Monday, April 16, 2007

Traffic, Traffic, and more traffic......

Bangkok, Thailand is famous for its bumper-to-bumper traffic; it makes Los Angeles traffic look like a cake walk. But nowhere I have been can compare to the horrid mess that is known as Ho Chi Minh City traffic. There is only word to describe it: chaos. Make that two words: utter chaos. Ho Chi Minh City is a city undergoing massive development on a very fast scale along with rising incomes and a growing middle class. The preferred mode of transport in and around Ho Chi Minh City is the scooter. I had heard that scooters were prevalent in Vietnam but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced. Scooters were everywhere, going everywhere, and in every direction, in complete disregard to the right of way, signage, and basic road laws. In Ho Chi Minh City, everyone wants to go all the time regardless of direction, traffic flow, or traffic cops. At certain intersections and especially during rush hour traffic cops play a losing battle trying to direct the mass of scooters, motorcycles, buses, and cars and everyone tends to ignore them.

Another problem is that once you get outside of Ho Chi Minh City proper the quality of the roads declines considerably. Whereas the airport area and downtown look like just another bustling, developing big Asian city, once you venture far enough away things start to take on a decidedly worn feel. Nicely paved and divided streets turn into potholed sloppily paved streets with gravel sidewalks. Occasionally the pavement would end and we would find ourselves on dirt roads for awhile occasionally cruising through deep mud holes before finding a patch of pavement again.

Before my trip I had planned to visit a number of businesses located in what I considered close proximity to Ho Chi Minh City. Then my agent had informed me that it would be very difficult to visit so many factories in such a short period of time and scaled things down. I accepted the scaled down version but insisted on keeping a couple of key factories on the list, insisting that we find a way to fit everyone into the schedule – after all, none of the factories were more than a 10-15 miles away from each other. My agent patiently explained to my ignorant self that the transportation infrastructure in Vietnam left much to be desired. No worries, I thought, I had seen some dodgy roads here and there in my time – how bad could it be?

Bad. Really bad. From the airport to the first factory was only about 20 miles – and it took us over an hour. As mentioned above, crowded city streets gave way to single lane, roughly paved roads with gravel sidewalks. These in turn became pot-holed nightmares with the occasional dirt patch thrown in. At times we turned completely off the main road and were cruising on rough dirt roads along with bicyclists, water buffalos, carts, and pedestrians. I have no idea what war-era Vietnam looked like, but I can’t imagine much has changed outside of Ho Chi Minh city. Lots of bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians driving down narrow, poorly maintained roads, with rickety storefronts facing the streets with faded residences upstairs; the occasional rice paddy or tended field, carts being pulled by water buffalo, and old communist party murals and pock-marked billboards from the war era. Occasionally you’d even see the rusted hulk of some military vehicle or other war-era relic, overgrown with weeds.

Eventually we made it to the first factory, which was a sprawling facility in the middle of the jungle, a good 20 minutes from what passed as the main road. I’ll spare you the details of factory visits and business meetings, but suffice it to say there are huge disparities between the fairly new private ventures and the old-school government owned and operated factories.

The private facilities were often bustling with activity, well organized, with many modern manufacturing procedures and processes in place. Government owned factories tended to be less organized, less efficient, and simply appeared as if they had seen better days. They tended to boast official party connections with numerous certificates from party organizations and multiple pictures of prominent party members. It’s not that these factories weren’t producing – they were, and they certainly worked hard, but they have some catching up to do if they want to be the equivalent of the private market.

Another thing I noticed, which I am sure will rankle the true communists out there, is that the employees in the non-government run facilities had a safer working environment and were often paid better and treated better than their comrades in the government operated factories (Although they also worked harder, and faster too). There seemed to be a lot of down time at some of the government run facilities. At one government run facility I went to they were constantly boasting of their party connections and that they were better than all the other factories in the neighborhood – not because of some perceived competitive advantage or that they had some kind of unique product or manufacturing process, but simply based on their party affiliation. There was no logic to it, but they seemed to believe that they were superior simply because they were more strongly connected to the party. Every time I questioned them about what I saw were deficiencies that needed to be improved it was dismissed with a wave of the hand and a pronouncement that their close party ties would solve everything.

At lunch time my colleagues appeared visibly nervous and began chatting furiously with each other and the driver in Vietnamese. We got out to the main road and made several u-turns and went down a few side streets before I finally asked them what was wrong. They smiled shyly and said they didn’t know where to eat. This was officially “the sticks” by Western standards and they didn’t know where to eat that would be deemed “suitable” by my Western mind. I politely informed them that I considered myself a world traveler who relished living and eating with the locals as opposed to staying in the sanitized picture of 5-star hotels and business restaurants that catered entirely to foreigners. They looked at me skeptically – Was I saying that I would be comfortable eating at some roadside restaurant with the locals? Absolutely, in fact I preferred it. They found my reply humorous and, obviously relaxed now, quickly gave the driver some directions.

I found myself at a small, airy, very clean open air restaurant with high ceilings and numerous fans to keep the hot, muggy air moving. The restaurant staff froze when they saw a white face and stared at me, standing there in slacks, a button-down shirt and tie, eyes wide open with surprise. My colleagues chuckled and I got the impression that maybe, just maybe, this restaurant rarely served foreigners. I was laughingly asked what I wanted to eat as the menu was completely in Vietnamese – no surprise of course. They then told me we would be eating a very typical local lunch.

It was nothing I hadn’t eaten before in Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S., but the way it was served was much different. Basically we ate spring rolls, but unlike in the U.S. where they come to the table all wrapped up and on a plate, here they bring you several plates of flat wraps and a huge platter of ingredients and sauces. You picked the vegetables and other ingredients you wanted to eat, wrapped it up, and chowed down. We also had small bowls of noodle soup as well. It was refreshing and delicious. The restaurant was meticulously clean and before eating they had distributed plastic-sealed sanitary wipes to clean our hands before eating. My colleagues were pleased that I enjoyed the meal and openly relieved that they didn’t have to drive around in circles for an hour trying to find a “foreigners” restaurant.

At the end of the day I checked into my hotel which was conveniently located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City in close walking distance to all the major attractions and the main business district of the city.

To be continued…….

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