By Alex Duong, KF9, Vietnam

Vietnam has received consistent coverage on this blog since the Kiva Fellows 5th class (KF5).  Often there are snippets or video discussing the dangerous, lawless traffic of the streets.  And until now, there have been no solutions for navigating the madness.  Below is video of what I’m coining as the ‘wiggle.’  Watch how this man avoids cars, pedestrians, and other motorbikes.  Each little twist is a subtle yet intentional twist that finds the next opening.  Click to read about this fellow’s thoughts on Vietnam culture.

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Most entries tagged under Vietnam are from the countryside rather than the country’s economic hubs of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.  As the first Kiva Fellow working with TYM Fund, I have the pleasure of being placed right next to the historic old French quarter in Hanoi.  For my first post in Vietnam, I thought it would be good to provide observations witnessed these past few weeks.  They serve as cultural moments of ‘aha’ or ‘huh, I wonder why that is.’  It is akin to observations one makes upon visiting a new country.  In no way is it  intended to mock the culture.  Rather, it is to provide a glimpse from this tourist’s eyes since I have not yet fully settled in and adapted.  Hopefully the following will paint a backdrop for readers to understand future entries.  Here they are in no particular order:
Kiva Success
  • Through Kiva loans some borrowers living in the countryside now have salaries equivalent to those living in the major Vietnam cities!  Rack up another point to support what Kiva has been doing.
Service
  • When paying for water and electricity each month, a real person shows up to hand you the bill and asks if there are any questions.
  • Luxury services geared solely towards the wealthy are gaining a foothold.  For example, those willing to part with their money for a minimum of three years may earn 10% annual interest in a savings account.  Yup, a savings account at your brick and mortar bank down the street.  Deposits up to VND $15 million are guaranteed by the Vietnam FDIC equivalent.  The returns sound great given today’s economic environment, doesn’t it?  The problem is most Vietnamese people make only enough to save a handful of dollars each month.  With the Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh average salary being around $300 per month, the US $2000+ balance required ensures only the well-off are eligible.
  • High speed internet is readily available in Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh and mobile phone service is cheap.  However, there is no voicemail – you just miss the call.  You pay only to make/send outgoing calls/text messages.  Anything incoming is free!  On top of that, one US $1 will get you about 18.5 megabytes of internet data and there are no contracts to sign!  If Vietnam can make all this happen (and I have yet to drop a call), why is mobile service so expensive in the US?  It seems someone decided revenue could be doubled without lifting a finger if customers were charged for both in- and outgoing calls/messages.
Monetary
  • Costs have surged.  Vietnam suffers from severe inflation/deflation swings.  While in Ho Chi Minh City seven years ago during 2002, my mother and I got two bowls of phở and a soda for US $1.  On my first night in Hanoi a bowl of phở xào on the street was US $1.62.  They are the same dish except the first is in soup form and the later stir-fried.
Transportation
  • Motorbikes are the primary mode of transportation for 98% of the population (aka scooters or Vespas in US).  The US Department of State website states there are 30 motorbike related deaths daily and Vietnam News, a daily expat newspaper, confirms this.  At the end of 2007, wearing motorcycle helmets became law.  However, this does not apply to bicyclists (mostly school students) or young children ages 1 – 12.  Yet this is the population most prone to serious injury in case of an accident.
  • Based on an unofficial survey of office cohorts and people I have met, most could not tell you an expensive car from a cheap one.  The idea of riding in a car is a luxury most cannot fathom and will never experience.  This is despite clear signs of an emerging middle class structure in Hanoi (more on this in a later post possibly).
  • A pedestrian is never safe.   Motorbikers treat all sidewalks as just another road.  If there are no motorbikes on the sidewalk, it’s probably because too many are currently parked.
  • If motorobikes are not present at all on the sidewalk, then you will find a street vendor.  But like India, here in Vietnam one must pay the landlord for use of the sidewalk.  My understanding is that in certain parts of India the homeless must sometimes pay nightly for a sleeping spot on the street.  Often it is no more than a few square feet of land and one can purchase the ‘morning’ or ‘night’ shift.  Vietnam landlords auction off the sidewalk in a similar manner.
  • On the streets, motorbikes generally make one type of horn sound.  Cars come with one of four horn sounds, one of which sounds like an accordion (my favorite).
  • There are no signs indicating one-way streets.  You just watch the traffic to figure it out.
People & Cultural Development
  • Women 26 years of age are generally married and have had their first child.  The men they marry are typically one to ten years older.
  • Breaking out singing in the office is typical and somewhat expected.
  • Attending university for up to nine years is somewhat normal.  In Vietnam, mentioned here from least to most prestigious, they have a system that can be equated to US vocational colleges, community colleges, and universities.  To directly attend universities, one must pass a series of exams for the opportunity to apply for admission.  Hence attending all three schools (not completely uncommon) would take two, three, and four years respectively.
  • Despite modernization, streets have retained their trade name from older times.  In previous times, vendors selling the same item used to all occupy the same part of the city and often the same street.  Today, street names are still called (translated) kitchenware street, pencil street, fish street, metal street, medicine street, etc.
  • I was once told learning one’s way around Hanoi is easy.  There are only 26 major streets to remember.  The problem is each street gets broken up into several (translated) ‘small streets’ and changes names.  Consequently the same street can have a different name depending on what part of town you are in.
  • Walking has become a tourist-only anomaly (I am exaggerating but it helps in this case).  Before purchasing a bicycle, I walked to work during the first few days.  Coworkers could not believe I had just walked for 25 minutes.
  • People wear very puffy, down jackets because it is cold.  However, average temperatures during the winter season of December – February is 60F or 15.5C.
  • Phones are never silenced.  They just go off and the other party waits until the conversation is over.
  • In the countryside, ducks and chickens are allowed to roam freely.  I asked a block of neighbors how they knew which animals belonged to them and was told they all know exactly where home is.  Does the US have farm animals this intelligent?
  • A remnant from colonial days is that houses are built up and not out.  A wealthy family will construct a four or five story house.  However, each floor is perhaps only  1 ½ times the size of a US condominium living room.  And yes, electric dryers are an American luxury.  I have since learned how to hang-dry.
  • Vietnamese women drink beer and reinforce my travel experiences regarding alcohol: a woman with cocktails is very Western.
Food
  • The most odd cuisine presence is doner kebab stands originating from Turkey.  In Vietnamese the dish is called bánh mì tam giác.  They are found every few blocks.  Pork instead of the traditional lamb is stacked and grilled on a vertical rotating stand.  The stacked meat is cut vertically and only the freshly cooked outer edge of meat is served.  It is stuffed into French bread inherited from French colonialism rather than pita and includes Vietnamese pickled vegetables and ketchup (somehow ubiquitous in many developing countries).
  • Sitting on seats six inches above the sidewalk to eat while motorbikes whirl by is standard fare.
Possible Expansion Opportunity
  • If anyone has skills in making genuinely delicious pizza or Mexican food, the market remains untapped.  You would do well between the expatriate and tourist communities in Hanoi.
Lastly, there is an article here summing up the 2009 year and 2010 outlook in Vietnam.  It is high-level rather than comprehensive but provides great insight into what is actively taking place.

Alex Duong is the first Kiva Fellow (KF9) working with TYM Fund in Hanoi, Vietnam. Click the links for info on TYM Fund & my personal blog
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