam suffers in terms of both quality and quantity, with shortcomings in foreign language and IT skills and ability to use technologies. She blamed it on the large gap between the country’s vocational education and the market’s requirements, and called for forging close ties between schools and businesses for training.

Source: VnExpress

In my opinion, public infrastructure, public health and education are some of the core foundations of a country. So far, what I have seen on this trip hasn’t given me cause for optimism on these counts. We have a lot to do as a nation.

Weekly readings – 30th November 2019

The bus ticket theory of genuis

What to Do When a Work Friendship Becomes Emotionally Draining

Do Ridesharing Services Increase Alcohol Consumption? Do they add net benefits to our societies?

Why Are Canadian Construction Costs So High?

The California DMV Is Making $50M a Year Selling Drivers’ Personal Information

A Brief Cartographic History of Hai Phong 1898–1968

Inside the fall of WeWork. It’s mind blowing that there continues to be more investigative pieces on how dysfunctional WeWork is. It’s inconceivable to think without public scrutiny how the company would be and how it would harm public investors’ interest. One notable quote from the piece is that WeWork’s operations make the current White House look like a well-oiled machine.

Platforms and Publishers: The End of an Era. A pretty long yet interesting read on platforms and publishers

Comparing unit economics of food delivery companies

The climate crisis has sparked a Siberian mammoth tusk gold rush

How Disneyland got its start

Prisoners have to pay to….read. This kind of heartless and soulless opportunism is morally corrupt and distasteful

PayPal Acquires Honey, What Honey Is, PayPal’s Play

The making of Bloggi

Interactive map of Apple’s supply chain. I attempted to make such a map, but Apple makes it super difficult to get the data from their weirdly designed PDF instead of a CSV. Kudos to The Prepared for this tool