Sunday, February 18, 2007

Far East Blog

We have now completed the fourth leg of our journey into the Far East. This was the most exotic part of the trip and one that we had been looking forward to, especially Viet Nam. We were not disappointed.

Day One—Hong Kong

Hong Kong was the only country that we put on our trip itinerary that we had visited previously. We had to connect through it in order to get to Viet Nam from Dubai and it is one of our favorite cities so we extended the connection a few days.

It was particularly interesting to visit Hong Kong immediately after Dubai because the cities are very similar in that they were both developed into trading communities for the region and as a result both are very entrepreneurial in nature. Hong Kong is much older and has lots more people, but Dubai has the more spectacular architecture and at 6 million tourists/year has plans to make a move upon Hong Kong’s 25 million/year.

It contrasting the two, Hong Kong seemed to be more individually entrepreneurial by nature. Everyone was selling something. No one was sitting around waiting for something to happen. Dubai’s seemed more “command and control” orientated probably influenced by the number of paid guest workers who were there only to do a job, not be entrepreneurial. At the end of the day, my thoughts were that Hong Kong’s was a better model for the long term.

Years ago Betinha and I had one of our worst fights over her desire to buy me a Rolex watch. I told her that I didn’t want one, that a Timex would be just fine. We have joked about it ever since and I threatened to get one the next time we were in Hong Kong. At one of the many open markets we visited in our long walks through the city I asked one of vendors about the price for one of his Rolex watches.

“$60! Very nice. You like? I make very good price for you. $45. How much you pay?”

By the end of the negotiations, as I was walking away the price was down to $20. I still don’t have a Rolex, much to Betinha’s relief even though I tried to convince her that these were poor souls who had lost their leases. She wasn’t buying what I was selling either.

In our walks we stopped at a second floor restaurant which advertised Dim Sum, a smorgasbord of dishes that you order that is very popular with the office crowd. This restaurant seated over 500 and every seat was filled. We were the only westerners there. Fortunately they had an English version of their menu, which featured everything from shark’s fin to chicken feet. We ordered enough for a family of six, enjoying the food as much as the atmosphere.

On the walls were giant flat screen TVs, broadcasting the noon news or at least it appeared to be, as we didn’t understand anything. We were impressed with the number of ads that featured children on the TV after having seen the number of children’s stores and also the way that children seemed to be coddled. We speculated that the “one child policy” of China was driving much of this children-centric behavior on the part of the Chinese. Later we learned that last year 80,000 Chinese made the trek to Hong Kong to have their babies because having a baby in Hong Kong exempts the one-child rule. Amazing how people everywhere get around government regulations.

The night before we left we ventured down to a fishing market town that features food stalls with live fish, including some several feet in length. There must be a hundred of these fish sellers. You pick out the fish that you want to eat, bargain with the merchant on price and have your still live fish sent to one of the dozens of restaurants on the docks. The restaurant fixes the catch however you want it and charges you a per person fee for cooking. It was a very interesting and unusual dinner as we eat our way around the world.

Day Two—Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (formerly Saigon)

The airport was a sea of people as many overseas Vietnamese were returning home for the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is this week. They were stacked 10 deep outside of the airport waiting on loved ones.

As we drove into town we were glad that we had been talked out of renting a car. This was the most intimidating roads that I’d ever seen! There were motor bikes everywhere. They were like bees swarming around and traffic lanes didn’t seem to be used. At times there were bikes coming at you on both sides. It was incredible!

Vietnam has gone from the bicycle to the motor bike with a vengeance. We learned that there are 8 million people in the Ho Chi Minh metro area and there are 4 million motor bikes. It seemed like we saw all 4 million on the first day. The proportion of cars would seem to indicate that there are about 100,000 cars and we couldn’t imagine what it will be like when they graduate from motor bikes to cars.

It literally took us 10 minutes to get the courage up to cross one street on foot. The guidebook advised to ease out into the street, moving at a slow pace, neither dashing forward nor stopping, which were two urges once you started. Motor bikes zoomed around you but surprisingly missed us each time.

We hired a bicycle taxi, which puts you on a basket in the front of the bike, to take us around to some of the typical tourist spots and have a couple of incredible videos of trying to peddle and weave our way through this sea of motor bikes and cars.

The War Remnants Museum (also called the War Crimes Museum on one map) was a very moving experience. This war is still very vivid in the memory of Vietnam.

Day Three—Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Vietnam covers 339,000 sq. km (about 100,000 sq. miles) and has 82 million people. The Mekong Delta is the breadbasket of the country and we took the 3 hour drive from Saigon out there. There was an incredible amount of development going on the entire way, but especially in closer proximity to HMC/Saigon. Lots of rice fields are being converted into subdivisions.

All of the rice is harvested by hand in relatively small sized fields. Quite a bit seems to be intercropped with permanent tree crops which have irrigation ditches on one side of the tree. Rice is harvested two or three times/year. It is a very labor intensive agricultural system but appears fairly productive.

The Mekong Delta is a series of nine major rivers, some wider than the Mississippi, that is interlaced with a series of smaller tributaries that are depicted well in any one of the many movies made on the Vietnam War. We took a small boat and spent about four hours traveling on several of them.

In the Mekong Delta everything is done on water. There are few major bridges and various types of boats are everywhere. We visited a floating market where boats would bring in melons, pineapples and other produce to sell as they anchored in the bay. Buying boats would cruise from boat to boat to negotiate and then transfer to their boat the product for shipment to the cities.

Our tour guide, Ans, was an interesting young man of 32 who started as a teacher but moved into tourism for the higher pay. He had been married for 4 months. His wife is a secretary for a Singapore Company, making $150/month, which he indicated was an excellent salary. Her sister, who lives with them, works in factory where she makes $70/month for 7 days/week.

Ans comment about the best jobs, “The best is working for the government, next is having your own business and next is working for a multinational company.” He relayed to us that most of the government jobs go to Communist Party members, of which there are about 2 million members. They check back three generations on the background of each family member before being admitted to the Party. Any service for the South Vietnam regime, USA or France is a black ball on admittance. He was not a member and seemed fine with it.

“Prior to 1986 we were completely closed. China had always been a big brother to us and we saw what they were doing and started to follow their lead. Israel was the first to make an investment in us. Others followed. Things really started to take off in the early 1990s. By 1997 we were exporting rice! Today we export over 6 million tons/year.”

Rice was important to Ans. He talked of being very poor and having to get by on vegetables, without any rice.

Lunch was on one of the remote islands of the Delta. We had eel, a vegetable from the water lily and of course fish. The fish eye was in our soup, which I was given the honor of eating first. Tasted like chicken.

The overseas Vietnamese used to be ostracized for their ties to previous regimes but are now embraced and even allowed to buy property in the country. They are remitting $3 to $4 billion/year back to relatives in Viet Nam.

On starting a new business Ans related to us, “It used to take a half year up to three years to start a new business. Now you can start one in less than a week and you can have as little as $35 in capital to start.” Entrepreneurism is alive and well in Vietnam!

One of his heroes is the richest man in Vietnam who started an IT company and is today worth $160 million.

He was very conversant about motor bikes, “The cheapest bikes are imported from China. You can buy for $300. The best bike is a special new one that costs $6,000.”

When I asked him about cars, he didn’t know what they would cost but thought around $25,000. He hoped to be able to buy a car in about 20 or 25 years. My guess is that it will be much sooner.

Betinha and I couldn’t imagine what the streets will look like when they move from motor bikes to cars.

Day Four—Vietnam Airport

We are on our way to Siem Reap, Cambodia for our next tour. We did a city tour and then went out to the underground tunnel system about 20 miles outside of town that helped the Viet Cong win the war.

Local open stall markets rule the roost in Vietnam. We saw them everywhere. We spent about an hour walking through one with over 2,000 stalls in the downtown area. There were specialized stalls for everything. For example, there were some that specialized in certain types of peppers and there was one that only did ground peppers.

Within the city certain streets seemed to specialize in certain products. One street would be shop after shop of power tools and the next would be stand-up fans.

Our drive out to the tunnels took over an hour. Even though it was a Sunday morning, traffic was dense and our driver seemed to drive with his hand on the horn, as did most drivers. I’m guessing that he used the horn more in our two day excursion than I will ever use in my entire time driving a car.

The tunnel system was incredible with over 150 miles of tunnels that were really underground towns. Tens of thousands of soldiers were able to hide in them, springing out when the order to engage was issued. After the battle they would go back underground until nighttime.

Both Betinha and I crawled through one of the old tunnels that was about 100 feet in length. It was about 3 feet tall and about 2 feet wide. Betinha was able to run the maize in a crouched position while I was on my hands and knees moving as fast as I could. It didn’t help that our guide killed a 2 inch long insect that looked like a scorpion to me but Betinha claims was a centipede. At least that is what she had read in her guide book.

Vietnam was a very interesting country to visit and one that appears to us to be on the verge of some incredible growth similar to what China has gone through for the past decade.

Day Five & Six—Cambodia

How would you feel if 3 out of 7 people in your family were killed? What if it were 3 out every 7 in your hometown? How about in the USA? Think about it!

That was the message that our guide Sam left with us about Cambodia, “We had three million people killed and there were only 4 million left in the country when the Khmer Rouge wrecked the country. They sought out in particular anyone who was educated. My grandfather, who was a teacher, and my grandmother were killed by them.”

When I asked him long the Khmer Rouge ran the country he quickly responded, “Three years, eight months and 20 days.” That was from 1975 to 1979 and virtually everyone in the country was affected. Even now, almost 30 years later, the signs of disabled people are apparent. What a trauma to go through!

We were in Siem Reap in northern Cambodia to see the Angkor Wat, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. In a 12x18 mile preserved park area they have over 200 temples that were built in the 600 to 1400 time frame with most built in the 900 to 1200 period. These are massive structures that defy explanation as to how they were built.

At the height of the Angkor period over 1 million people lived in the surrounding land, using a herd of elephants that is estimated to have numbered 40,000 to construct these structures in addition to working the land.

The most imposing temple has a moat dug around it that stretches 20 miles in length by ½ mile wide, all dug by hand.

One of the temples was used as the set for the Angelina Jolei and Brad Pitt movie “Tomb Raider”. After it fell into disrepair incredibly large trees grew up into the middle of the ruins, creating an impressive sight.

Cambodia today is still mostly rural, with 80% of its current 14 million population living in rural areas. We visited one such small town, near Siem Reap, that is 100% on water. The Tonle Sap Lake grows to over 4,000 sq. miles during the rainy season, but then falls some 20 feet and covers only 1,000 sq. miles during the dry season. We passed everything from schools and churches to pharmacies and barber shops that were all set up on floating bamboo trees. Quite a sight!

The excitement of the Cambodian portion of the trip was on our trip to the airport as we were getting ready to leave. Our tour guide asked us to double check our plane tickets, passport, etc. Betinha responded, “I don’t have my passport. It is lost.”

We made a quick u-turn back to the hotel hoping that it was in our room. No such luck. We retuned to the airport, hoping to convince the authorities to let us take the flight to Bangkok with just my passport. It was a long ride there, with neither Betinha nor I even looking at each other, knowing that if we weren’t successful in talking our way through passport control we were facing a long six hour bus ride to Phnom Penh to the U. S. Embassy.

While I stood in line to check in bags, Betinha tore everything out of her suitcase, fortunately finding her passport hidden in a side pocket for safekeeping. We had a few good laughs after that.

We are off on our final leg of the trip with stops in Sydney, New Zealand and Fiji.

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