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

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?

Free Speech – When You Pray For Rain, You Have To Deal With The Mud Too

The debate on free speech between tech companies, specifically Facebook and Twitter, and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren is heating up and getting hotter than ever. Facebook refused to take down political ads from the right wing that the left consider fake news. Politicians led by Elizabeth Warren vehemently criticized the decision by Facebook arguing that it is helping the President win an election again.

Coming from the background that I have, I appreciate the freedom of speech in America which is enshrined in the Constitution. There is nothing better to ensure that everybody is free to voice his or her own opinion. The right in and of itself is great and good. The problem; however, lies in how people execute the right and how it is perceived by others.

When a right-winged party runs a political ads with controversial information, the party is within its right to do so. Facebook, as it claims to preserve the right to expression on its platform, chooses to honor it. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

The problem is that when you exercise your right to free speech and spread out false information on others, you rob others of the right to be perceived truthfully. In that sense, is it still acceptable? Also, it then falls onto Facebook to be the guardian of truth, the entity that decides whether a piece of information is right or false. And it’s not an easy task. Whatever Facebook does will please one part of the population and piss off the rest. Whatever is truth to one party of an ideology will be considered fake news by the opposing party.

I fear that there is no definitive answers to this debate. The Internet and Facebook enable friction-less communication of information and, as a consequence, false information around the globe. That’s the byproduct of it. I don’t see how Facebook can do one without harming the other aspect of their operation. And as explained above, I don’t see how it can please anybody in its endeavor to preserve the First Amendment, but also to police the content.

When we pray for rain, we have to deal with the mud too. That’s my mentality in a lot of issues. In this case, I think we pray hard for the rain, but we are not ready to deal with the mud

The President, Economy and Stock Markets

Recently, I have come across quite a few posts on social media from my fellow Vietnamese back in my country about how the current President is responsible for the economy, evidenced by the unprecedented height of stock markets.

I am not so sure about that.

First, when a President takes office, he (since the US never has a female President) inherits his predecessor’s policies and economy. Discarding the existing policies takes time. New policies take time to go into effect. Then, it takes time to measure the effectiveness of the “new” economy. Economic policies aren’t light switches. Turn them on and the lights go on. Turn them off and the darkness comes. To determine whether the sitting President is truly responsible for the economy, one must be able to determine which policies were enacted and how the policies impacted the economy. I prepared a simple chart to illustrate the issue

To truly see how Trump stewarded the economy, one must be able to compare his performance with the trajectory based on what happened under Obama. Take all the factors, build a model and see how the predicted economy would have happened had Obama still been in office. Then, compare Trump’s performance to the model’s prediction which is the dotted line in the chart.

Take a look at the red line. The stock market still grew under Trump and still hit the all-time record. But then it is below what would have happened had Obama still been in the office. In that case, would you still say Trump did a good job? On the other hand, Trump should be credited for the stock market if his performance is the green line. Not only does the stock market hit the all-time high mark, but it also outperforms the model. No doubt about his credit here.

Here is exactly where the issue becomes tricky. It’s almost impossible to build an accurate model like that given how many unpredictable variables there are. As a consequence, I really doubt anyone can say with absolute certainty that one President is responsible for the stock market’s growth or that of the economy.

Now, one can definitely argue that as long as a President is in office, he or she should take credit for the economy and stock market’s performance. It’s fair to do so. But if that’s the case, he or she should also be responsible for everything wrong with the economy or stock market. You can’t cherry pick what to take credit for and what to avoid blame for. It doesn’t work that way.

If Trump takes credit for the stock market performance, he should also be held liable for the tariffs that are said to be suffered entirely by American businesses or consumers (CNBC) or for the huge increase in federal budget deficit (by 50%) since he took office (source: Heather Long).

It’s also worth noting that stock market performance, low unemployment rate or GDP growth or all together do not equal to increased wealth for average Americans. You can have all of them and increased income inequality, meaning that most of the increased wealth goes to the rich or the 1% or 10%, not the poorer Americans. And who should be held liable for that? The one who takes credit for the economy/stock market!

I really wish my fellow Vietnamese would be more informed

Humans as story tellers

Per one of my favorite books: Sapiens: Brief History of Humankind, human-beings have an extraordinary ability to tell stories and that’s essentially how we built civilization after civilization. Each of us, including individuals, governments or corporations, tries to tell a story every day and get everybody to buy into the story.

Startups such as WeWork tried to convince everybody that it is worth $60 billion. But the public doesn’t believe it and the story crumbled, sending the valuation downward to as low as $15 billion.

Companies such as Facebook, Google or Amazon try to convince lawmakers and consumers that they care about privacy and security. There are pieces of evidence that may back up the story, but there are also incidents which undermine the narrative.

Luxury brands such as Nike or Apple succeed in getting us to pay more for their products than the alternatives which surely deliver the same functions. It is because they are better storytellers and their stories are more convincing.

Some governments have a better reputation and track record than others due to the consistency in churning out evidence to back up their stories.

A guy has to conjure up a story about himself to convince a girl into a romantic relationship and vice versa.

Of course, the storyteller can only try so much to tell a story with all the corroborating evidence in the world and audience still won’t buy it. That’s why we have non-believers in science or in general different reactions and opinions.

I am fascinated by it.

America consumes the most sugar per capita

Among what I have to be conscious of while living in the US is not to be drawn into the excessive sugar consumption here. Food & drinks are a bit too unhealthily sweet for my taste and it’s not really uncommon to find items whose more than 50% of their weight are sugar. It’s not that different from pour sugar straight into your mouth!

According to WHO, the recommended daily amount of sugar for consumption is about 11 grams and the figure shouldn’t exceed 25 grams. Below is the list of the top 10 countries where citizens consume the most sugar

Source: World Atlas

Americans on average consume more than 10 times the absolute recommended limit! I have seen folks get sweet spice pumpkin latte instead of black coffee at Starbucks, a boba tea with 70-100% sweetness instead of none, a normal coke instead of a diet one or a big haul of pop corns instead of just drinking water at a cinema. Even though I am aware that sugary items bring instant gratification, we should stay away from them so that we can live a longer and more healthy life, given the dramatic risks that a heavy sugar diet comes with.

Around 3:22 of this clip will you see the harms sugar brings to our health, including brain damage

Price of freedom

Before I arrived in the US, I planned to learn to drive and get a car within the first 6 months or one year at the latest. Fast forward to now, I met the target two years behind the original plan.

To a person who hadn’t driven before and lives alone in the US, learning to drive is challenging and expensive. I paid $350 to take classroom lessons and 6 hours of training to drive in order to get the permit. Once I got the permit, I needed a car to practice and get a license. But I was in no financial position to afford a car and all the expenses that come with it such as training, parking, insurance, gas, registration and maintenance.

So I aborted the plan to drive and arranged myself so that I wouldn’t have to drive to either school or work. The arrangement saved me money, but incurred a great deal of inconvenience as I relied on the infamously terrible public transit in Omaha.

Finally, when I got my driving license and bought a vehicle, I felt liberated. No more waiting for the buses in the cold. No more rushing to make it to the bus stop in time. No more inconvenience when the destinations are out of the buses’ reach. No more asking for favor from friends. I gained much needed freedom, freedom that comes with expenses and constant risks. It doesn’t matter how well you can drive, there is always a risk of accidents. Since I purchased the car, my expenses have gone up significantly every month.

That’s the price of freedom. As true as sun rises in the East and sets in the West, freedom is hard and expensive to come by. We have to work and pay for it. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s too sweet. Too precious.