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,┬áChung 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.

Access to Internet. Difference between America and Estonia

Internet is now a necessity to our life, in addition to water, electricity or clean air. It’s wildly hard to imagine our life without the Internet. Yet, to some in rural areas in America, access to Internet is a luxury. Today’s episode on Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj shed light on the problem that seems unbelievable in this day and age in the country known for being a leader in technology. Apparently, millions of people in the US don’t have access to the Internet. It’s bonkers to think that some kids have to access Internet from parked buses at Coachella to do homework.

The cause of the issue lies in the monopoly and hence, lack of competition. The market is controlled by two companies only, both of which have more motivation to increase their bottom line than to deliver quality services. To make the matters worse, the authorities haven’t exactly come to the rescue of consumers. Have a listen to know more about this astonishing problem in the US

Meanwhile, Estonia is a little country in Europe with 1.3 million in population. Yet, it makes access to Internet a human right and creates a digital society that serves as an example for other countries. Things that are painstaking and time-consuming in the US are done in little time in Estonia. For instance, you can vote electronically in Estonia. You can get your medical records online. You can file taxes in no time as well. The Estonian government prepares all the tax documents so that all that is required of you is for you to verify the information. Have a listen to a mini documentary below

According to PBS, when Estonia left USSR in 1991, there were few computers in the country and 20% of the US population already had access to the Internet. Almost 30 years later, Estonia already surpassed the US in this regard.

Infrastructure in the US is notoriously in a shabby shape. However, when infrastructure is mentioned, we tend to think about roads, railway and highways. Not the Internet. But the story by Netflix above shows that the US has a serious problem at hand with one of the fundamental necessities, despite possessing some of the most advanced technologies in the world.

The longer I live in the US, the more I am convinced that inequality is ubiquitous in the US. Not just geographically, but also across domains. While being excellent at some specializations, the US underperforms in some fundamental foundations.

Public dog poop bag and our taxes

On my way for a walk around downtown Omaha in a beautiful weather, I saw this dog poop bag dispenser on the pavement. It must have been newly installed either yesterday or today as I didn’t see it two days ago.

Downtown Omaha can be littered with dog poop at times, even in the winter. I accidentally got myself in trouble at least a couple of times for not looking where to put my feet. Hopefully, this new dispenser will alleviate the issue and make it easy for pet owners to keep the streets and their neighbors’ shoes clean.

It brings me to taxes. What is the connection? These things cost. they are expense items on the income statement of the city government (I don’t have evidence, but I believe this kind of things comes out of the city government’s pocket). A government is like a business. You don’t spend what you don’t have or expenses must be covered by revenue. To implement this type of projects, small or large, the city government needs revenue which comes mainly from taxes.

I have a Vietnamese friend who complained about living in Democrats-led states since taxes are higher in those states than in GOP-led ones. A lower tax may look tempting and good on the surface. However, it’s just a part of the big picture.

Without sufficient tax revenue, how could a city government run properly and maintain public infrastructure? Without sufficient tax revenue, what about public school where your kids go to, parks where we all love to visit once in a while, public libraries where we can borrow books for free, city buses that can make transportation less painful or streets that can render commute more enjoyable?

I wrote about my experience with buses from Austin airport to Austin downtown here. The bus runs once every 15 minutes and costs $1.5. Here in Omaha, it runs once every 30 minutes and only for a few hours a day, only on weekdays. A one-way trip from downtown Omaha to the airport, which is not a long ride, costs around $7-10. An airport is a highly popular place at any city, yet getting there isn’t easy for folks in Omaha. In general, public transportation in Omaha needs drastic improvement and I would love to pay more taxes to see that happen.

I wrote also about my love for the local library through which I often borrow books for free. If the library were in financial trouble and needed help, I’d be willing to pay a bit more taxes to keep it.

It can be argued that many are fed up with their city governments’ inability to spend their tax money appropriately. That’s fair, but it’s another matter. It’s about electing the right folks to run the government. What I am trying to say is that lower taxes for individuals and corporations don’t come without consequences. There is a reason why Western European countries with high taxes have quite good social benefits and infrastructure. And to be honest, I prefer that to paying lower taxes and having dated and insufficient infrastructure.