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

Rise of digital subscriptions at The New York Times

Print circulation and print advertising used to the bread and butter of news outlets. The Internet came along and also turned the industry onto its head. Digital subscriptions suddenly became possible. Folks started to pay for online access more and more; which would cannibalize the print business. As fewer readers read the papers, print advertising took a hit. Advertising became annoying to users who were willing to pay for the luxury of reading content in peace.

News outlets have to respond to survive. Names such as New York Times, Wall Street Journals, Washington Post or The Atlantic are leading the charge among outlets to have a strong subscription business. I spent some time digging through the numbers from The Times’ earnings reports to see how its digital subscription transformed over the years. This is how you can understand NYT business

The digital sub count and digital news sub count reach all time high in Q3 2019

The gap between Digital News Subscription Revenue and Print Subscription has been contracting since 2016

In terms of its importance to the subscription segment, digital subscription revenue has been on the rise. In Q3 2019, it made up slightly more than 43% of the total subscription business, the all-time high mark

Hence, digital subscription increasingly became an important part of the total revenue

First look at Disney Plus

Disney+, the biggest initiative and priority in the near future of the iconic company, went live today in the US and Canada. I have been using it for 2-3 hours and below is the summary of my experience so far.

The sign-up is pretty standard and smooth. Nothing major. Even though there was some reported difficulty in finding the app on Apple Store

Fairly expectedly, the app encountered some technical issues which users widely reported here. I have had my fair share as well

That led to Disney+ Help twitter page issued the statement below

In addition to the technical mishaps, I was a bit frustrated by the User Interface. While you can download episodes from the mobile app, I couldn’t find the feature on the browser version. I am not sure if that was intended to limit the downloads, but I was under impression that it was possible.

At the end of a movie, you are presented with a suggestion like the screenshot below, but there is no way to get back to the homepage or the category page

There is an “Extras” tab under the main banner of a movie/episode. They can be never-seen-before clips that viewers will appreciate. However, they could have made the tab more visible or added it to the end, in my opinion

There are some Extras clips on the mobile app that are not available on disneyplus.com.

At the bottom of the website, there is a tab called “Interest-based ads”. On that page, you can choose to opt out of behavioral targeting by ads companies on disneyplus.com

In terms of content, I am excited about National Geographic and Marvel. But to succeed, I do think Disney Plus has quite a long way to go and much to improve if they want to augment user experience

Disclaimer: I own Disney stocks in my personal portfolio

Smaller government or smarter governing?

One of the conservative ideologies in governing is that we need a smaller government and freer enterprise. The premise behind that thinking, I suspect, is that we trust companies to do well by doing good. The problem is they don’t often do so.

Here is the new initiative by AT&T

Enjoy more data. Starting with your October 2019 bill, you’ll get an additional 15GB of data on your Mobile Share plan. This bonus data comes with a $10 price increase. AT&T confirmed to The Verge that there’s no way to opt out of this “bonus.” Here’s the company’s statement:

“We are communicating with some customers regarding changes to their mobile plans. Customers have the choice to change their plan at any time and can always contact us with questions or to understand their options.”

This probably won’t surprise AT&T customers one iota, of course — this is the company that was just finally slapped on the wrist with a $60 million fine for throttling what were supposedly “unlimited” plans back in 2011, and the company that’s now pocketing an extra $800 million in “admin fees” every year after more than doubling that inexplicable surcharge last June. This is the company that’s now making you pay its property taxes on your business internet bill, while it repeatedly jacks up the rates of its few remaining grandfathered unlimited cellular plans.

Source: The Verge

The predatory practice is so disturbing that I don’t have the word to describe it.

Another example is Boeing with their 737 Max woe.

“The culture was very cost centered, incredibly pressurized,” Adam Dickson, who worked for Boeing for 30 years and led a team of engineers that worked on the 737 Max, told BBC Panorama in a program airing Monday night.

“Engineers were given targets to get certain amount of cost out of the airplane,” he added.” Certainly what I saw was a lack of sufficient resources to do the job in its entirety.”

Source: Business Insider

The cost-cutting goal at Boeing led to the company using $9/hour engineers on the planes that sell for millions of dollars and can decide the fate of thousands of passengers. This is a company that enjoys a duopoly of the sky, along with Airbus.

There are certainly a lot more examples of how companies do not volutarily act in the interest of consumers. You will find out more by watching a few episodes of either Patriot Act or Last Week Tonight.

My point is that companies care more about bottom line than consumer interest. Sometimes, those two issues align and be sure that they will advertise the hell out of what they do “for you”. Unless there is a party that can help keep the companies in check, consumers will be at their mercy. There are a few cases in which consumers can threaten the existence of companies such as the #DeleteUber movement a while ago, which suddenly kept Lyft from administration. However, those cases are not common or not common enough.

That’s why we need rules and governments to enforce those rules. It is understandable that red tape and unnecessary regulations are a pain and should be removed (trust me, as an immigrant dealing with all these immigration policies, I already had a bit of American bureaucracy). But that means we need to be smarter in governance , not less governance. By removing all regulations, we help companies reduce compliance costs and be legally less responsible.

As citizens, we don’t have the time and resources to understand all these regulations and conduct studies on how they affect business. The job is left to people who are dedicated to making laws: lawmakers. Hence, whenever somebody mentions that we ought to remove regulations, be sure to ask who and what will protect us citizens from the excessive corporate greed?