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

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.