Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My prediction about the War of 1812 is coming true

When I visited a War of 1812 cemetery in Buffalo this summer, I predicted that the US wouldn’t made a big deal out of the war’s bicentennial a la 1976 – the war’s historical legacy is too mixed and too fuzzy for that. Most Americans can’t even tell you what the war was about.

Anyway, my prediction appears to be coming true… and the Canadians have noticed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A quick stop in Buffalo post-Memorial Day

I had to travel to Alliston, Ontario (not too far from Toronto in terms of distance) over Memorial Day weekend for a conference. I took the Friday prior to the weekend off so D and R and I would get at least 2 days together as a family, and we were fortunate enough to get some great weather – sunny, 70s, etc.

Sunday I packed my bags and flew to Buffalo. From Buffalo I rented a car and drove to Alliston (about 2 hrs and 45 minutes, but thanks to picking the slowest possible line at the Queenstown-Lewiston bridge border crossing it took another 30 minutes to make it to my destination). Why not just fly into Toronto and save the drive? Good question. As it turns out, flying to Toronto was 4x the cost of flying to Buffalo, and that was flying indirectly, too. If I wanted to go direct, it would have cost me $2000 vs. $300 for Buffalo. No, I did not mistype the zeroes in that last sentence. Pearson is just one of the most expensive airports around, and for the third time this year I’ve chosen to get to Ontario via Buffalo rather than fly directly there.

Anyway, the conference was fine; it turns out that you don’t need to get far outside Toronto (the 3rd-largest metropolitan area in North America) to find it looking a lot like my old home in central California: fairly flat, lots of farmland, low population density, and a shiny new Wal-Mart rising up out of nowhere.

Today, I left Alliston just before 1 PM and made great time back to the border. Since my flight wasn’t for four more hours, and Buffalo is pretty easy to get around, I decided to visit a few historical sites. I already had my mind set on visiting a site that had caught my eye via Google Maps the last time I was searching for the Buffalo Airport: a cemetery dedicated to the War of 1812, hidden behind the airport itself on Aero Drive. I’ve always been fascinated with older cemeteries in general, but this had the added allure of (1) being convenient to my final destination of the airport and (2) since I’d missed Memorial Day while at my conference in Canada, I could pay my respects here instead.

But sitting at Customs waiting to cross the border, I realized I had more time than I had planned, and I could probably do more than just visit the 1812 cemetery. I decided to I’d try to locate something I’ve wanted to see for many years: the marker identifying the spot where President McKinley was fatally shot in 1901. I knew this was in Buffalo, and thanks to my BlackBerry and Google, I was able to find an address for my GPS pretty quickly.

As it turned out, you didn’t need to stray far from the hightway (which I had to take en route to the airport anyway) to find the right spot. McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in the Temple of Music, a grand but temporary structure built for the Pan-American Exposition, a world’s fair-type event held in Buffalo that year. Here’s a panoramic nighttime view of the buildings as they were at the Exposition:

Pan-American_Exhibition_1901_PanoramaPresident McKinley was conducting a meet-n-greet with the public when he was shot by Czolgosz; he survived the shooting but died of infection a week later while staying at the home of the Exposition’s director.

This area looks a lot different today – in fact, it’s a residential neighborhood. Fordham Drive – where the marker is located – is a totally unremarkable, middle-class street, part of a development of similar-looking streets and homes. In fact, were it not for Google, I probably never would have found the marker, which is a plaque affixed to a stone in the narrow, grassy center strip of Fordham drive.

IMG00229a Here are two shots of the marker-up close. The only camera I had with me today was my BlackBerry, so unfortunately the photos aren’t great, but the marker is legible in the second photo.

IMG00231IMG00230President McKinley is a pretty forgotten president today – for starters, he’s overshadowed by his Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, who took the oath of office in a Buffalo mansion after McKinley died – but it’s obvious that at the time his death was a big deal, and monuments to him (statues, etc.) can be found all over the country. A major one is right in front of Buffalo’s City Hall. In fact, just by searching the web I’m inclined to believe that there are more McKinley-related monuments around the US than their are monuments/memorials to President Kennedy. This makes sense: the Spanish-American War was a big moment, culturally and politically, for the United States and its emergence as a world power in the 20th century, and McKinley led that effort. And McKinley was the 3rd President to die by an assassin’s bullet in 36 years – this must have been traumatic for the nation. Nonetheless, McKinley is not really honored or revered today. By comparison, Dealey Plaza (which I visited in 2008) is preserved pretty much as it was in 1963, and it’s also the site of a large, popular museum dedicated to Kennedy’s assassination. In President Lincoln’s case, while Ford’s Theatre was converted into an office building shortly after his assassination in 1865, it was finally “restored” in 1968 and is now a popular historic site, as is the home across the street where he died a few hours after being shot. For Kennedy and Lincoln, these sites act as pseudo (if macabre) shrines where modern-day visitors can learn a bit more about each President and pay their respects. No such luck for McKinley; not only were the Pan-American buildings all torn down two months after his death, but even the building where he convalesced and died was torn down to build a parking lot in the 1950s. (Similar fates befell spots associated with President Garfield’s fatal shooting). Probably thousands of people drive by the McKinley marker each month and have no idea that it’s there. Meanwhile, the house where Roosevelt took the oath of office is preserved as a national historic site!

From Fordham Drive, I headed back to the airport to visit the War of 1812 cemetery. It wasn’t hard to find; it’s on a winding, narrow road behind the airport, sandwiched in between a number of nondescript industrial and/or city-owned facilities.


I had learned ahead of time that the cemetery contains 205 American and British war dead who had met their fates in a nearby military hospital c. 1814-15. Almost all died of dysentery and diarrhea. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine – and especially antibiotics – we forget how the biggest killer in war used to be infection, not wounds. Even in the Civil War and WWI, disease and infection took a tremendous toll on fighting forces, turning even minor wounds into death sentences for thousands of young men. The quality of medical care didn’t matter; Presidents Garfield and McKinley both died of wounds and resulting infections that modern medicine could have patched-up quickly. One historian thinks Garfield could have been back to work the very next day had he been shot today. Instead, he spent 3 months slowly dying of terrible infections.

IMG00235 The cemetery is small and nicely kept by the Buffalo Historical Society, although it’s clear right away that this must have been used as a mass grave; individual graves are not marked. Instead, white crosses are placed haphazardly throughout the cemetery, each with an American and British flag placed adjacent (with one Canadian flag at the entrance to the cemetery, as shown above). Judging by other photos I found, I’m guessing these flags were placed for Memorial Day, or at least very recently.

It’s a small cemetery; I took this photo near the outer fence looking back towards the road.

IMG00236 I was glad to see this cemetery so well-maintained. It could have easily been forgotten about in the aftermath of the war.

What was the “War of 1812”* about? We learned about this in high school, but it didn’t make much sense then and it doesn’t really now, either. Unlike the Revolution or the Civil War, it’s not a war that figures much into the modern American narrative, and unlike those wars you can’t explain it with one sentence. The Revolution: “We want independence.” Civil War: “Slavery is bad”. War of 1812: “The British were mistreating sailors and we thought Britain was arming Indians and Britain was fighting France and we were considering conquering Canada and…”.

* A misnomer, as the war ran from 1812-1815.

In the end, the war resulted in no territorial gains and didn’t do much to resolve the grievances that sparked it. As a teenager, I once spent a day sightseeing in San Francisco with a nice Canadian couple, one of whom was a history teacher. He explained to me that Americans don’t like to talk about the War of 1812 because we lost it. I also learned then that Canadians believe that the war was primarily about conquering Canada (though contemporary American sources indicate that the US likely wanted to capture Canadian territory to use as bargaining chips with the UK, not to keep), and that their successful effort (as a British colony) to repel us was instrumental in forging Canadian’s identity and ultimate independence. Wikipedia has decent pages discussing some of the war’s causes and its outcomes.

Anyway, other than giving us future presidents Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison and the “Star-Spangled Banner”, looking back almost two hundred years later it’s hard to see how the War of 1812 changed anything, other than fill this cemetery and many others. I wonder what sort of commemorations we’ll see over 2012-2015, as the 200th anniversary of key dates and battles from the “War of 1812” come around. I don’t expect it will be like 1976 again.

In the meantime, this Memorial Day, it made me glad to see these soldiers commemorated with new flags and fresh flowers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

May 22-23: Final weekend in Vietnam

Originally posted at the Boston University Executive MBA 2010 Capstone Trip blog.

I'm writing my final post for the EMBA blog from Needham, Massachusetts. Yes, I'm back home, following 24+ hours of plane travel that took me from Saigon to Logan Airport. I was accompanied by about half of EMBA. The rest of the class chose to stay on in the area, or in Vietnam, in several cases joined by their respective spouses.

Our last weekend in Saigon was (mostly) about being tourists and only about being students for a few final hours on Saturday afternoon.

The day began with most of us spread out across the city for some serious… shopping. Turns out Saigon is a lot like Canal Street in downtown Manhattan, filled with thousands and thousands of designer knock-offs available for consumers with tight budgets. Several of us trekked a mile or so to the Bien Than market, a mega-block size building containing thousands of individual vendors and their booths.

Pictures from my camera don't do justice to the sheer size of this particular market, with countless narrow aisles packed with merchandise from floor to ceiling. And all types of merchandise – clothing, luggage, food, jewelry, watches, etc. etc. Only one rule applied: Every price was negotiable. If the vendor tells you she wants 600,000 VND for a Burberry wallet (roughly $30), you can almost definitely get it for 200,000 VND or less. If you're not comfortable converting dollars to VND, no worries – she can do it, even if the only words in English she can say are "dollar", "best quality", and "buy from me". She'll also produce a calculator to help make the negotiation faster and easier to understand. If she won't drop the price to 200,000 for you, just walk away: you'll likely find the same item elsewhere in the market, or she'll quickly drop the price to 200,000. But caveat emptor: What you're buying is fake, and probably a low-quality fake at that. For example, I brought a vendor down from $10 to $5 for a used English-language paperback book published by Random House. It was wrapped in plastic, but looked real enough to my eyes. Upon unwrapping, I discovered that the binding and cover were genuine enough, but the book itself was a low-quality photocopy of the real thing – even the photo pages were poor photocopies. So much for my 50% price break. Likewise, a "leather" wallet I picked-up is, upon closer inspection, definitely vinyl, and cheap vinyl at that. A similar item would likely never sell on Canal Street.

My complaints aside, most of my classmates were happier/more successful with their purchases, loading up roughly four dozen (total) "genuine" Rolexes and other similar watches, for example. Two of those "genuine" watches stopped working less than 24 hours after purchase, but I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

Heading back from the market on foot, we saw Dan and Ken seeking alternate transportation. At least they are wearing helmets!

My only disappointment today is that I had hoped to make my way down to Saigon's Chinatown – supposedly the largest in the world – to visit a church known as Cha Tam, or the Church of St. Francis Xavier (see photo, not mine), which in addition to be a stunning church c. 1900 – you can find photos all over the Internet –played a key role in the 1963 coup that overthrew South Vietnam's president. The coup is generally seen as a major turning point, unintentionally deepening US involvement in Vietnam to a tremendous degree. The coup has hung over countless debates about US interventions abroad in the 47 years since; you can be certain that someone in the White House is thinking about Ngo Diem and the '63 coup when they worry about Hamid Karzaitoday.

Unfortunately, despite my eagerness to make the trip, it turned out that Chinatown was a whopping 40 minutes by taxi from our hotel. Given all of our time in buses this week –and that there was a good chance the taxi (or the taxi back) would lack AC in the 90F weather – I couldn't bring myself to make the trip. Now I've got another reason to go back to Saigon sometime.

In the afternoon, EMBA gathered for our last official academic activity: our final presentations. Each team was tasked with presenting to Professors Suarez, Menezes, and Russo on our conclusions from the trip, specifically focusing on our observations during the trip, how we'd modify our original business plan in light of those observations, and whether we still believed our plan was viable. After our presentations, the faculty quizzed us on our assumptions and conclusions. It was interesting to see how comfortable and in-command each team had become of their plans: their strengths, their weaknesses, and everything in between. We concluded the presentations, not surprisingly, with a round of applause and cheering. The next time we'll all meet as students will be for graduation.

Post-presentations, we put on our best duds and headed a few blocks away to the Mandarin, a beautiful, five-story restaurant where we occupied an entire floor. It was a great dinner, capped with some student awards and birthday wishes for Dan A. (seen here taking his own photos).

To our surprise, the well-regarded restaurant was right in the middle of Saigon's unusually well-regulated "red light" district – essentially, countless brothels disguised as trendy bars lining both sides of a small street (sorry, no photos!).

Sunday was our last day in Vietnam. Some members of the class who had previously done the Mekong Delta trip chose to take the tunnel trip – I guess they read my previous write-up! – and the rest of us occupied ourselves with more shopping or (in my case) wandering around the city on foot. As I passed the Notre-Dame Cathedral (across from the Central Saigon Post Office), I saw 3 weddings in progress.

Finally, it was off the airport to start the long trip home – from Ho ChiMinh City to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Vancouver, Vancouver to JFK, and JFK to Logan.

While I am looking forward to seeing my family and friends and drinking clean tap water again, I am sure I am going to miss my trip to Vietnam, and especially the people with whom I took the trip. It was not only amazing 10 days abroad, but an amazing 17 months in EMBA.

I'll leave you with this photo of EMBA relaxing in the Ho Chi Minh airport prior to take off, watching… "Tom & Jerry". Thanks for following the blog.

Friday, May 21, 2010

May 21: Second day of site visits in Ho Chi Minh City

Originally posted at the Boston University Executive MBA 2010 Capstone Trip blog.

Friday was our final day of site visits in Ho Chi Minh City. We confined ourselves to only two visits today, and for good reason: both were large facilities on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, requiring about 4 hours of total time in the buses.

Our first trip (roughly 90 minutes) took us to one of the largest, if not the largest, shoe manufacturing plants in the world. Operated by a South Korean company, HWASEUNG, who operates plants from China to Detroit, it manufactures 1.45 million shoes each month. Yes, 1.45 million shoes – sneakers, specifically. That's a lot of feet. It's also a lot of plant – 1.6 million square feet – on 4.2 million square feet of land. And it's a lot of employees: 16,000. More on this in a minute...

We met first with Ky Lee, the head manager of the plant, who graciously hosted the entire class in their new, air-conditioned, state-of-the-art offices. We were joined by Ky's son, Hundee, who is applying to BU with the intention of attending next year! Clearly a smart young man. We were also joined by several people who report to Ky directly, from a variety of different countries (European and Asian).

After sharing a short video presentation on HWASEUNG's worldwide operations, Ky and his team spoke about the aims, goals, and output of the Vietnamese plant. This led to quite a few questions from our class- so many that it pushed back our next event, the factory tour, by about fifteen minutes. Normally, this wouldn't be a big issue, but when your tour starts by walking down the same road several thousand people used to reach the cafeteria right around lunch time, you've got a big traffic jam on your hands.

Fortunately, the plant's workers seemed to enjoy seeing us as much as we enjoyed seeing them, and the delay wasn't significant. Once we got through the crowds, we traveled through multiple parts of the production process, seeing some truly gargantuan, modern facilities.

One common refrain we've heard from Vietnamese plant owners is that they get tired of hearing Westerners assume every southeast Asian plant is run by child/prison/slave labor. We were all fairly impressed with the conditions at HWASEUNG's plant, which was clean, well-lit, modern, and filled with employees who were ready to smile and make eye-contact while still displaying a high degree of concentration on their work. We also saw on on-site clinic providing healthcare and a modern cafeteria. The factory floors were not air-conditioned, but even in the US that's not too unusual. All of the design/planning offices were fairly cool.

However, you couldn't help but notice that most employees on the factory floor were young women, and while you did see men, they were much more likely to be in managerial roles.

Our hosts told us that the average factory employee makes $120 USD per month, inclusive of overtime, which (back of the envelope) works out to about $0.60/hour. We heard conflicting information on whether or not these jobs were highly sought by women in Vietnam, but they did seem like safer, better-paying opportunities than, say, farming in the rice patties or selling flowers in the streets of Hanoi, but even in our conversations with multiple people both in and outside of the factory, there wasn't a clear consensus on that. What we did hear over and over is that the Vietnamese were generally happy to have the foreign investment and plant development, and looked forward to the factory's planned ramp-up to 1.6 million shoes per month later this year.

We left the plant and headed off for lunch. At this point, still essentially in the countryside (though technically the outskirts of HCMC), our guide warned us four times that the restaurant we'd be visiting for lunch was not used to serving Westerners and that it may differ from our previous eating experiences in Vietnam. We didn't think this was promising, but the restaurant turned out to be fantastic, serving a giant, well-cooked, diverse meal in a modern, air-conditioned restaurant – complete with multiple flat-screen TVs playing some sort of Victoria's Secret-themed reality marathon!

From there, it was on to our final site visit of the trip: Intel. Intel is in the process of making the largest foreign direct investment in Vietnam ever: $1 billion USD. We had the opportunity to visit their brand-new, state-of-the-art plant, which opened its doors in July 2009.

After arriving, we were treated to an in-depth presentation that helped us to understand exactly why Intel had chosen Vietnam. In short: The Vietnamese government made an offer Intel couldn't refuse, beating lesser (and less eager) offers from India and China. And it was clear that Vietnam's government had gone to huge efforts to help Intel, helping them develop proper power and waste water facilities for their 500,000 square foot facility. With only 400 employees today (9% of whom are expats), they plan to be at full capacity of 4000 employees within 3-5 years, and will start officially shipping chipsets in July of this year. However, Intel was also clear about the challenges they've faced, notably in recruiting qualified engineers in Vietnam, despite the company's formidable internal education and training offerings. For example, right now every engineer is shipped to an Intel facility outside Vietnam for training, and every employee receives English language training, as Intel's official language is English.

Touring Intel's giant (but still mostly empty) offices, we were impressed by how much Intel in Vietnam looks exactly like Intel in Santa Clara – same cubes, same chairs, same breakout rooms ("Play", "Moms", "War Room", etc.), same language. And our hosts stressed that Intel would make all of the same benefits available to employees in Vietnam as they did to employees elsewhere in the world. It's clear that Intel is not a company looking to adapt to Vietnam's local environment as much as they are importing an entire ecosystem into Vietnam. Like HWASEUNG, they are building a profitable, productive mini-state in the far reaches of HCMC offering thousands of employment opportunities for the local workforce.

Finally, touring Intel's production floor (no photos allowed!) we learned all about the challenges of developing a clean-room for chipset manufacture. With a clean room that is eight (American!) football fields long, Intel could not find the expertise required for the construction in-country and choose to bring a Japanese contracting firm in instead – something else with which the government immediately agreed.

It was time to head back to Saigon and a good debrief with Professors Menezes, Suarez, and Russo at the Caravelle. Our teams then met individually to prepare for our final (really final!) presentations on Saturday, and then headed to dinner on the town. Many in the class wound-up, in all places, at the Hard Rock Café in Saigon. Yes, you read that right – the Hard Rock Café. I've never visited one before, but I'm pretty sure it followed the US model closely: classic Rock memorabilia, American burgers and beer, and rock-n-roll music. One thing I'm sure other Hard Rock Cafes don't have is an all-Vietnamese band performing surprisingly good covers of "Highway to Hell", "Sweet Child O' Mine", "Paradise City", and (wait for it) "Stairway to Heaven", and I'm pretty sure I saw about half of EMBA dancing at one point… if only I could find pictures to prove it…!

Tomorrow: A few hours for shopping in Saigon, and our final Capstone presentations.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

May 20: First day of site visits in Ho Chi Minh City

Originally posted at the Boston University Executive MBA 2010 Capstone Trip blog.

Our first full day of site visits in Ho Chi Minh City didn't take us far from downtown Saigon and the area of our hotel, but the incessant heat and humidity here made our buses seem a little less extravagant.

Our first stop was at Family Medical Practice of Ho Chi Minh City, the sister organization to the FMP we had visited a few days before in Hanoi. Compared to Hanoi, the HCMC office was larger, busier, and like Hanoi it was seemingly as modern and well-kept as any equal-sized American medical office. We had an opportunity to meet with several medical staff and tour the facility extensively.

The biggest difference between our time at FMP in Hanoi and HCMC was that we had an opportunity for Q&A with Dr. Rafi Kot, the Israeli expatriate who first came to Vietnam with a German NGO in the 1980s and went on to found FMP. Dr. Kot spoke passionately and at length about the challenges, rewards, and future of FMP and similar high-end, highly targeted medical service offerings in a country where so much of the infrastructure (physical and human) for better medicine simply doesn't exist today. He reminded many in our class of Michael Brosowski, the founder of Blue Dragon in Hanoi, in that it was clear that Dr. Kot's clarity of vision and will were key factors in building FMP in Vietnam, and that without them it would be a very different organization (if it existed at all).

From FMP, it was on to a lunchtime panel with Dragon Capital at a restaurant not far from our hotel. Dragon Capital is the largest foreign portfolio investment firm in Vietnam today and had provided some guidance to my own EMBA team while we were developing our Capstone plan over the spring. Established in 1994, today Dragon Capital has assets under management of over $1.2 billion US dollars. For our panel, Dragon brought four senior members of their team. Dragon kicked-off the event with a presentation about Dragon's investments and strategy in Vietnam today, as well as many of the things they must contend with in order to be successful in such an immature capital market. For example, they regularly worry about volatility in multiple internal currency markets, including the Vietnamese Dong, the US dollar, and gold – more on this later. They also worry about interest rates that can change wildly at government whim and cited a recent jump from 8% to 16% as a good example.

After their presentation, Dragon had an opportunity to hear from EMBA, as they graciously agreed to hear brief pitches of each EMBA team's Capstone plan and provide instant feedback. Needless to say, this was a huge opportunity for each team to have their idea reviewed by people with far, far more experience in the markets of Vietnam today, and Dragon obliged with some sharp, thoughtful, on-topic feedback.
From lunch, it was back to the hotel and time for another panel. This time, it was one focused on the tourism industry in Vietnam, and was graciously hosted by John Gardner, General Manager of the Caravelle Hotel (where we are staying in Saigon). John joined the panel itself, as did multiple players in developing and promoting tourism in Vietnam. In the audience were not only students of EMBA and faculty but also local press, government, and other parties interested in how the tourism industry in Vietnam is adapting to a growing market today and where it might be headed.

The next 90 minutes generated many conversations among participants, as the panel answered questions about the greatest need in Vietnam's tourism market today (better customer service!), the inability/unwillingness of the Vietnamese government to help promote tourism, Vietnam's growing tourist trade but unusually low return rates, and other topics. It was clear by the end that a wealth of opportunities are waiting for willing entrepreneurs.

Afterwards, I chose to end the day – along with 10 other classmates – at a nice restaurant across town called (get ready for it) New York Steakhouse. (Believe it or not, after a week of Vietnamese food, having the opportunity to eat steak and mashed potatoes seems like a good idea). The meal was delicious and the company good, but it ended – like many group meals here have – with lots of messing around with currency. While Vietnam has its own currency (the Vietnamese Dong, or VND) the US dollar (USD) is widely used and accepted and sometimes even preferred here, provided the US bills are crisp and you're not a stickler for exact change. For really big transactions – homes, property, etc. – the Vietnamese prefer to trade in gold pieces purchased from jewelers. Our meal didn't require gold, thankfully, but even trying to sort out the bill when individuals were trying to pay with VND or USD required about 15 minutes.

Even after we'd spent 15 minutes sorting it out, we still needed help from the restaurant to confirm we'd done our currency conversions properly.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

May 19: Sightseeing in Saigon

Originally posted at the Boston University Executive MBA 2010 Capstone Trip blog.

We got an early start on Wednesday, May 19, our first day in Saigon, which was dedicated to sightseeing in a few small groups. We were joined by our guide from Destination Asia, Dzung. A real student of Vietnamese and US history, he added tremendous amounts of context and colorful detail to everything we would see and do during the day.

EMBA had two choices for sightseeing in the AM: a boat trip on the Mekong Delta or a visit to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels. Neither were close to central Saigon, so it was a one-or-the-other proposition. I chose to head to Cu Chi tunnels with 12 classmates and Professor Menezes. The trip out took a little under 2 hours, with crawling morning Saigon traffic turning to speedier highways outside the city and finally slower rural roads through farms, rice patties, and rubber plantations as we got closer to Cu Chi district (technically the outermost limits of Ho Chi Minh City). Dzung entertained us for the first hour of the trip with stories about the changing perceptions of the Vietnamese with regard to the US, capitalism, and other topics, and also pointed out interesting sights (some related to the "American War") along the way.

We got to Cu Chi around 10 AM. Cu Chi is a giant, complex network of tunnels dug initially by Vietnamese farmers in the late 1940s but expanded significantly in the 1960s by the Viet Cong as a way to hide from American forces. The finished network was incredibly complex, with living quarters, wells, meeting rooms, and more.

But more amazing than the facilities built into the network were the tunnels themselves. Long, durable, winding, and extraordinarily narrow and claustrophobic, the Viet Cong would travel for hundreds of miles to evade US tanks, infantry, and bombs. Several tunnels have been widened for tourist access by 4-10" inches; even so, as various members of EMBA made our way through them, our shoulders pressed against both sides of the tunnel. The original un-widened) tunnel entrances remain tough to find, and only certain body types can make it through their entrances.

US forces made multiple efforts to destroy the tunnels during the war, heavily bombing the area (B-52 bomb craters are visible everywhere) and coating it Agent Orange In fact, most of the trees you see today are non-native species introduced in the 1990s to try to reforest an area still polluted with chemical leftovers. Despite all of this, the US never managed to significantly disrupt the tunnel network, and an extensive network of gruesome booby traps – many made by carefully disassembling and reusing live but undetonated US ordnance dropped on the area – kept Gis from ever getting too close. In short, the Cu Chi tunnels were the ultimate low-cost disruptor.

It was at Cu Chi where we witnessed perhaps Vietnam's greatest capitalist triumph to date: A shooting range for tourists featuring weapons captured from American forces. Yes, here, in this wilderness area dotted with signs of America's failure (e.g., the hulk of a blown-out Abrams tank we passed) and no doubt the site of many wounds or fatalities for young Americans, you come across a large gift shop and snack bar with an adjoining shooting range where for only a few thousand Dong you can fire M-60s, M-16s, etc., as many tourists we saw were doing (including some of our own). To put this in perspective, can you imagine a shooting range and snack bar on the Pearl Harbor Memorial?

After lunch on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, we headed next to the Reunification Palace. This is the former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam from 1954-1975, and it was here on April 30, 1975 that North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates and South Vietnam ceased to exist. The building and grounds have been carefully maintained since then, including the original furnishings and the war command center in the basement levels.

It's a popular tourist site for foreigners and Vietnamese alike. In fact, while we were touring, we saw an elderly group of Vietnamese men, many in combat fatigues and wearing medals, in the company of their extended families on their own tour. Dzung explained that they were Viet Cong and North Vietnamese veterans.

From the Palace, we headed over the Museum of Vietnamese History. On the way, we passed the site of the US Consulate. Until the mid-1990s, this compound contained the remains of the US embassy, which was abandoned by the US and occupied by North Vietnam in April of 1975, and remained as a testament to America's failure in the war for decades afterwards (and a popular local attraction). In 1996, at the request of the US, Vietnam demolished the old building and allowed the US to build a new consulate. Still, we did not see any US flags flying, and a Vietnamese memorial honoring the Tet Offensive of March 1968 (during which the embassy was briefly captured) stands conspicuously in front.

The Museum of Vietnamese History was not something I had planned to see in Saigon, but it was definitely worth the visit. It's laid out chronologically starting around 400,000 BC (!) but moves quickly through the last two centuries of Vietnamese history. Short version of Vietnam's history: Conquered, re-conquered, and re-conquered again every few centuries by every major Asian power. Massive confluence of different cultures, religions, styles of writing, etc. Only since 1975 has Vietnam been truly independent. Our final stop of the day was the Saigon Central Post Office, built by the Eiffel Company in the early 20th century, when Vietnam was a French colony. It's a large, beautiful, active building often mistaken (understandably) for a rail station.

But more interesting, at least to me, is that by standing in front of the post office, you can see the Pittman Apartments. Never heard of them? You might not have, but you've undoubtedly seen them in this famous photo by Hubert Van Es, a photo that can still put that "sinking" feeling into the chest of any American (even one who, like me, was too young to remember the event when it happened).

It's not possible to take a photo of the Pittman Apartments from the same angle seen in the original photo today, thanks to all of the development in Saigon. All you can get is this photo of the top of an unremarkable, unattractive, aging apartment complex completely dwarfed by signs of Vietnam's rapid economic growth.

Our tour having ended, I headed out for a cup of coffee before heading back to the hotel and finally out to a great dinner at a local restaurant with a dozen classmates and Professor Russo. I wound-up buying an Americano at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (yes, the California chain) and walking past Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and Louis Vuitton on the way there. Yes, in Saigon.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May 18: Second day of site visits in Hanoi

Originally posted at the Boston University Executive MBA 2010 Capstone Trip blog.

Tuesday, May 18th was our last day in Hanoi. Things started early with a trip to PayNet, an internet startup focused on electronic payments, including online and pay-by-mobile phone. In many ways, PayNet looked familiar to an American audience, with a large, young staff sprawled across makeshift offices occupying several floors of a building: the classic dotcom.

Like a US dotcom, they've amassed a variety of funding sources and some early successes, but they also have some challenges a dotcom with a similar focus in wouldn't encounter in the US. Namely, in a country where less than a quarter of the population is "banked" (i.e., has a bank account), getting acceptance of virtual cash transactions is a significant barrier to success. Most transactions in Vietnam are conducted in cash (or, for larger transactions – property, homes, etc. – in gold!). Only recently has government policy started pushing larger companies towards a direct deposit method as part of a broader tax reform policy. While this bodes well for long-term acceptance of electronic payment, it also represents a threat to PayNet, as the new government initiative also puts debit cards in thousands of hands across the country – and creates a direct competitor to PayNet's offering.

After an enjoyable hour at PayNet, we headed out for our next visit, but had an interesting detour along the way. We stopped at the side of Truc Bach Lake, a large, scenic lake in central Hanoi. In October of 1967, the A-4E Skyhawk being piloted by future-Senator John McCain was shot down during a bombing mission, and McCain parachuted into Truc Bach. He was badly injured when ejecting, nearly drowned in the lake, and after being pulled to safety by local Vietnamese he was beaten and bayoneted. The Vietnamese have marked this spot with a memorial detailing McCain's crash, and – if the interpretation we received is correct – taking great pride in capturing him. McCain was prominent at the time as the son of the current Commander-in-Chief of Naval Forces in Europe (and soon to be named to that position in the Pacific) and no doubt a prized prisoner for North Vietnam.

To me, the interesting thing about this marker wasn't that it existed, but that it appeared to be in relatively poor shape. Unlike the pristinely kept monuments to Ho Chi Minh we had seen two days earlier, the McCain marker was surrounded by litter and visibly eroding. There's no doubt the Vietnamese had originally erected this marker as one of pride, but I found myself wondering whether it wasn't inconvenient for them these days, when Senator McCain has played such an important role in normalizing US-Vietnamese relations and Vietnam seems to work hard to downplay the "American War" when working with tourists, business people, and other Americans. I found myself thinking of Nelson's Column, in Montreal. If you've been to Old Montreal, you've seen Nelson's Column, which was erected in 1809 to honor Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar – when a British fleet defeated a French fleet – a century earlier. In the century that had elapsed since the battle, however, England had captured "New France", and there's no doubt that it was at least a little culturally insensitive to put this giant monument to someone who engineered a famous French defeat in the middle of a predominantly French-speaking city. Two hundred years hasn't made the Column any more popular. Today, Nelson's Column looks distinctly unloved, surrounded by a heavy, wrought-iron gate to deter vandals, with weeds growing everywhere and the weather having taken its toll. It's too notable to dismantle, but suggesting that Montreal renovate it would only antagonize local passions. I suspect the McCain marker falls into this category, too, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that future American tourists find it in an even more degraded state. It's a symbol of Vietnam's past, not their future.

After our stop by the lake, we headed on to the Family Medical Practice, located in a Hanoi neighborhood dominated by diplomats and their families. Founded by an Israeli expatriate over a decade ago and staffed heavily with foreign doctors, FMP provides 24-hour clinic-level medical services in a manner and facility that would look very familiar to someone from the US or Europe. It was a dramatic shift from the hospital we had visited the day before. Not surprisingly, FMP provides services not offered or compensated by the state in Vietnam, and caters primarily to expatriates, their families, and wealthier Vietnamese. They also have a clinic in Ho Chi Minh City that we plan to visit in several days. Anyhow, there was no end to EMBA questions at FMP, and the staff graciously spoke with us for well over an hour about the challenges of practicing and delivering medicine in modern Vietnam. Even with FMP, most persons of means in Vietnam still travel to Singapore for major medical attention. The staff also discussed the challenges of creating and staffing a startup medical service there, and how they might expand to provide more services as Vietnam grows wealthier, making their care more affordable to a broader group of people.

On our way out, we saw a young bride and groom getting their pictures taken on the street!

Next up was lunch, where we had the chance to host and hear from the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, along with representatives from several US companies operating in Vietnam, including Morgan Stanley, ExxonMobil, and Emerson Electric. The Chamber representatives graciously answered our many questions about doing business in Vietnam today and how it has changed over the last few years. They spoke in depth in a few areas of interest that our sites visits had magnified – most notably infrastructure, corruption, and what it was like to be an expat with a family in Vietnam today.

Our last stop of the day was the Hanoi Stock Exchange. Founded only in the last few years, the HNX (and its sister exchange in Ho Chi Minh City) allows Vietnamese companies to become owned and traded publicly. While only listing several hundred companies today, the exchange has grown quickly, primarily as a way for companies to improve their capital position. EMBA toured the HSE's temporary facilities (their permanent location, across from the Hanoi Opera House, is currently under renovation) and had ample opportunity to learn more about the exchange. While it's a far cry from the NYSE today, HNX is another sign of a rapidly changing economic climate in Vietnam.

We made a last pit-stop at the hotel for an animated debrief of the day's site visits led by Professor Fernando Suarez before heading to the airport and catching an 8:30 PM flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Somewhat to our surprise, the Vietnam National flight was on a well-appointed and staffed Airbus 330, a significantly bigger and more modern flight than the one that had brought so many of us over from Hong Kong a few days earlier. We landed in Ho Chi Minh City 2 hours later, met our tour guides, and boarded our buses for the city. Immediately, we noticed the substantially better (and saner) road networks of the city and its surroundings when compared to what we'd seen in Hanoi.

Fact of the day: "Ho Chi Minh City" refers to a large, expanded metropolitan area, and it's made up of many individual districts. The central district is still called Saigon, but you'll find that most Vietnamese refer to the entire city of Saigon, regardless of what the signage says.

Tomorrow: Touring Saigon!

Monday, May 17, 2010

May 17: First day of site visits in Hanoi

Originally posted at the Boston University Executive MBA 2010 Capstone Trip blog.

Monday, May 17, was our first day of site visits, and a very full day for EMBA 22.

We started the day early with a visit by Donald Nay, the commercial attaché for the US Consulate in Vietnam, who joined us for breakfast at the hotel. Donald started by telling us his story: turns out he is a BU grad himself whose mother grew up in Jamaica Plain and his father in Dedham. In many ways, Donald's story perfectly mirrors America's involvement in Vietnam over the last half-century. His father served in Vietnam from 1964-1965. In the early 1980s, Donald and his wife interviewed thousands of Vietnamese refugees ("boat people"). Two decades later, he found himself working for the Department of Commerce in Vietnam. Donald had lot of interesting information to share with our class about current trade-related developments between the US and Vietnam and added some insight and background on current US trade initiatives in Vietnam during the coming years. He also reminded us about Vietnam's recent economic history: the failures of the centrally-planned post-1975 economy, the famine of 1988, and then the growth of economic development in the 1990s and 2000s. Since 2000, trade with the United States alone has grown by seventeen-fold. Counterfeiting, corruption, and poor infrastructure (more on this later) remain serious problems, but with a tech-savvy, young population (75% born after the "American War"), and plenty of low-cost labor, Vietnam holds lots of promise for future development.

After breakfast, we packed into our two buses (colorfully named "Bus 1" and "Bus 2") and headed to our first official site visit at Blue Dragon. If we haven't mentioned it already, traffic in Hanoi has to be seen to be believed. Thousands of motorcyclists parry openly with cars, buses, and other vehicles on often-tight, winding roads. The motorcyclists seem to show no fear and very little respect for traffic lights and other posted signage. We learned quickly that waiting on the corner for people to stop is a non-starter; you just need to boldly stride into traffic and show no fear! The motorcyclists aren't the only offenders, as we learned on our way to Blue Dragon. Both Bus 1 and Bus 2 executed 3-lane-blocking turns to get into a tiny side street on the way to our designation, with various members of the Destination Asia team bravely blocking and re-routing traffic.

Blue Dragon is an NGO devoted to saving the street kids of Vietnam, particularly in major cities. Founded by Michael Brosowski, an Australian expatriate, since 2004 Blue Dragon has helped hundreds of Vietnamese children get back on the right track, whether to school, work, or drug rehab. They provide education and social work right in their center. Michael went into detail explaining how Blue Dragon had been established, the barriers they had faced in getting off the ground, and what restrictions they struggle with today. We also heard from some of his (Vietnamese) staff and some of the now-young adults for whom Blue Dragon had been a lifesaver. The entire class came away impressed by the dedication of the staff and work they are doing every single day despite considerable barriers (financial, staffing, and slow initial government acceptance, among others).

Next up was Breath of Life, a company that develops customized, clinical solutions to reduce neonatal mortality and morbidity in developing countries. Today, we saw them work on a CPAP device used to help premature infants breath while their own lungs are given time to develop and breath on their own. Luciano Moccia, the International Coordinator at Breath of Life, helped us tour the offices where developers, technicians, and office administrators work to help build and distribute these machines across Vietnam, with an already impressive list of hospitals using them. Luciano explained that the introduction of these CPAP machines had reduced infant mortality rates in Vietnam's neonatal wards from 30% to 10%. Breath of Life makes them available for $2300.

In some ways, what Breath of Life was doing seemed high-tech, but in other ways – for example, when we walked through their tiny, hot, assembly workshop – it seemed extremely low-tech. It was a good example of low-cost innovation using very hand-assembled basic circuit board technology, but several classmates with manufacturing backgrounds noted that you would never see similar equipment being made in a tiny, nonstandard shop like this in the US.

On the other hand… perhaps it was the earlier day's trip to various sites associated with the "American War", but talking about infants with "respiratory distress syndrome" got me thinking about the most famous American baby to die of RDS during the time of that war, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. Born only five weeks premature in August of 1963 (and weighing four and a half pounds), Patrick lived only 2 days before succumbing to his breathing difficulties. The devices Breath of Life are making for the hospitals of Vietnam may seem simple (and cheap) to Westerners now, but less than 50 years ago, when the wealthiest nation of earth couldn't save the most prominent infant in America, they would have seemed like science fiction. It probably doesn't need to be said by an American trying to learn more about capitalism in 2010 by visiting Vietnam(!), but the world changes very quickly.

From Breath of Life, we headed over to the National Hospital of Pediatrics in Hanoi to see the CPAP devices in action. Upon arrival, it was clear that the hospital, while large, was in no way comparable to a US hospital. We were all struck by the overcrowding – 150 premature babies were in incubators designed for only 90 – and by the understaffing, with only 4 or 5 nurses visible in the entire ward, and finally by the overall hygiene standards, with open doors and windows and otherwise reusable plastic medical components being washed in unsterilized environments for quick reuse. Despite the presence of some modern lifesaving technology thanks to Breath of Life, Vietnam's state medical system is not something you would see in a developed country.

On the positive side, we did see signs of new development, with a brand-new ward taking shape next door.

From the hospital, we stopped for a great lunch at Le Tonkin before getting back into our buses for a longer trip out into the countryside to visit Ford Motor Company's plant in Vietnam. (Ford in Vietnam… what would former President of Ford Motor Company Robert McNamara think??) Ford has an enormous piece of property in the countryside with a small manufacturing plant, built in the mid-1990s. Through this plant, Ford has captured roughly 5% of the domestic car market, selling over 8,000 new vehicles in 2009. The automotive industry in Vietnam is really in its infancy; Ford's 5% is out of total sales of 120,000 new vehicles in a country of 80+ million, and that has to be measured against motorcycle sales of 13 million in the same year. Unfortunately for Ford, they don't sell motorcycles (the ones you see in the photo below are in the employee parking lot). Nonetheless, the Finance Director (who spoke with us for over an hour) was optimistic about Ford's prospects and their new "One Car" world strategy. We also had an opportunity to tour Ford's production plant extensively in the company of several plant managers, although unfortunately (but understandably) we were not permitted to take pictures. On the plus side, we did get to wear stylish Ford-blue hardhats and safety goggles.

After our visit, we headed back for Hanoi and a terrific debrief with Professor Melvyn Menenzes. The daily debrief gives us an opportunity to share and compare our learning for the day- both personally and professionally – and to discuss what if any impact today's visits had on our Capstone business plans. One item every team cited was the unbelievably poor state of infrastructure everywhere we looked; in a country where every other citizen seemed to have a cell phone, a Starbucks-like coffee chain appears on every other corner, and authorized Apple dealers could be found throughout the city, you'd see wiring like this everywhere you looked (sometimes worse), poorly maintained roads, etc. It was clear to everyone that infrastructure concerns were directly affecting each of the groups we had visited during the day (we even witnessed a blackout at Breath of Life).

After our debrief EMBA headed out for a self-directed last night out on the town. About half of us went to Quan Ngon for a big, fast, inexpensive dinner not far from the hotel before heading out for one last night on the town in Hanoi. Tomorrow, we'll spend one more day in the city before catching an evening flight to Ho Chi Minh City and the second half of our trip.

Bonus picture: A shot of beautiful of Hoan Keim Lake, not far from our hotel, taken from the roof deck of the Cityview Café. ($4 for 4 local beers – not bad!)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 14-16: The flight(s) over and sightseeing in Hanoi

Originally posted at the Boston University Executive MBA 2010 Capstone Trip blog.

Friday and Saturday (May 14-15) were both taken up by traveling. Roughly half of EMBA 22 chose the same set of flights from Boston to NYC via Jet Blue, and then NYC to Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific. Checking-in for that second flight led to this exchange for me at the ticket counter at JFK:

Airline agent: Your seat will be 62A. This is a window seat. Is that OK?
Me: Hey, if I have to sit through a 12-hour flight, a window seat is perfect. *
Airline agent: 15 hours.
Me: What?
Airline agent: Not 12 hours, 15 hours.
Me: Oh.

*This is sincere. I really do like window seats.

We left JFK around 10 AM and spent the next 15 hours at 30,000+ feet. Interestingly, east coast flights to Hong Kong travel over the north pole, making for some stunning scenery in northern Canada and Alaska. Believe it or not, 15 hours didn’t seem that long as long as you managed to watch a few movies, read, sleep, and chat with your EMBA classmates.

It helped that Cathay Pacific has some pretty comfortable seats, decent food, and screens in the back of every seat with a healthy supply of movies, recent TV, and music.

We landed in Hong Kong around 2 PM local time. The Hong Kong airport, built in the last few years, is enormous, comfortable, and full of exotic dining options.

After a four-hour layover, it was on to DragonAir, which brought us to Hanoi in just under 2 hours. We arrived around 7 PM local time (Hanoi being 11 hours ahead of Boston). The Hanoi airport looks a lot like many mid-size US airports, complete with many ATMs (including a Citibank), ads for mobile phones, flowers, etc. Interestingly, the Customs agent gave less scrutiny to my passport and visa than I typically get when I fly to Toronto (or fly back from Toronto), asking not a single question.

At the airport, we were met by a guide from Destination Asia, the tour agency working with EMBA, who quickly got us to a bus and into downtown Hanoi, roughly 30 minutes from the airport. Although it was nighttime, this was our first chance to look around Vietnam, which appeared (from the highway) to be a hodgepodge of the modern and the pre-modern, with rice patties mixed with 50s-style apartment houses, small merchants, and countless motorbikes. The last item probably made the biggest impression as we observed the very loose adherence to posted traffic signals by motorcyclists, people on scooters, motorists, and truck drivers alike. It was also amazing to see multiple people riding a single moped or motorbike – sometimes a couple, sometimes a family of four. Adults often (but not always) wear helmets; children (sometimes as young as 18 months, it seems) never do.

We checked into our very nice hotel (the Moevenpick Hotel, in downtown Hanoi, a five-star hotel) and settled in for the night.

Sunday, May 16 was dedicated to sightseeing. One obligatory sight for all tourists is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, featuring… the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh! Uncle Ho was the leader of Vietnam’s push for independence throughout the 20th century; he died (of natural causes) in 1969. His embalmed body has been on public display a la Lenin ever since. Despite arriving before 9 AM, thousands of people were already lined-up to visit his tomb. Fortunately, line management was fast – we were through in about an hour – but you can only see about 1/20th of the line (perhaps less) in this photo.

After the tomb, we also visited a museum dedicated to his life and the Temple of Literature, parts of which date back to 1070. Our guides provided a great sense of Vietnam’s long history and a better understanding of Vietnam’s pride at finally being free of foreign influence after a century of foreign domination (Chinese, French, and finally American). But they also stressed how the Vietnamese bear no ill will towards Americans today; as one said, “We forgive, but we don’t forget.”
Finally, we visited the “Hanoi Hilton”, the infamous prison that housed American pilots (including future Senator John McCain) during the Vietnam War. Prior to the “American War”, the French had used the prison to torture Vietnamese dissidents for over 50 years. It was a sobering visit for all of us. Interesting, most of the prison has been torn down in recent years, replaced by a giant office tower.

After a return to the hotel to change and wash-up, EMBA headed out for dinner, where we celebrated some milestone birthdays for Nick and Sally. A great first day.