Archive for Saigon Diary – Page 3

Income Inequality – Saigon Style

This woman didn’t want me to take her picture, so I snapped a quickie as I was walking away. What you can’t see is a pile of sorted cardboard, soda cans, water bottles, plastic bags, and styrofoam – her “products.”

This is private enterprise in Vietnam. Each morning this woman and others like her hit the streets of Saigon with their two wheeled carts looking for anything they think can be reused or recycled. In the afternoon, with her cart overflowing, this lady stakes out a piece of sidewalk near our apartment and begins breaking down boxes, sorting, and stacking the assortment of things she has collected. When she is finished with that task she neatly loads the cart and pushes off down the street. I don’t know where she unloads and I don’t know who buys the products but every afternoon she is there, kneeling on the sidewalk, sorting a fresh accumulation of items gleaned from street side trash containers. Her civil service counterpart is a corps of orange suited women who patrol the same streets with large orange carts picking up street side garbage in plastic bags from neighborhood door steps. Everything that can be recycled is separated out and given a new life. read more

Now Read This…

For three years I haven’t read anything, fiction or non-fiction, that didn’t have something to do with Vietnam. I was looking forward to reading about something or someplace new, but it wasn’t a chore when I got sucked into reading Angie Chau’s book Quiet as They Come. She’s a new and compelling voice. It’s hard to pull away once the Vietnamese bug catches you. Vietnam is a deeply fascinating place and culture. Working there made it even more so. It has a rich and complicated past, a messy, energetic, present, and a hope fueled future. In between, there is the Vietnamese diaspora. That is what Angie Chau writes about – the Vietnamese-American immigrant experience. read more

The World is Flat (at least in Saigon)

The world is flat. The world is small. The world is at our fingertips. We have real-time face to face Skype conversations across the oceans. We “chat” with friends in Europe, Asia and the Americas on a daily basis. We follow the news on the European debt crisis and the air quality in Beijing and we know that all of these things affect us personally.

In Saigon Gucci competes with Pho 24 for our attention. Christian Louboutin sells $700 shoes next door to a counter that sells Rolex knockoffs for under $100. Almost anywhere in the world we can find a more or less homogeneous urban scene. Countries retain their traditions and cultures and on the street the scene can look very indigenous but at the top of the economic ladder, in the center of the largest cities, things start to look very familiar. Brands are global. Half of the world is wearing Nike shoes and baseball caps. Coke and Pepsi are the beverages of choice. Kids in Saigon dream of having their birthday parties at KFC, and there are half a dozen glitzy Vietnamese magazines devoted to fashion and the high life with “golf” in their titles. read more

America in Decline

I often describe myself a short term pessimist and long term optimist. I try to think positively about people and the world. I’ve been traveling almost constantly since 1965 and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the places I’ve lived and visited. I’ve come to think that airports are metaphors for their countries.

Last Wednesday I took the red-eye from Saigon to Seoul, had an 11 hour layover in the airport and then continued on to Seattle. It was midnight when we left Saigon but the Illy espresso bar was open. The cafe was stylishly modern and the clientele a mix of Asian, European, and American types. It could have been anywhere. It’s that way in most international airports these days. I can remember when Tan Son Nhat airport was a couple of one story wooden buildings. Now it’s all glass and marble high rise with luxury brand boutiques and world cuisine. It’s 36 years since the Vietnam War ended and the victorious communist north has fallen in line with the rest of the capitalist consumer world. I wonder what Uncle Ho would think? read more

Kaci’s Birthday

Almost two years ago Marilynn and I chose an espresso place in the heart of Saigon for our morning lattes. We walk the two and a half blocks from the Hotel Rex gym, where we start the day, and we arrive right at 7am when they open the doors. Gloria Jean’s is an Australian chain and it’s hard for a Seattlite to say but I think they make the best tasting lattes on the planet. They are rich, thick, and very strong without being bitter. Tasty and long lasting.

But, the coffee is not the point here. Over the past two years we have made a number of new friends at Gloria Jean’s. The 7am crowd is very loyal and it took several months to break down the barriers but eventually we nodded and smiled and said hello often enough that we were able to start some conversations. The crowd is very eclectic and has changed a little over time: there’s Mike who does micro-loans and venture investing for Dragon Capital, Andrew, the vice provost at RMIT an Australian technology university, Nga, a Vietnamese business owner and single mom to 3 children, David, a San Francisco lawyer who splits his time between the Bay Area and HCMC, and Kaci, an ambitious, attractive, and very smart 28 year old who is starting an Executive MBA program at RMIT in January. Then there is the sidewalk newspaper vendor who saves us the Sat-Sun International Herald Tribune, the motorbike taxi guy right outside the front door who can’t keep his finger out of his nose, and the neighborhood sidewalk restaurant just across the alley. They are all part of our morning. read more