Recommendation to Vietnamese Tourism Board: Make data accessible and easy to process

I love my country. I want to promote my country as much and as honestly as I can. Given my past experience in the hospitality industry, I am a bit drawn towards reading and writing about it. I really want to do some analysis on the arrivals to Vietnam, but the government body responsible for recording data makes it annoyingly challenging for me to work with the data.

Problem 1 – No excel files

First of all, there is no feature on the website to download data in an Excel file. You have to download data and put it yourself in an Excel file. On the other hand, the Singapore Tourism Board makes it super easy to store data on an annual basis as you can see below

Source: Singapore Tourism Board
Each file stores data by month

Problem 2 – Inconsistent naming and order of entries

Copying data from an HTML table wouldn’t be so bad if the order of entries stayed the same across the tables. However, it isn’t the case. The order is all over the place as you can see below. Countries are mixed up differently from one month to another

Even that is the case, vlookup can still help overcome the challenge. However, vlookup requires consistency of variables’ names. In the screenshot above, Cambodia is spelled differently in April and March 2019 reports.

Problem 3 – Redundant variables’ names

Redundant variables’ names like in the screenshot above violate the integrity of data. If you use vlookup, the results will be redundant and inaccurate.

Given how they display the data online, I don’t have much faith that internally, things are different. My bet is that there is no data-centric approach and even if data is used, it must be a time-consuming, laborious and primitive endeavor.

With GDP per capita 25 times smaller than that of America, Vietnam still pays more for gas

On 2nd May, 2019, an increase in gas price in Vietnam was announced, an 8th time such a development took place in 2019. Here is a chart that illustrates the gas price in 2019 so far. The number is in VND, our national currency. The exchange rate is at 23,314 VND for $1

Source: Le Nguyen Huong Tra

Those are the two types of gas we use in Vietnam with the green one as the more popular choice and we measure it in liter, not gallon. With the exchange rate of 23,314 VND for $1, Vietnamese pay approximately $0.95 for a liter (22,190 divided by 23,314).

According to gasprices.aaa, the national average gas price in the US is $2.888 per gallon. As a gallon is worth 3.785 liters, on average Americans pay $0.76 per liter for gas. Given that GDP per capita in the US and Vietnam in 2017 is $59,532 and $2,343 respectively, according to WorldBank, it’s extraordinary that we pay more per liter in the poorer country.

I am not a chemical expert and the gas used in each country may be different in essence, but it serves the same function and the living costs in both countries are affected by gas prices.

The difference is even worse when you compare the gas price in Vietnam to affluent states in America. Keep in mind that different in America, where gas price varies from one state to another, Vietnam has universal gas price regardless of where you live in the country. Take Massachusetts as an example. GDP per capita in the state in 2017 is $64,507, but the gas price in the state is just $0.75 liter, compared to $0.95 in Vietnam.

Unless I am missing something terribly important in my assumptions, the expensive gas price that we have to pay in Vietnam is ridiculous and ludicrous. And how many companies would give employees a raise 8 times in a span of 5 months to keep up with the increasing living costs? Exactly!

Electricity price hike – Why I prefer not living in Vietnam

Last month, Vietnam Electricity (EVN), the state-owned company that has a monopoly over electricity in Vietnam, announced an 8% price hike, citing an increase in production cost. Obviously, it leads to the hike in everything’s price and living cost overall. But what frustrates me the most is the fact that as a monopoly, the company is terribly run. It invests in other verticals where it doesn’t have the knowledge or capabilities, on top of a terrible management, something that is not uncommon in Vietnam. As a consequence, EVN suffered huge financial losses. According to this article, EVN’s loss amounts to $94 million, despite having the monopoly. The loss includes ridiculous expenses such as building a golf course or luxury villas for the company’s officials. To cover these losses, it routinely jacks up the electricity price. There is almost no oversight.

Even more frustratingly and shamelessly, they hiked the electricity price during the hottest season the country has even encountered. The highest temp recorded is 43.4°C (110.12°F). At 6AM, it’s already at 87.8°F.

This kind of egregious behavior isn’t exclusive to EVN. Gas price in Vietnam frequently increases, thanks to Petrolimex, another monopoly. The problem is that once these crucial commodities become more expensive, everything else will as well. When the price of the commodities is lowered; however, the living cost rarely follows or gets cheaper. Meanwhile, the wage in Vietnam is not even close to keeping up with the rising living cost, rendering whatever income an ordinary folk earns increasingly small.

I love my country. We have great cuisine and sceneries as well as an authentic culture. However, I don’t want to live in a place where I cannot meaningfully save anything simply because living costs increase almost on a monthly/quarterly basis while wage does once a year at most. This and among other reasons I will share in the future whenever it is appropriate

Podcast culture in Vietnam soon?

Podcast has been the rage these days in the US in terms of the medium to consume and distribute information. I can imagine why that is the case. There is a lot of navigating through traffic on the streets, doing mindless work at home and at one’s job or working out in a gym. Users need something to help them power through the boredom without using their eyes. On the content creator side, a podcast episode takes less work and time to produce than a video. As long as you have a reliable recorder, a decent Internet connection and more importantly, what to share with the world, that’s enough for a podcast episode.

I have been wondering whether Vietnamese folks at home will like podcasts as much as we do here in America. I quickly polled two friends of mine who are millennials and work professionally in the biggest city in Vietnam. They both told me that they didn’t think podcast would interest Vietnamese people as our folks nowadays tend to consume more tabloid news and instant gratification. There is some truth in that.

There is coverage on Vietnamese people’s losing interest in reading. Reportedly, my countrymen on average read one book a year. If a book is 300 pages long, that’s less than one page a day. I often see on my Newsfeed a lot of junk content shared by my connections. As a huge fan of reading and consuming quality content, that’s a seriously concerning sign. I suspect that there are several reasons for that. Firstly, we were dealt with a bad hand growing up. Reading is not part of our curriculums at school. We don’t get to know the beauty of reading when we are young. I didn’t. I grew up learning only maths. Luckily, I went to a high school where a lot of my peers read and the habit rubbed off on me. Secondly, there is not a whole lot of quality content in Vietnamese. Even though English is popular now among the young, folks still prefer consuming content in our native language. If they felt comfortable with English podcasts, there is no shortage out there. But content in our mother tongue is in short supply (or at least none that I have ever heard of). Sometimes, there are some quality pieces, but there is no consistent source of audio content on the market.

Nonetheless, there are signs that I think are favorable for podcast consumption as a trend. First, terrible traffic in Vietnam. If you ever travel to Hanoi or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), you’ll experience the terrible traffic there. There is traffic jam at ALL times from 7:30am to around 7pm every week day. My house in Vietnam is 10km away from the city center where I used to work. Every day, it took me at least an hour in total to commute back and forth, let alone time to meet friends. As in the case here in the US, folks can listen to podcast instead of music. Another favorable condition is that mobile Internet in Vietnam is cheap. About 200,000 VND, you can have decent speed and data packages to download podcasts. Plus, young professionals make up a big part of the population in Vietnam. My impression is that a lot of them want to learn and grow. The problem, as mentioned above, is that they don’t seem to find content in Vietnamese that they can consume comfortably. Last but not least, there are many interesting Vietnamese folks out there worth interviewing, from entrepreneurs, designers, chefs, actors, mathematicians or authors.

I hope that in the near future, Vietnamese people will read more and the podcast culture will catch fire for the sake of knowledge consumption and advertising hidden talent and minds.

Vietnamese movie: Wayless by Imaginary Friends

I came across this short movie by a group of Vietnamese folks. It’s great that the film won the Best Director category at 48 Hour Film Festival and will be screened at Cannes.

Have a watch and don’t worry as there is English subtitle. Below is the trailer:

3 questions/concerns I have:

  • What happened to the dog?
  • Don’t shoot people in front of kids!!!
  • Why keeping the body in the trunk?

Joking aside, I am happy for the team and glad that there will be some exposure to the international audience for Vietnamese films.

Direct flights to the US from Vietnam

Last week, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in a press release that Vietnam’s aviation industry meets the international safety requirements. The approval means that Vietnam carriers can now open direct flights from the S-shaped country to the US.

It is a huge announcement. There are hundreds of folks traveling back and forth between the two countries on a daily basis, whether it’s for business, leisure or just a quick family visit. As of this writing, flights from Vietnam to the US have at least one layover. If you live in a less popular city like myself in Omaha, it will require at least two stops. In my experience, it took me 3 stops and at least 33 hours for a one-way trip. Layovers are just a waste of time. It’s not just about the time spent at the airports, but also about the hassle in scheduling.

Direct flights will definitely ease the pain and facilitate the travel between the countries. It’s a boon for tourism and commerce. So much productivity can be saved. American travelers will be more tempted to visit Vietnam as the first destination in the region when the flights are no longer as long and taxing as they were.

I am really excited about this development for my country. Becoming a flight hub matters a great deal to our tourism and economy. There is still a very long way to go, but it’s a bright first step. I really hope the carriers in Vietnam will jump at this opportunity.

Vietnam in 2018

For the past few days, I saw some positive articles on the economic performance of Vietnam. First, the GDP growth rate in 2018 is the highest in 11 years, reaching 7.08%

Source: Worldbank and Vietnam’s General Statistics Office 

Our trade surplus reached $7 billion in 2018

vietnams trade surplus reaches 72 billion usd
Source: vir.com.vn

This is Vietnam’s GDP per capita compared to neighboring countries

Keterangan Gambar (© Pemilik Gambar)
Source: seasia

Even though the GDP per capita is around $2,500, there is a wide gap in terms of income between cities in Vietnam. In big cities such as Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon) and Hanoi, the income level is much higher than the GDP per capita mark. When I was still working in the country back in 2014, my salary after tax was already around the $1,400/month. Granted, the living cost in Saigon and Hanoi is pretty expensive as well. In fact, students who study abroad usually complain about the high living cost in the two cities in Vietnam, given the low income in comparison with cities in Western countries. On the other hand, in other cities, an income of $300 – $400 can be considered very good. It goes to show the stark difference between cities in Vietnam.

The last time Vietnam’s GDP growth was below 5% was in 1999, almost 20 years ago. Hence, we have seen the growth rate in the region of 5-7% for almost two decades. Yet, I am not so confident in the future of the country. The infrastructure is abysmal. Here are a few photos of the infrastructure in Saigon and Hanoi that is terribly under-developed.

Traffic jam in Hanoi, a normal sight. Source: laodongthudo
Kẹt xe tại các đô thị lớn đang là một trong những thách thức của giao thông Việt Nam /// Ảnh: Ngọc Dương
Traffic jam in Saigon. Source: thanhnien
Flood after a heavy rain in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). Source: tuoitre
Cars were abandoned in a heavy rain in Danang, Vietnam’s 3rd largest city. Source: tuoitre

The country’s first metro project was started in 2007. 12 years later, the budget for the project increased by 300%, compared to the initial outlay. Yet, only 56% has been completed so far. The project can be halted in the near future if the bottlenecks are not settled.

At the time of approval in 2007, Metro Line 1 was projected to cost VND17.388 trillion. This ballooned to VND47 trillion over the years. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) shoulders 88.4% of the budget in the form of official development assistance loan (ODA).

Source: saigoneer

As a Saigon native, I experienced first-hand for years the terrible infrastructure of my city. The streets were built several decades ago. Back then, there were not as many inhabitants in the city as there are now. Not even close. Fast forward, many people from poorer cities flock to the city for better career opportunities and income. More cars are bought and run. More big buses are operated. More houses are built. Yet, the drainage system and the streets in the city haven’t been upgraded accordingly. It usually took me 30 mins to commute over a distance of 10km with my scooter. The only time that the city doesn’t have traffic jam is probably before 7am and after 8pm.

From Saigon to Vungtau, a distance of 120km, it takes two hours and the travel can be pretty dangerous if you ride a scooter. In China, it takes 4.5 hours to travel from Shanghai to Beijing or vice versa, a distance of more than 1,300km. The difference cannot be bigger.

If you fly domestically in Vietnam, take my word. Either go extremely late or first flight in the morning. Any flight between 7AM and 10PM is almost guaranteed to be delayed. One of the reasons for the horrible delays is that the airports cannot accommodate the number of flights and aircrafts.

A country needs a robust infrastructure to grow. Right now, Vietnam doesn’t have that. I am not confident in the possibility that it will change any time soon in the future.

Furthermore, I am not a big fan of growing by being the source of cheap labor, being the factory of the world. It’s ok in the beginning, but it’s not sustainable in the long run. Vietnam needs to look at Singapore or Nordic countries to get some inspiration and lessons for using education and services to grow the economy. Plus, the infrastructure is amazing, at least in Finland.