Educate, Explore

EDUCATE: My SEA Journey in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Monday, January 2, 2017

I flew into Ho Chi Minh City on Monday afternoon, already starving since my last few Singapore dollars were spent on an overpriced taxi. A travel representative from the Loyola University Chicago greeted me (making me feel like a celeb with a sign), and I asked if I could grab some food while we waited for the taxi to arrive. The closest thing was Burger King, so after a week of Singapore hawker stand fare, I ate my first Whopper.

We stayed at the Paragon Saigon, a gorgeous hotel in District 1. Each time we talk about the city districts, I feel like we’re in the Hunger Games. Our hotel is gorgeous and extravagant, and our rooms are wonderful. I checked out the microscopic gym and rooftop pool, then I headed out for a run.

I quickly learned that HCMC is not the place to run, at least not in the streets. Traffic is a wild free-for-all, and pedestrians by no means have the right away. Constantly dodging motorized bikes, food stands, and trash, there was not much running. However, I quickly learned a lot about the environment of the city which was very different from Hong Kong and Singapore.

The parks are alright for running, but the pavement is very uneven. I was using my GoPro camera, and a local runner stopped me, intrigued by the small camera. I showed him out it worked and he took a picture so he could possibly get one of his own. I’m certain that some security on this trip will mistake me using my GoPro for detonating a bomb, but I’ll be hopeful.

After showering, I decided to treat myself to a spa night. I had my very first full body massage, which was only ~$14 USD for 60 minutes. It was the weirdest and most comical experience of my life, and I could probably write an entire blog post on this hour. Regardless, it felt great and I hope to get another one before I leave. I also got a mani pedi, for a mere ~$9 USD. For the cheap prices, I felt pampered like a queen, and it was a much needed relaxing night.

I went to a nearby mall connected to the Intercontinental Hotel. I ate at an empty restaurant called The Dots, which could have been a boutique cafe in Wicker Park. I enjoyed chicken + sweet sticky rice, mango iced tea, and a delicious matcha ice cream burger for dessert. All of this was only about $7 USD, and I continued to be blown away by the inexpensive prices.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The next morning, I did a quick workout and ate breakfast at the hotel. After a week of budget eating, I was overjoyed to eat an abundance of food, including fresh veggies and the typical American breakfast before heading out on a day trip with the Loyola group to the Mekong Delta. I quickly took a liking to our tour guide, Thoa, and her humor that she brought along to her narrative. We actually visited her home village in the Delta, and it’s amazing to see how such an educated woman can come from a developing area. After a relaxing boat ride, we saw how coconut candy was made, and we also got to try some. One of the workers told us she wraps ~5000 candies a day for $6 total. This surely is not the most efficient way of manufacturing, but the authenticity cannot be replicated in a factory.

Then, we rode in horse carriages to our next stop, a small restaurant. We tried many different fruits, like jackfruit and dragonfruit while sipping on honey tea. I got to hold a python for a brief minute for a photo opp, and then we headed to the mini boats for a trip through the inner delta streams. With only three people per boat, they were small, but we got to wear the hats and enjoy the views.

We took the big boat back to the mainland while sipping on fresh coconut juice, and we were all as content as could be. Then, we ate lunch at a nearby tourist trap that was disguised to look perfectly authentic. We had a magnificent seven-course meal of chicken noodle soup, spring rolls, Mekong pancakes, sticky fried rice (tasting like a delicious roasted marshmallow), “Elephant Ear” fish off the bone rolled with pineapple into rice paper, fried rice, and fresh fruit for dessert. I hadn’t tried much Vietnamese food prior, but I quickly fell in love with all of the spices.

Back at the hotel, while others tried local coffee and beer, I staked out at the rooftop pool to relax for a bit before dinner and drinks. We first stopped at the Hotel Majestic for drinks. Even at the eighth floor, we had a marvelous view of the city. I ordered a green tea and actually got an entire pot while everyone else drank cocktails and beers. The more tea I drink here, the more I love it.

Then, after much deliberation and excessive walking around since eating in groups is not always practical without reservations, we ate at the Refinery. I got the cheapest meal, which happened to be a grilled chicken avocado sandwich, very similar to one at Lyfe Kitchen in Chicago. My favorite part was the homemade lemonade. Vietnam used to not have any soda, so they made due with their homemade concoctions — club soda with syrup and ice. Simple, but refreshing and tasty.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In the morning, after another quick workout in the desolate gym, our entire group had arrived and we headed on an introductory tour of the city. We visited the Reunification Center and the War Remnants Museum. While more disturbing than I had even imagined, it was very eye-opening to see the biased view of some of the Vietnamese. I have seen a lot of deformed and disabled people in the city, and it really makes me question the causes.

We got to see the Notre Dame and the post office, which vaguely resembled Union Station. Then, we headed to another feast of a lunch at the Vietnam House. With squid salad, seafood soup, more spring rolls, chicken, shrimp fried rice, and fruit, we continued to eat like royalty. Dr. Shultz talked more about emerging markets in the area and the wheels churned more and more, thinking about all of the problems in the developing country that are still refining solutions.

Afterwards, we took an optional day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. We got to crawl in the small tunnels and shoot guns from the Vietnam War sites. I shot the Carbine, and it was actually really light with hardly any kickback. It felt smaller than most of the rifles I’ve shot with before. It was set up for people much shorter than me! Some others shot an AK47 and the bigger guns. Short, sweet, and cheap, we then climbed down the small tunnels which have been somehow made bigger for Westerners like me, even though I still had to crawl on the ground. We also got to crawl in and on a panzer, and Thoa challenged us to lift the shaft. Of course I jumped up first, and I couldn’t lift it over my head, but I still lifted it 10 times, “winning” a beer (okay water) on her. While a brief trip, it’s important to see what it is actually like there, since pictures can only do so much. The 1960s and 1970s seem so long ago, but they really aren’t and the effects still linger. I think about the people I know that fought in the war, and there truly are so many different perspectives and opinions, and I think it’s important to formulate my own on educated experiences, especially with other world events like Aleppo.

On Wednesday evening, the Paragon Saigon sponsored a rooftop networking reception for the Loyola University Chicago group. After a couple of sweaty days, it was great to see everyone dressed up as we enjoyed free flow beer and hors d’oeuvres. Some of our professor’s former students and colleagues from Vietnam were our guests of honor. I was excited to ask some of the women what it’s like to work in Southeast Asia, and I was disappointed that my first conversation with one was about my “beauty and how any company would love to hire me so they have a pretty face around.” ……. It may be a new year, but, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

One of the main reasons I was interested in this study abroad trip was visiting Nike, so today was the day I had been looking forward to for months. I’ve always loved the brand and the gear, but I fell in love with the company after being a social media influencer in Chicago. From Nike Training Club and Nike Running Club events like Run with Hart, the Icebox Challenge, the Draft, Station 23, the Unlimited Decathlon, to training for my first half marathon with weekly NRC long runs, I truly joined a lifelong team of athletes. Ever since, I’ve had the dream of ultimately working in digital marketing or brand management/strategy. It’s embarrassing how many times I’ve applied to a multitude of Nike positions around the world, and I plan on continuing my pursuit until successful.

We first visited the corporate office nearby. Terry Farris, a Memphis native, along with a local Vietnamese manager presented to us a brief history of Vietnam and the marketplace along with Nike’s introduction to the market in 1995. I may or may not have teared up during the presentation. I found it most interesting that only 230 employees actually worked in Vietnam, considering it utilizes 75 factories with 320,000 assembly line workers. These are all outside vendors since the only brand-managed factory is in Beaverton. Still, Nike was voted the #1 place to work in the apparel industry in Vietnam and has won awards for their socio economic development. There was a lot of talk about the future of the TTP, and they are hopeful that it will continue under another name or revised form in the future despite Trump as president.

We rode our bus to one of the factories about an hour from Ho Chi Minh City. No pictures were allowed on the premises, but it was a very nice factory. Walking up the stairs, there were Nike Maxims on each step, just as there are in every Nike studio and store. Even though the factory is privately owned, it is exclusive to Nike to prevent counterfeit production. The workplace itself is massive and organized chaos. Everyone has small, specific tasks to assemble the shoes with constant quality control. Many signs displayed their clear goals of CSS — clean, strong, and straight.

There are seven categories of shoes (i.e. running, trainers, Jordans) and at this factory, over 710,000 are produced weekly. Since opening in 1995, they have produced 248 million pairs of shoes. I know that I have an excessive amount of Nikes, but these figures are hard to imagine.

Health and safety is the primary goal of the factories, despite their reputation. There are 24-hour hospitals which including a variety of services, even women’s health. There are also welfare initiatives like kindergarten for children, a mini market, birthday and newbie celebrations, company trips, and of course, many athletic games.

The factory owners explained to us how Vietnam is advantageous for its multiple FTA, competitive labor costs, economically active population, and its proximity to China. However, some challenges are the minimum wage increase (which is still ridiculously low compared to the United States, but Nike pays better than most factories in the area), poor infrastructure with less than ideal transportation and electric power supply, and talent human resource retention. These all can be improved eventually, soon with sufficient education and initiatives. Their strategy continues to be modernization, automation, increased capacity and productivity, and sustainable manufacturing.

They also noted how cultural misunderstandings can stem from different tones and verbatim, which are often difficult with language barriers between Vietnamese and other languages. Tone and volume can create discord with assumptions. After lunch, we visited Loyola University Chicago’s Vietnam Center and a panel discussed this as well. While some industries rely solely on English, others like entrepreneurial businesses can be difficult to manage with different languages and dialects.

In the panel, we listened to Henry, a software engineer that focuses on international startups, Ursula, another ex-pat working at a law firm, and a local Vietnamese woman who has created a non-profit startup for Mekong Delta artisans. Their insights helped paint a broader picture of the emerging markets in Southeast Asia. It proved that Vietnam is a hotspot for entrepreneurs and is expanding rapidly. The tech scene is still developing, but it will continue to make a stake for itself with more education efforts.

We visited the Ben Thanh markets, where there is everything from counterfeit Tory Burch to dried fruits to hand-painted artisan bowls. While overwhelming, with equally overwhelming smells, it is important to see the authentic entrepreneurial marketplace and how the markets never truly end.

We shared one final Vietnamese dinner at Cu Gach, which is considered one of the most famous restaurants in the city. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting, and as I continue to try new foods, I tried my first cooked flower, and I actually love pumpkin flower. I love that every single soup I try is totally different, but each is delicious. Although I grew tired of noodles in Singapore, I will never tire of rice!

Friday, January 6, 2017

After a quick workout of 5K sprints, we ate our final breakfast at the hotel and checked out. We first visited the Finance Business News Channel (FBNC) in District 7. FBNC is the first and only news channel specializing in business, and it is also the first privatized news channel in a Socialist country — that’s pretty ballsy. They are able to discuss anything related to business other than politics. It’s also one of the first HDTV channels in Vietnam.

Thuy Thanh Truong, the CEO, spoke to us about the challenges and advantages for business in Vietnam. Some of the main challenges are agriculture, rules of origin, intellectual properties, investment in services, state-owned enterprise, labor, environment, and safety. However, some of the main tangible benefits are the lower trade barrier, the higher export and investment, and the higher GDP growth. Other intangible benefits include the improving business environment, the better legal system, the institutional reform, and the development towards modernization.

He and Dr. Shultz also discussed the Formosa steel disaster, which isn’t common to hear about in the news because of politics. Our professor will actually be interviewed about this topic by FBNC in March. He encouraged us to consider spending a year or two (if not more) of our lives in Vietnam, for business and especially entrepreneurship. With such a quickly developing emerging market, warm climate, and rich culture, it’s very tempting!

Next, we headed to the Fulbright University for banh mi (sandwiches) and a lecture. Located in the heart of the communist area, the university is modest and meant to provide foreign insight for economic development. As Dr. Shultz pointed out, this presentation was remarkably well-done and would have likely cost tens of thousands of dollars to attend anywhere else.

The topic was again TTP, which is on its deathbed since Trump will end it and remove the United States from the trade agreement. Hopefully, it will only be delayed and will begin again post-Trump. Even other countries are hopeful for Trump’s fleeting presidency!

Despite the TTP loss, Vietnam will be implementing other important FTAs and this new generation will be a driving force for reform and growth. The combination of growing middle and upper classes with an increasingly connected society (in 2015, 34% of the population was on Facebook with an average daily usage of 3 hours), the modernization of Vietnam is evident and there is so much room for growth in the economy.

He made a very interesting comparison that the relationship between Vietnam and China is comparable to Mexico and the United States or Ukraine and Russia — while one country is smaller, it is vital to the economy. This really helped to paint the picture of the international economy.

Afterwards, we went to the Heineken Brewery and Factory. While I haven’t seen much Heineken here, many people have been drinking Tiger, which is manufactured by Heineken in Southeast Asia. Since I don’t like beer, I lack true appreciation visiting breweries, but the factory was remarkable. Beer cans were flying through the conveyer belts and showed just how massive the factory is. I was surprised at the sustainable developments from Heineken, including water filtration that helps to feed fish in the city.

On the way to the airport, it began to rain and I finally saw how the motor bikes navigated in the rain under giant ponchos. Our lovely tour guide, Thoa, sang a classic Vietnamese song about escaping the communist control in the 1970s. I think we all had chills pulling up to the airport, looking out on Ho Chi Minh City one last time.

Tạm biệt, Saigon, and I look forward to returning.

++ Mary K

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