Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Street Crossings

I shot a few videos around Hanoi, and I am thinking that I will do a few more. These are pretty amateur, and I had thought I would be able to edit them. Unfortunately, when my computer crashed I lost my iMovie, so I currently have no movie editing software. But until I do, enjoy some scenes from Hanoi's streets.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Vietnam Victorious!

Wow. Talk about excitement. Last night, Vietnam beat Thailand for the Asian Football cup, for the very first time. The entire country seemed to erupt in jubilation, and the streets were mobbed for hours with people playing pots and water jugs, riding around on their motorbikes, and waving flags.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays

On Monday I took the day off work and went to Halong Bay again with Annette. We kayaked out - despite the lack of directions that we got from the people with the kayaks. Fortunately Annette knew the way. That night we slept in a tent on Tiger beach (where local climbing company slo pony have their routes). Dinner was some banh my sandwiches (it has taken me 6 months to realize that when pronounced in an American accent that sounds like "bang me" - thanks Tim). We sat around a campfire and somehow it felt like Christmas Eve, so we did a little singing...

The next day (our "Christmas") we did 3 climbs and some more kayaking, then found ourselves a present! Annette and I decided to buy a bike from Andrew, who'd just biked from the Thai-Burma border. We rechristened his steed Bikel (formerly Iguana) and she's road ready for some great cycling trips in Southeast Asia. A merry Christmas indeed!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Vietnam Revises its Personal Income Tax

Vietnam just revised it's personal income tax law. One change is that foreigners and Vietnamese now face the same tax rates. These new tax rates are (by monthly income):

First 5million dong/month ($295) - 5%
5-10m ($295-592)/month - 10%
10-18m ($591-1,065)/month - 15%
18-32m ($1065-1,893)/month - 20%
32-52m (1,893-3,076)/month - 25%
52-80m (3,076-4,773)/month - 30%
over 80m/month (over $4,773 per month, or $56,000 per year) - 35%

So the top tax bracket is an annual salary of $56,000/year. Considering that I will make around $10,000 a year and I have a very highly paying job that means I can live pretty well, that is a truly luxurious salary. Our office estimates only 2% of the population earns that much in income.

I am actually a little bit surprised that in a socialist country the tax rate is so low. The highest marginal tax rate in many European countries hits 50-60%! Moreover, the bulk of the population here would fall into the first 3 tax brackets, meaning that in terms of income redistribution, the government is not doing a whole lot.

Also, the revision of the tax code actually raised the marginal tax rate on the first 5 million up from 0%, and lowered the highest marginal tax rate from 40% to 35%.

Like I said. Doesn't sound like the mom and pop version of socialism I learned about in history class.


In an earlier post, I noted that Vietnam had changed its income tax. What I did not point out at the time was that people earning under $5,000 were being taxed for the first time. The system introduced millions and millions of people into the tax system for the first time.

Insiders say that may be why the Vietnamese government suddenly declared a "no tax" payment period until May. Ostensibly it is supposed to help families in tough economic times; realistically, it may be the result of a completely overwhelmed, un-computerized tax system. Word is that they literally had to close their doors and shut the office, because their system is utterly overwhelmed.

Speaking of good economic news - Vietnam's stock exchange the HOSE has lost about 75% of it's value from a high of around 1100 in August of 2007. It's down to around 244 now.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Operation: Thanksgiving in 'Nam

As you may know, I love Thanksgiving. A holiday of unparalleled excellence, Thanksgiving is a beautiful time to unite family and friends, enjoy sumptous good food (especially Dad's stuffing & Mom's cranberry sauce), and give thanks for the wonderful things and people in our lives. I was quite sad not to be able to share that with my family (& Andy who still made it to my house!) this year.

As we did not get the day off, my Thanksgiving celebrations had to be postponed to Saturday, but I was determined to make it happen. Once I got the idea into my head, I found several others who were interested. And we all seemed to have non-American friends who wanted to join in the fun as well. It didn't seem to be adding up to too many people until suddenly we were having a dinner for 18+ people (it turned out to be 21 at the final count!).

From Operation Thanksgiving in 'Nam

Now, let's begin with the fact that I've never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner or organized one on my own. Then examine the relative availability of traditional Thanksgiving ingredients. Once you've pondered those obstacles, consider the fact that our kitchen equipment included 2 pots & frying pans, a 2 burner stove, 1 rice cooker, an electric kettle, and a fridge. Oh, and did I forget to mention that we only have about 9 chairs in the entire house? Hmmm... Well, the pilgrims certainly seemed to make due, so none of this made any difference, and in fact just steeled our wills further!

From Operation Thanksgiving in 'Nam

That, for example, was the oven we located. It was at Sylvia's house, and fortunately plugs into the wall so it could be carried down several alleys, put in a cab, and then carried down several more alleys to our house for a few days!

From Operation Thanksgiving in 'Nam

Then there was an Excel spreadsheet shopping list, divided into categories according to where we thought the ingredients could be found. We're talking as specific as having to go to one shop for butter, another shop all the way across town for bullion cubes, the market for produce, several different markets all over the city to get the required number of potatoes (we cleaned out a bunch of different women of their produce) - I think we finally had 6 kilos of potatoes, or something mad like that. Raisins, fresh yogurt, different spices, canned cranberry sauce - all of these were like puzzle pieces we searched for.

Fortunately there was great teamwork in the cooking, and several people brought prepared dishes. This included Jen's salad of arugula (who knows where she found that!) and Mel's pumpkin pie. Well, why don't I just share the entire menu?

Cheddar, rosemary & thyme biscuits (Aaron)
Banana Flower Salad (brought by Annette, from the bia hoi under the railroad tracks with the best banana flower salad in town)
Arugula Salad (Jen) with a delicate balsamic dressing, baby mandarin oranges and sesame seeds

Five roasted chickens (a Vietnamese lady)
Stuffing with raisins and pine nuts (Katy)
Vegan main dish of pseudo stuffed peppers (Katy)

Sweet potatoes mashed with bananas (Alison Jones)
Mashed potatoes with yogurt, butter & garlic (Aaron)
Green beans with onions and garlic (Alison and Scott)

Apple crumble (Long)
Pumpkin Pie (Mel)
Pumpkin no-bake cheesecake (Mel)
Vanilla Ice cream (Simon via Fanny's)

Wine & beer!

From Operation Thanksgiving in 'Nam

Now that's what I call a menu! Even better, we had a gaggle of countries represented, with showings from America, France, Holland, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand, and we had several "first" Thanksgivings!

From Operation Thanksgiving in 'Nam

All in all, it was the first Thanksiving where I felt the accomplishment that the pilgrims might have at getting it all together!

The only problem... we also don't have a dishwasher.

From Operation Thanksgiving in 'Nam

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Men, Women & Black Chicken

Men and women face a different legal drinking age in Viet Nam. It's 16 for men and 18 for women. I had a completely culturally inappropriate reaction when I learned this. Something like this: "NO WAY!?!"

I found this out the night I had a black chicken for dinner. I didn't have my camera, so I'm stealing this photo from someone else's blog about Vietnam.
From reading Wikipedia I found out these are called "Silkies" and actually have plumage that feels more like fur than feathers. A furry chicken! Who knew? It tasted pretty good. But the black feet did sort of unnerve me.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

As an American, I'm often called upon to explain our country's foreign policy, and one thing that I usually struggle to explain is the concept of 'American Exceptionalism.' Inevitably, this is one of fundamental pillars which I want to try to convey to whomever I am speaking with, because without an understanding of how Americans see themselves and our world, I cannot begin to explain why we have acted as we have, and why so many people believe strongly in America's foreign policy choices. I think our national myth (using myth in a rather anthropological sense) of 'American exceptionalism' is crucial to that self-image - and I've finally heard a definition of it that I think captures the essence of this idea:

"The mythic narrative goes like this: a nation, providentially set apart, in the New World, and wanting nothing more than to tend to its own affairs grudgingly responded to calls that it assume the mantel of global leadership in order to preserve the possibility of human freedom."

This is the definition given by Andrew Basovitch speaking on the November 3, 2008 at the Carnegie Council. (He is the author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism").

He goes on in that same discussion to claim that this mythic narrative has become detrimental to our ability as Americans to see the world as it truly is and ourselves as we truly are, arguing instead that America "became a great power because it sought power and succeeded spectacularly in acquiring it." The purpose of the distinction is to enable us to see how the expansion of freedom within the US in the latter part of 20th century was the result of a policy of expansionism that led to abundance, which in turn expanded access to freedom.

Anyway, it is an interesting argument, and if I could get my hands on his book, I would read it... Ah deprivation of English language books.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away...

So we've gotten a little bit of rain recently. And by a little bit, I mean we've gotten enough to flood a significant part of the city on and off for 2 days, and the rain's not going to stop. My friend Aaron finally braved the water snakes (fact or fiction?) and floating nastiness to get some food yesterday, and took this photo:

(That's Aaron in the blue shirt). Cars apparently floated away from where they were parked, and actually several people have died - including 3 kids on their way to school. I don't know the details, but I guess they drowned. That's put a damper on what would otherwise have mostly been a fairly odd but mostly inconvenient situation.

The rain's not from a typhoon or anything dramatic - it's just a storm, and it's the kind of more extreme weather that's expected with climate change. Trust me, I'm beginning to see the advantages of living in a city that's ABOVE sea level for the next 50 years. Hanoi lies right along the Red River, and the name actually means "city along the river" or "city over the river." Someone told me that not only is much of the city below the surface of the river, but the parts are below the bottom of the river.

Needless to say, we've got dykes, and actually dykes have been in place for over a thousand years to protect Hanoi. Even in the major recent floods of 1971 and 1996, these haven't failed. They ostensibly protect the city for floods of up to 13.5 meters. Below is a powerpoint slide I stole, but it has a diagram of the dyke that is sort of visible, and some statistics.

Nonetheless, the water levels were the highest that have been since since 1984. Here are some snapshots of other floods in recent history. I was sad to say that so far no one has broken out the boats...

Thinking back to the Gvdv seminar, it's funny to now be living in a place that was just a red "hotspot" for future climate-induced humanitarian trouble. Looking around town, being here has shown me both how both ill prepared Hanoi would be for a flood that broke the dykes, and yet also how unfased people seemed by it. No one panicked, and some people lost furniture, but I think the fact that almost everyone has a 4 story house (because they build tall & narrow), meant that everyone sort of retreated up and waited it out. That's what we did, anyway. People in general seemed pretty resourceful and calm, yet at the same time the extent to which people didn't modify their behavior (like those people who kept driving even though they were up to their windshields in water) also didn't always meet with a successful outcome. It's kind of an odd dichotomy, where no one really treats it like it's a huge deal, but at the same time, by not breaking their routines they don't necessarily demonstrate the ability to adapt if something really drastic occurred... I don't know. I'm curious to know what would happen.

For another interesting look at the water, here's the field where I usually play touch rugby on Saturdays. It's out in "Ciputra", this luxury housing complex about 5 miles away (hence the lovely white villas). The place where the cameraman is standing is up on a small hill that's a solid 1 meter higher than the level of the playing field. This was emailed out to the rugby list to explain why the game was cancelled on Saturday, even though "rugby's more fun in the mud"...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Halong Bay

I went to visit the crazy geology of Halong Bay last weekend. It's a UNESCO world heritage site - and home to over 1,600 limestone islands in the Gulf of Tonkin (which is famous for a different reason). You can get there from Hanoi in a few hours - we started out at 5 AM with a xe om (motorbike) to the bus station, where we caught a bus to Haiphong and a speedboat from there to Cat Ba island. At that point, it was about 10 AM, and we met up with the fella we''d hired to take us around for the weekend. Around eleven we got aboard and started motoring, stopping first to pick up our kayaks at one of the floating villages and eat a lunch of fish and rice en route. Finally, around 2, we had arrived at the set of islands we'd been looking for to do a little deep water solo climbing.

The idea of deep water soloing is that if you're climbing on a cliff that's over deep water, you don't need safety equipment. I have to admit, I wish I'd had some safety equipment for my fingers. The limestone was SHARP! I had to dig a bit of it out of my hands just a few days ago.

From "Halong Bay & Rock Climbing"

Check out more of my pictures in the Halong Bay album on

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

There are a series of tunnels outside of HCMC where the Viet Cong managed to maintain control for most of the Vietnam war. The area was declared an open fire zone, meaning any kind of weapon could be used, and as a result the area was totally stripped of trees due to defoliants, and the landscape riddled with the effects of bombing, artillery, and land operations. The Viet Cong who controlled the area survived underground, in a tunnel system over 200 km long, for years. Many died, I think 10,000 out of 16,000, but they managed to hold off the Southern Vietnamese and American forces - with the most amazing ingenuity and basic technology.

Today, there is a tourist park where foreigners and Vietnamese kids can go see this. It's a great piece of propaganda for North Vietnam. They have demonstrations of the traps they used to hide to catch enemy soldiers - these things are adaptations of the hunting traps used for tigers, with covered pits that have sharpened bamboo stakes. They show the way the Viet Cong would screen smoke so that they could cook underground without having it be seen from above, and make shoes out of old tires. They would even dismantle live bombs for the gunpowder inside - and doing this all with the most minimal of tools.

The one other thing they've got at this place is a firing range. It seems lightly bizarre, but they actually have M-16s, AK-47s, and several other weapons available to be fired.

Hearing the gunshots in the background certainly added to the realism of the morning! Anyway, I was curious, so I got one bullet, rather to the amusement of the Vietnamese man monitoring the whole thing. "One? Really only one?" Yep - it's not something I want to make a habit.

It was a little weird firing an AK-47 just a hundred meters from the wreckage of a US tank that had been destroyed during the war, and probably meant the deaths of the soldiers in it.

But I have to admit, I feel kind of bad-ass for having done it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Motorbike: Miraculous Transporter of Innumberable Persons & Items

A co-worker of mine emailed me some classic photos of true Vietnamese ingenuity. When combined with the medium of the motorbike, the results are often stupendous.

Here's to hoping he got home with her and all the groceries... and why does HE get the helmet!

Yes, the fact that the motorbike is a small, short vehicle does not mean that very long items can't be carried on it. These pipes are the longest I've seen, but people will regularly sit on the back of one and hold lamps, vases, tall tubing, or construction materials.

So I don't know what happens here if the woman holding the poles with her foot has to brake...

This contraption of two baskets balanced on the end of a long pole is ubiquitous in Vietnam. Most of the time, women carry them on their shoulders and they are filled with fruit to be sold (well, in Hanoi anyway).

While I've seen 3-4 people on a motorbike before, this is the record.

On the other hand, motorbikes aren't the ONLY way of moving things from place to place.

People are good at pushing too...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vietnamese Language

So I haven't written too much about the Vietnamese language yet - Tieng Viet. For starters, it has a romanized alphabet - courtesy of the French colonization and particularly a Jesuit named Alexandre de Rhodes. For someone like me, that's a godsend, because it means that once I get pronunciation down, I'll be able to sound out words. This in comparison to my friends out there learning Thai or Chinese, where the letters/characters are unfamiliar - that's a whole different challenge! So I'm lucky in that regard.

To give you an idea of what it looks like, here's the Blogger menu in Vietnamese:

Sorry if that's really hard to see.

Anyway, what does make life tricky is that the langauge is tonal - with six tones to be exact - not to mention a bunch of extra vowel sounds we don't have in English. Because you can say the exact same set of letters with a different tone and have it be a different word, getting the tones down is really important if you want to be understood and not make massive mistakes. For example, a coworker of mine - the graphic design guy, to be exact - is named Hiep. Well, if you pronounce that with a rising or falling tone, the meaning changes from his very common first name to the word for "to rape." I am positive that on occasion I have accidentally said "Hey Rape, how are you today?"


So my efforts to really break into Vietnamese are stalling while I try to get the tones down. I think I've learned how to say 1 to 10, yoghurt, yes, no, thank you, beef, dog meat (self-defense), reciept (for expense accounting taxis), how much is that?, and...that's about it.

I do have my first official Vietnamese lesson on Monday night, which I'm very excited about. I wanted to upload an .mp3 of how to count in Vietnamese, but I don't see a way to do that easily on blogger. While I try to figure that out (and please post hints if you already know), you'll just have to wait in suspense.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)

I loved HCMC (the short name for Ho Chi Minh City), but I also didn't stray too far from about a 5 block radius that encompassed my hotel, my office, the Reunification Palace, and (coincidentally) Max's apartment (the PiAer in HCMC).

The city is definitely much more Westernized, and there are a lot of foreigners walking around. I saw an upscale shopping center with lots of Gucci, Ferragamo, and other designers that could have been Bloomingdales in NYC. In other words, there is definitely money to be made in HCMC.

Interestingly, a lot of Vietnamese also refer to it as Saigon, and the names seem to be interchangeable. That seems kind of in keeping with the Vietnamese view of the "American War" - it happened, it was pretty awful while it happened, it changed a lot of things, but now it's over. I haven't found much resentment of Americans at all - in fact, I've experienced none - and as far as I can tell, it's something that's in the past and that few people get really touchy about. So it's not a major no-no to call HCMC Saigon, for example.

In HCMC, they've kept the palace which was the southern Vietnamese headquarters almost totally intact, and you can go downstairs and see the rooms with all of the maps, rotary telephones for calling the battlefield, the emergency radios and the President's "war-bedroom" Diem hung out when he needed to be near the phones. It's really interesting - and you can check out my pictures on my Picasa album.

I also got to try some delicious teas - kinds of juices with fruit in them, and these are fruits which have gelatinous textures like nothing I've really experienced before. I can't quite decide how to describe them. I also got to eat a lot of food from the region of Hue, one of the old imperial capitals of Vietnam. It's supposed to be culinary heaven, and certainly the food from there was some of the most unique I've tried yet. They do something with rice - I think whipping it in to a light fluff and then steaming it - which turns it into something that is slick and a bit gooey. It looks like a piece of white fish, actually, but it's rice. And you can eat it plain, or with things stuffed inside, or as the outer layer on a roll with beef and other things in it. Really interesting...

Anyway, it was 3 days of work with a little sightseeing and lots of eating - and quite fun! It was good to get back to Hanoi though, even though I think it is MORE humid here!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Some Photos

Hello there again. Well, I've now been in Hanoi for a full week, and while my plans to play touch rugby got way-laid by a massive downpour, I have managed to get out and go for a couple runs. Today my new housemate and I ran down to a little park near our house, which turned out to have a zoo in it. So we ran past the monkeys and elephants, as well as a carousel. The major attraction for me, if I was about half my height, were these big plastic inflatable globes. A little kid would get in one, and they would seal it and then inflate it. Then the child would roll out onto the lake, and be in a giant clear plastic ball rolling around on the lake. How cool is that!? I have no idea how long the oxygen supply in there lasts, but I guess long enough for a good roll around. Anyway, it seemed pretty sweet.

I head down to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow for 3 days, so I imagine I'll be able to report back a bit on that. I hear that it's quite similar to the Washington DC - NY split. Hanoi is a bit sleepier and less hectic, and the seat of government, while HCMC is all about finance and generally crazier. Should be interesting! In the meantime, here are a few shots of Hanoi to give you a flavor of the place:

Some photos of Hanoi

Sunday, August 3, 2008

First Few Days

It's amazing to me that I have only been in Hanoi for 5 full days. So much has happened! I spent the weekend wandering around the city and getting to know it. It's a confusing place in a lot of ways, with twists and turns, dead ends, streets whose names I really can't pronounce, and lots of tricks. I think I'm slowly getting used to it though. I found a place to live, which was exciting, and it's a 10 minute walk from work. It's down a series of narrow winding alleys, which I took some video of to post, but I took it vertically so on the computer it looks sideways. The video below, though, is of the entrance to my house.

I've gotten to eat a lot of Vietnamese food already, and it's overall pretty delicious. Lots, and lots, and lots of noodles. Yummy cilantro in most everything, morning glory in a lot of stuff (which I had barely ever encountered before), and lots of soups. I even had a breakfast sandwich of pork and egg on a gorgeous french baguette.

One of my favorite things, though, has to be pho cuon. It's a pho noodle wrapped around mint, cilantro, and beef, dipped in sauce. I had these with friends at the restaurant that is, according to my friend Khuong, the birthplace of pho cuon. It's pictured above.

In this photo, you'll see Phuong, Khuong, Aaron (obscured by some dong, the currency), Simon, our waiter giving the peace sign, Casey, Kelsey, and Jeff. I work with Aaron and Khuong at AIPF and the others I know mostly because they live with Aaron.