AAGC ..more like UGHH!

The Asia America Gateway Cable (AAGC) didn’t mean anything to me until a few years ago and to be honest I was dumbfounded when first hearing about the cable break thinking “really, there’s an actually an underwater cable connecting Vietnam to the US?”  For some reason I had thought that the internet was truly omnipresent like television broadcasting and never gave much thought to the huge gaps of ocean between countries.

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Now that I work for a U.S. company with real-time turn around expected the AAGC is my lifeline so to speak and when it goes down my stress-levels go through the roof.  It’s as if the internet has gone from a normal usable speed to a snails pace and I can almost feel the ocean currents slowly swaying against the cable as the web page barely loads.

AAGC_UGHH

Like many internet users I wonder why are we still dealing with submarine cables in this day and age when satellites are abundant and secondly why is there just one main route to the U.S.?  Both Facebook and Google are already trying to solve the first question with satellite internet connection projects to remote connections, but no announcements of any near roll-out dates.  As for the route of the underwater sea cable going through Hong Kong there’s a lot of speculation of Chinese aggression towards Vietnamese for recent political tensions.  Even if this is not the case, relying on one main fiber optic path is bound to have problems.

So until the internet is truly a world wide and not just a one-way line to the U.S., internet users in Vietnam and other neighboring countries are prone to submarine cable breaks at the mercy of stories of ship anchors, typhoons and political conspiracy dislodging our modern day connection to the U.S. and virtually the rest of the world.

 

 

How many wake up calls does Vietnam’s tourism industry need?

Ha Long Bay001

Similar to other industries in Vietnam, the tourism companies are scrambling to make profit in a down economy.   While coming to some realizations, the industry has made an important comparison that it lags behind neighboring Thailand which is similar in many ways offering cheap tropical beach paradise with rich cultures. However, the powers that be still haven’t realized the many warning signs.

An article by Matt Kepnes last year titled Why I’ll Never Return To Vietnam caused a big wave on the internet with mixed responses.  While it was just one person’s experience of being ripped off and mistreated while traveling through Vietnam, the sentiment was not an isolated incident. Many even dismissed his comments as short sighted not having been in Vietnam long enough to understand the culture and echoing that tourist are targets for scams in any country.  In his defense some Vietnamese were embarrassed  and apologetic about this type of behavior by locals.

While the problem is complex, the solution should be as Tim Russell put it simply, make tourist feel welcome.  In his article the Simple Truth: Vietnam just is not serious about tourism the recent frequent theme of comparing Vietnam to Thailand reiterates that from the moment tourist consider even going to Vietnam, they don’t feel welcome from the confusing visa process, airport taxis that have had recent stories of robbing visitors, and touring the country where they are seen with dollar signs on their foreheads rather than welcomed guests.

The Vietnamese have long proved their industrious and entrepreneurial spirit adapting to and overcoming many challenges that have come their way in the past century.  With just a couple of decades of steady tourism, many businesses have grown overnight such as hotels, restaurants and travel agencies.  With natural open attitudes and eagerness to compete, the Vietnamese have thrived in providing services for foreign visitors.  However, what former FT correspondent Ben Bland points out is that what would help is better education in the tourism industry.  Anything would help and more training always sets the right expectations in service, but attitudes still have to change.

If it’s any consolation for foreigners, locals are also being scammed.  In what started as a gleeful occasion for seven hundred paying Herbalife employees events quickly turned into a nightmare trip being stranded at the airport upon arrival due to insufficient funds from the Vietnamese Travel Life agency owed to the Thai travel agency.  This mishap is untimely for the Vietnamese industry that is trying to do a makeover by all means including raising funds for promotions, seeking a travel industry ambassador, and facilitate the visitor visa process.

With both foreigners and locals calling for strictor punishment for scammers, many see another problem that the penalties aren’t heavy enough therefore, travel agencies or other services can afford take the risks.  With an unsure economy at best travelers are pickier for where they want to go and more informed thanks to travel sites and other reviews.  The Vietnamese tourism industry really needs to stop looking inward for business plans and prick up its ears to what tourists are saying and make them feel welcome as a starting point.

 

I was here before McDonald’s!

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To foreigners it may come as a surprise that McDonald’s has officially announced it’s coming to Vietnam within the next couple of years.  For us expats living in Vietnam even in the past few years we’ve heard rumors and the signs were imminent.  Like a damn waiting to burst, the fast food industry has literally flooded the market including famous American food and beverage companies like KFC, Pizza Hut, Baskin-Robbins, Carl’s Junior, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and the more recent Subway, Dominos, Burger King and Starbucks.

For the past decade international companies have been partnering up with local companies to enter the very attractive market with the two major cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh having populations unofficially near 10 million, a young population with around 70 percent born after the war, increasing middle class, and very progressive attitudes.

Back in 1996 when I first came back to the motherland, my buddy Tim and I would either have to pay a premium for a burger at an expat bar for what felt like our last meal on death row after eating rice and noodles for weeks or we’d go to 123 Restaurant on Pho Hue for what was then the best Spaghetti Bolognese for a buck!  Having western food was a treat and made you miss good ole burgers and pizzas whereas nowadays in Saigon you have a choice of a dozen of joints for most international cuisines.

American fast food is really just that in the U.S., fast food known for its quick service and affordable prices.  In Vietnam it takes on an entire different dining experience.  First of all it’s expensive considering you might drop 200,000 VND (approximately $9.50) for a combo meal at Burger King and compared to a bowl of Pho for just under a dollar on the street.  This along with average annual income of Vietnamese around $300 assures many locals won’t ever set foot in these places to eat or drink.  

There is however a growing upper middle class that has expendable incomes and the new health problems to go with it.  Like most social evils, Vietnam is quick to blame the west and diabetes is now on the rise and what some say is a price to pay for progress.  Along with the bustling international economy lifestyles have certainly changed rapidly in a matter of decades going from a predominantly agricultural dependant economy to an integrated world economy with a broad range of industries including agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, education and technology just to name a few.

For me McDonald’s evokes many childhood memories starting with my mom telling me it was one of the only things I used to eat as a toddler, the fillet of fish sandwich.  Later on going to the drive thru on Boston Post Road near Mamroneck High School first with my family and later on with high school friends ..I still remember the white washed rocks behind the place.  

For the Vietnamese the restaurant will also create memories and for some expats like me evoke some nostaligia.  It’s a little sad that there are so many fast food chains in a land of amazing cuisine, but you need not worry since the Vietnamese still proudly eat their own cuisine and fast food is definitely not for everyone.

 

Doom and Gloom – My Warped view of the US

October 2012

Watching TV and reading the news on the internet from afar I have developed a warped view of the US leaving me feeling out of touch and somewhat scared to go back and resettle there. Media plays a large role and hearing about the American dream shattered with sniper killers, rampage shooting rampages, and doomsday preppers that don’t bode well for my confidence in American culture.

doomsday-preppers

Of course the US is a huge country so the news isn’t a reflection of everyday life in every corner, but does warp ones view, especially someone like me who questions both the future of America and more importantly, the safety of the population.  My view is just that and is biased because maybe it helps rationalize my decision to live overseas, makes me feel better and not miss life in the US.

Since first writing this article events have really taken a dive for the worse with mass shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut and uncountable random acts of violence in the news with homicides, kidnappings, shooting rampages and bombings.  Does this mean that American society is deteriorating as a whole or is this just single point of view?

I recently heard on NPR’s Morning Edition, statistics show that if you have a population like the US among something like 47% are gun owners, plus such a large base, x percent of whackos, then the probability of something like a mass shooting rampage is likely.

Pointing the finger at the NRA and gun laws that allow semi-automatic weapons is a good start, but it’s not as easy as that because guns are just as much a part of the “American Way” as are Baseball, Apple Pie and Cars.  You change the equation and you’d have equal amount of uproar.  Tomorrow I declare we ban eating apple pie and there’s a restriction for how many apples you can buy in case you’re planning on making your own.

Owning a gun is not just a constitutional right, but it’s an emotional attachment for many with reasons such as generations of families have had guns for livelihood, sport and protection.   Who’s to argue with a person in the middle of Alaska with a population of 100 in a hundred mile square radius if he or she wants to go shoot an elk for a living?

Where it gets complicated is the direct correlation of gun laws to deaths of children, another emotional argument since nobody would say a gun is more important than a child’s life.  If we change the factor to cars or sugar, people are less emotional because they don’t see these issues as violent or outrageous, but let’s pretend the government said you can only drive 15 mph to avoid major collision accidents or that you can only add a teaspoon of sugar to food served to children where such dietary restrictions have already been proposed in some states.

It would take a polarizing shift for all Americans to change their view on doing without driving cars fast or eating low a sugar diet even though it’s possible. Similarly, guns and violence are ingrained in the American culture from the beginning of our country’s history and glorified in famous movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry, Rambo, The Godfather and Pulp Fiction.

mental health labels

The subject that people are paying less attention to is mental health.  While violence has been around since the beginning of time the spur of mass rampages is as much a result of gun ownership as it is about individual’s inability to cope with depression or stress.  I would go as far as far as to say that this is a result of isolation since people often say that, “he was a nice kid who was shy and often kept to himself.”  While parents might think they know what their children are doing, they are not in touch with how are they feeling.  Society has become so consumed in being connected and plugged in whether it’s updating one’s status on Facebook, uploading a selfie on Instagram or playing video games yet less in touch with one another in our daily lives.

Americans have historically developed an attitude that we can overcame hardship at home or overseas and we’re not the passive one’s, but the one’s who stood up to something and didn’t take any shit.  Tragedies like 9/11, shooting massacres, and bombings undoubtedly unite Americans who are unwavering in their patriotism, but then spring new fears like doubting homeland security and overlooking the warning signs of mental instability.

Recently I heard a parent of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings talk about the large number certainty theorem (aka Law of Large Numbers)  on NPR saying that “If the base is big enough,” she explains, “even though the probability is small, things will happen with certainty.”  Since the shootings there have been more random acts of violence on the news with a mentally ill woman pushing a defenseless man onto the train tracks in NY, plus more shootings in Aurora, Colorado.  While the causes are unpredictable, the likelihood is sadly certain.

Is Google’s hardware even good for the public?

Tech giant Google is to our lives today as IBM was in the 80’s or Microsoft in the 90’s.   Google permeates our daily lives in many aspects whether searching for something on the internet, watching YouTube videos, checking our email or using our smartphones. Google’s most recent big hardware ventures include Google Glass, Google Fiber, and Google Driverless Car.

Google_Knows

Glass is a wearable computer monitor built into your glasses which has received mixed public reception from big corporations like Virgin Atlantic ordering up a bunch for its attendants to improve services while others have been attacked for wearing a pair in bars or even on the street. Aside from the public backlash against Glass what about other negative effects? Isn’t the public distracted enough with people driving, let alone walking aimlessly while on their cell phones? Adding a monitor in the corner of your view to the equation and people are equally if not more distracted not to mention straining their vision.

 

Google Fiber has put its card into the hat for the options of internet and cable TV packages. While the general public benefits both in price and quality when competition increases, there’s still obstacles such as infrastructure needed in order for cities to actually be able to use this high-speed service. In addition to fiber optic service, Google has also recently announced it will spend 1 billion dollars to provide internet access to remote areas via lower orbiting satellites. The public was recently reminded of how vast the oceans are when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went missing and how the seas are littered by man-made debris.  Simarlily out of site and out of mind is the the earth’s orbit littered with space debris which is currently a threat to our technology.  As NASA Scientist Donald Kessler said, we’ve lost control of the environment.

Hollywood’s cars of the future:

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Google Driverless Car might solve the equation of accidents due to human error or letting you do more when commuting from point A to B, but we have yet to measure the long-term effects. A car that drives itself isn’t so mind boggling and if we boil it down to the idea of an automated transportation vessel since we already have trains, planes, boats, and spacecraft that are controlled by highly sophisticated computers so of course a car isn’t far-fetched.  However, this still won’t solve one of our most important issues which is traffic congestion and pollution since it’s technically adding more cars to the mix instead of improving public mass transit

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While the Google Driverless car can do a lot, the few things it cannot do are already disconcerting such as being able to avoid small objects, drive in inclement weather, or go to remote areas. Aside from practical and safety issues, do people really want a computer driving them?  Traffic jams aside driving is a pleasure for many.  The path for many American teenagers’ emancipation is filled with the dream of having a car and doing a carefree road trip. Lastly, one doesn’t have to look very far when considering what was Hollywood’s fascination with futuristic cars, whereas Google falls very short with its first prototype that resembles more of what a toddler would be familiar with than a car that the public actually wants to be seen in. There’s really no contest when it comes to design when comparing the tech giants Google and Apple, although Google has certainly diversified to be a part of all aspects of people’s personal lives, however is this good for the public and is it what people really want?

 

What you won’t see at the Cu Chi Tunnels

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Among the historical monuments in Vietnam, the Cu Chi Tunnels is a favorite for tourists because of the history behind the intricate underground networks as well as the ability to even experience it by going into the tunnels.  Situated about 40 km northwest of Saigon, you arrive at the aging tourist center as you might at other city sites, underwhelmed by the what might look like a nature trail entrance and already missing the air conditioned bus when stepping out into the tropical heat.

As a Vietnamese American, doing the guided tour is bittersweet since you’ll hear phrases delivered in a gleeful tone like, “this is the spiked ball that would swing down from a tree to decapitate the American” or “this was the camouflaged booby trap to spike and mangle the American.”  In fact, a lot of the historical monuments are unsettling for Americans to see another side of how history was written in terms of abject disdain for the enemy government, glorious defeat of the enemy, but no grudge held in modern times, and unhesitating to happily take your tourist dollars.  

I do remember on one of my visits watching historical black and white footage of the Cu Chi tunnels in what was a rest stop hut in the middle of the forest that unsurprisingly was also a gift shop.  However, seeing documentaries of the war still do not do the immense underground maze any justice straining to watch the grainy black and white footage along with the old fashioned Vietnamese military style reporting explaining again where the Vietnamese were, how they lived there and how they defeated the enemy Americans.

The style of guerrilla warfare the Vietnamese used was ingenious using their natural surrounds, their weakness as their strengths by living in a small underworld almost invisible to the Americans and surprising their offenders with traps that were only noticeable to each other by subtle signals like a broken branch as a signal.  Like the battles before, the Vietnamese were less equipped for war, but resoundingly bound by a cause to keep their land and defeat their enemies with whatever tactics they could.  

While looking for Vietnamese documentaries I came upon this video that I found engaging not only because of the video footage, but more for the personal interviews of how strong the Vietnamese were putting up a fight, how tragic many of their stories are losing generations of family members, yet how resilient their spirits are proudly accounting unimaginable battles and hardships they endured.

Watch video -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19ejFuEyHyk