Vietnam’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic so far

After confirming 16 Covid-19 cases in Feb, Vietnam quickly took actions to quarantine the whole village where the 16 patients resided. The quick action stopped the spread and even earned a global recognition after the comedian John Oliver praised my country’s effort and an incredibly catchy song used to increase hygiene awareness.

Just as the country was one week away from declaring safe from virus, the 17th case appeared. A young woman returned home from a trip to Italy without informing the authority or going into self-isolation. The number of cases rose steadily, reaching 61 as of now and potentially going higher in the near future. It is worth noting that Vietnam has had no casualties so far and 16 recoveries. Overall, I have been quite pleased with how my country handled this pandemic.

As mentioned above, the authority successfully isolated the first 16 cases and stopped the spread. If there was a positive case, the government locked down the whole street or area to prevent spread. Furthermore, it was announced that citizens would receive tests and treatment of the Coronavirus for free.

The head of the Health Ministry’s Planning-Finance Department, Nguyen Nam Lien, confirmed that individuals will receive free treatment and testing for the viral disease, Saigon Times reports.

A Vietnam Social Security official, Le Van Phuc, explained that the entire medical bill will be covered by the national health insurance fund for patients suspected of having the novel virus, but tested negative. Those who test positive for the virus will have their tests and treatment covered by the state budget.

Those who are put into mandatory quarantine will also not be charged any fees for their medical care and stay. Within isolation wards, those quarantined will receive drinking water, towels, and mouthwash for free, as well as medically prescribed cautionary items such as face masks and hand sanitizer.

Source: Saigoneer

Flights to and from China were already banned in Vietnam as of Feb 1, 2020, a swift action given that the outbreak was going to worsen in China. Three days ago, the country banned visitors from UK and Schengen Nations as the number of cases in Europe keeps increasing at an alarming rate.

There are also disinfection cabins set up in the capital – Hanoi. To be clear, whether this initiative is truly effective can be challenged, but it’s still a step into the right direction, given what is going on here in the US

Colors of Vietnam

I came across arguably the best promotional video about my country I have ever seen. The video was excellently filmed and edited to capture some of the best that my country can offer. Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks a lot to Pau Garcia for the great video.

Source: Pau Garcia

I truly wish Vietnam can produce more of these videos to advertise the country to our international friends

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.

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.

Some random observations in Vietnam

I am in the middle of a visit to Vietnam. Here are a few casual and randome observations I have had so far

Service fees

In addition to VAT, there is a new, at least to me, item on each bill: service fees. Based on my experience, it’s about 5% of the original bill. I hadn’t seen anything similar before.

Grab drivers in Hanoi don’t shift gears

A lot of Vietnamese people use manual scooters to commute. To be an effective and efficient driver, you need to shift gears so that you have more power after a stop and more speed when you are already moving stably. Effective gear shifting makes a ride more pleasant and protects the engine better. However, I noticed from a few Grab rides in Hanoi that drivers don’t shift gears. A few shifted gears, but it’s nowhere near enough to be effective

Grab drivers double charge customers the airport fees

At Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), there is a toll that automobile drivers need to pay only once when they are getting out of the airport. On my way home from the airport, I was asked by the driver to cover that fee, which amounts to 10,000 VND (roughly $0.4). I was fine with that because I saw him pay the toll. However, when I was in a car entering the airport, the driver never had to pay anything. Yet, he still charged me the same amount. I am sure that he would ask the next passenger to pay as well.

Traffic jam at the airport

Knowing the ridiculous amount of traffic overflow that Tan Son Nhat has to handle, I booked the second earliest flight to Hanoi and got to the airport around 4am, thinking that the check-in would be short and quick. Boy, was I wrong! It was super crowded. It took me 75 minutes in total to complete check-in and security checks! At 4AM! Imagine the normal or peak hours!

Difficulty in exchanging currencies

Before I left the US for Vietnam, I withdrew some cash to cover my expenses. The ATM gave me only $20 bills; which I had no problem with since I didn’t think there would be any issues. On the first day in Vietnam, I tried to convert it into the local currency and it was not the smoothest thing in the world.

Firstly, you are charged a lower exchange rate with $20 bills than with $100 bills. Secondly, if your bills have small tears, some ink – no matter how small, or the print blurried a bit by time and excessive contact with human hands, the bills won’t be accepted by banks in Vietnam. You either have to go to local jewelry stores to do the exchanging or keep your dollars.

Grab – On its way to become a Super app

Gab entered Vietnam as a competitor of Uber. It proceeded to buy out Uber. Now, every person I know uses Grab for commute. I am sure other ride-hailing apps have customers, but Grab is by far the dominant player. Plus, you can do a lot of things with your Grab account including ordering food, paying bills, booking hotels and paying subscriptions