Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Quality of Life

According to the Quality of Life Index for 2010, Vietnam ranks 52 just behind Fiji and ahead of Gambia. In case you don’t know, FIji is a small island in the Pacific off the coast of Australia and Gambia is country in the NW of Africa known for its slave trade in ; both areas of British colonization in the 20th century, but neither countries having significant impact on the recent world socio-economical events.

The quality of life index is calculated by the International Living Organization and is based on factors such as cost of living, leisure culture, economic environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, risk & safety, and climate where the higher the score, the better such as the case of the US with an overall score of 86. Why Vietnam’s ranking is only 52 is quite shocking considering it was coined as the next Asian Tiger just a few years ago. If we were considering Vietnam’s ranking purely based on it’s capital, then maybe it’d rank higher next to its neighboring countries such as China and Thailand.

While this website admits being biased, having weighted rankings for factors, plus giving a Western perspective (American to be exact), it does bring to mind some warning signs, some that are evident to even the normal citizen’s eyes like myself while living in Vietnam for the past years. The cost of living in Vietnam has risen dramatically in the past years since I moved here in 2004 where the prices for commodities and utilities such as petrol, rice and electricity have gone up as much as 50%, but not in line with most inhabitants salaries. Vietnam ranked 71 in this area which is not even that bad and while electricity price increases are expected to cause outrage, the cost of living is still relatively low to most other countries.

Weighing in with average scores are Vietnam’s economy and environment. It is argued by many economist that a country needs to be financially stable in order to address social issues, however despite Vietnam’s rapidly growing economy with of the strongest GDP’s in the world this past year with 6.7% growth, the environment is literally an eyesore in many areas where you can see debris of all sizes just about everywhere on the streets, canals and coastline. Furthermore, Vietnam faces issues of even more serious environmental hazards from industries such as agricultural manufacturing and petrol with a recent historical settlement case against Vedan for environmental pollution.

Unsurprisingly ranking the lowest on the list are Freedom and Infrastructure. Again, we must remember that this is a biased ranking from an American point of view from which I’d agree that areas of censorship and political corruption are problematic, but what government is not corrupt? Infrastructure is a big problem and even while roads have improved significantly and the Internet is accessible, there are too many other problems such as public transportation, water and electricity that can hardly be understood in this article alone. To put it briefly, Vietnam is a developing country and it’s better to embrace old world development as a charm rather than convince yourself that all these infrastructure problems will soon be a thing of the past. I just hope they prove me wrong.

The last items on this index weigh in very well for Vietnam for Risk & Safety and Climate. Considering where to raise a family, I personally think that Vietnam is safer than most developed countries like the US, France or Japan. While Vietnam experiences crime at all levels, violent crime is significantly low and most people feel safe walking around the streets at any time of the day. The recent shooting of Representative Gabrielle Gifford, annual news of school shootings or even the US's worst terrorist attacks of 9/11 makes me rethink how the US ranked the highest as the safest country. Back to Vietnam's social woes, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor has seen petty crime on the rise and adding insult to injury by ostensibly emphasizing a more class-like society where Bentley luxury sedans pass by bicycle peddling merchants. Last, but not least the climate in Vietnam is pleasant most of the time, yet can be stifling in its hottest times of the year with the South at about 33 degrees Celsius with hot desert like conditions in the Spring and the north near 40 degrees Celsius in the summer months.

At first glance, Vietnam’s ranking of 52 next to Fiji and Gambia seems oddly out of place, but upon a closer look at what makes up this number it seems that Vietnam is fairly ranked with areas such as environment and infrastructure that it should seriously address, whereas factors such as cost of living and climate seem like they were glossed over considering outsiders do not intimately know about the problems of inflation or pollution that are deteriorating the quality of life.

Quality of Life Index:

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Rainy Season in Saigon

Rainy season in the southern part of Vietnam lasts for about half of the year from about March until October. Each day has occasional rain showers passing by with people taking shelter and others just going about their daily routine. By the way, this is the first video I've ever tried to edit and post on my blog so I hope you like it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Six rules of thumb for doing business in Vietnam

So I got this slide, "Six rules of thumb for doing business across cultures" from a grad school class that I'm taking and thought I'd share some ideas with a twist about working in Vietnam since I wish someone told me something about these points before I started working in Vietnam.

1. Be prepared - Can mean many things, but for business I'd suggest you learn a few basic pointers particular to business in Vietnam as well as SE Asia. For example, use 2 hands when exchanging business cards. If you don't have a business card, get some made since they're crazy about them here for exchanging contact info. When you receive someone's business card or vice-versa it is polite to examine it for a while and ask even what might seem like obvious questions, "oh so you're based in Ho Chi Minh City?" Another important tip is to know your rank in a business meeting since if your merely a facilitator then maybe you only say a few words, whereas if you are considered a leader then people expect you to make a speech as a part of formality even if it's a few words, "I look forward to prosperous cooperation." Lastly, understand that meetings are formalities and most business is done over time through relationship building over coffee, dinners and other social activities.

2. Slow down - Take a step back and observe the scene. If you have the luxury of time then you're lucky as you can learn many skills from observing, however if you are on a tight time-line, then it's best to probably work with a local partner to help you understand that steps aren't as linear in Vietnam as in Western society. One example is foreign companies want to do things the way they do things back in their home countries, however to ultimately achieve an international standard, certain practices must be trained, expectations must be spelled out and results measured. While both sides might have separate methods for achieving a specific goal, the important thing is to agree on and work towards the same common goal.

3. Establish trust - as in any relationships trust is extremely important, however what you might not know and be naive to is that trust is the most important business factor, even more important than the contract. While contracts have legal binding, trust is the end all for successful 1 on 1 relationships as well as business relationships. It takes time to build trust, and some relationships are easier with certain people than others, however it is these so-called ties that bind Vietnamese society.

4. Understand importance of language - Learning the Vietnamese language is so crucial for business and knowing people. I often grappled with this idea as many Vietnamese are learning English by the mass compared to foreigners learning Vietnamese. You'd think as long as there's a language to communicate by then you're fine. Wrong! As in any country, locals appreciate foreigners learning their language, but in Vietnam it means opening your world to so much more. Vietnamese language is contextual which means not only do you have to understand what is being said, but the context in which it is being said. For example, Vietnamese love to give/receive gifts so it's often common to give a gift along with a speech and a group applause. While this might seem like overdoing it, being discrete about gift giving is considered strange.

5. Respect the culture - Of course any culture has it's way of doing things so it's very important to respect the values and traditions of the local culture. Vietnam is no different and as in many cultures family is number 1. How this cultural aspect relates to business is the same as it relates to the entire society, most people work for their families which makes their job important as a means to serve their families, but not their most important priority. For this reason you should first understand that people want to work in a family type manner where they look up to their elders and learn from them. Second, you will see more dynamic interaction and greater results from group tasks versus individualistic created incentives as in the US.

6. Understand components of culture – Surface culture and Deep culture. What does this mean? Maybe simply put you can ask what is explicit (surface) and what is implicit (deep). Surface culture relates to how people behave on the outside such as greeting one another both physically and verbally. For the locals, men generally shake hands and women do not. In the casual sense, men show friendliness with other men by putting their arms on each others shoulders or leaning on each other whereas women might hold hands or also lean on each other. The words and gestures you use are also very important. Learn how to address elders in terms of pronouns to use and use two hands giving and receiving as a sign of respect. Deep culture is harder to understand and takes time. One example is that you should address people formally, especially elders in the presence of others. While this might seem easy to remember, try to always keep it in mind since showing respect for elders which is an underlying fabric of Vietnamese culture.

While these six rules are applied to doing business in Vietnam, I think the main points carry over to doing business in any foreign culture. Why Vietnam is unique is that it is a country that is welcoming to many cultures, tolerant of foreigners making mistakes, but your experience is enriched so much more if you make the effort to learn how things are done the local way.

Sources: "International Business: The Challenge of Global Competition," Ball, D. and W. McCulloch, McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Most Agreeable

From the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary agreeable means pleasing to the mind or senses; ready or willing. For the Vietnamese language I can count about a half dozen ways to agree, whereas disagreeing is less common both in spoken language and cultural context.

Having grown up in New York and lived in various parts of the US, plus France I’m used to people telling me exactly what they mean. New Yorkers are known for being in your face brash and not sugarcoating anything whereas the French are known to complain and seem like nothing is perfect. Having this background, Vietnamese culture is quite different and not in a way you can immediately know, but in a more subtle way in which you must read between the lines.

My first faux pas of being non-agreeable was when I was told to try to speak Vietnamese more. This phrase was daily for me back in the day and like poking a stick in my eye followed up with comments like I don’t speak Vietnamese when actually trying to speak. I can’t remember exactly, but in the moment I wasn’t keen on on practicing my Vietnamese and said so. To me that was fine, but to my friend’s disappointment it was as if I insulted her family honor. So what might you say to disagree, but agree at the same time you might ask? The most common response is putting yourself down in some sort of jest instead of disagreeing, "oh, my Vietnamese is so terrible, but your English is so much better!"

Indirectness and conflict avoidance are other strong skills in the Vietnamese language repertoire. “Hey, you want to go to a wedding of my distant cousin, uncle’s dog’s neighbor’s friend this weekend?” A short answer such as “no, I can’t” would suffice back in the US or maybe complaining about the same boring menu at every wedding could be a welcomed conversation topic with the French. However, Vietnamese are really good at pressuring you and if that’s not enough, others will join in. Peer pressure is the norm. As Seinfeld once said, it’s like you need an excuse rolodex so try, “No, I have charity work this weekend ..or I’m busy helping my my niece with her homework ” to get you by.

For those who’ve heard the all to common Asian stereo-type that Asians are sneaky, well it’s true. However, the reason why people agree or avoid you is not for reasons you might think, but simply to be what is considered respectful or somewhat polite. For some this might be considered lying, but it is not and can become a rather playful back and forth conversation that takes its course. In fact, you can take it as a form of flattery for the more they try to avoid you the more they are still showing their respect for you. Hey at least, they didn’t tell you a flat out "No!"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who are you?!

Just the other day I sat in one of my regular joints where I grab a bite, escape the oppressive Saigon heat and ponder life. I sat in my usual area at the back wall where I usually camp out for a few hours, eating lunch, having a cappuccino, and using my laptop. I couldn’t help, but overhear a group of women on the far end of the room. The head of the group was a middle-aged woman who unmistakably spoke in a firm American professorial style at a level the dining crowd could easily hear her annunciate as if she were giving an important commencement speech, Dear class of 2009 it’s with great pleasure and pride that I say, “please order anything on me, there’s a wide selection of menu items ..American, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese; you’ll find the selections have funny names like the Elvis or Halle Berry.” Great marketing pitch I thought.

After finishing my Romeo sandwich and catching up on some office emails, I paid attention to the professor again now talking about inequality for women artists starting with China as the example. Her statement was that while women’s art work is better and more detailed, it is the men who get the attention and are paid more time and again. Based on this statement, she made a forceful vow to not let this happen to her students, the Vietnamese female artists, and to be their voice. A group discussion mixed in English and Vietnamese then ensued of which I didn’t catch everything and went back to my laptop to see what world riveting events occurred in the last 15 minutes on Facebook.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” errupted through the room. The professor exclaimed rather than asked. It came across in the way I remember Dana Carvey doing his best McLaughlin impersonation where whatever you might answer the response would be an emphatic “WRONG!” Maybe they understood the professor’s question, maybe it was not a simple answer, but their reaction was respectful silence which led the professor to prod them with multiple choice answers, 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend 3. You are a daughter. From what everyone in the room heard, the professor was urging them to pick answer #1.

For me this was a moment of reverse culture shock and I was instantly transported from Saigon back to any classroom-USA. I reflected upon how much individual identity and success are stressed. According to the professor’s tone of voice you must hold who you are high in the air like flag and don’t wane or women will be never be equal. She continued by breaking it down for the lunch group discussion “Who are you” can have priorities where 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend and 3. You are a daughter. Her words were delivered with such force and conviction you might have expected a group huddle and chant 1-2-3 Let's go Team!

But, there was the calm after the storm. A moment of silence. I couldn’t help but think that the professor might have discovered a fault in the American view as the students then calmly, politely, and collectively commented 'who they are' depends who they answer this question to. Of course they strive to be successful artists, but they equally strive to be good wives/girlfriends, and daughters to their parents. Whether this is a hindrance to beating male artists time will tell, nonetheless these women are very ambitious.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nurture versus Nurture

We cannot definitely say what part of us is biological and what part is a product of our environment is, but for some adoptee friends coming back to Vietnam has resolved some of these issues and helped us figure out ourselves. Being able to look at your biological family might answer a lot of questions for who you are, but take this away and then you can only go back to the environment you originally came from.

When asking Kai what part of him is Vietnamese, he confidently says that he can relate to how people here share, especially in the family. For Kai, there’s no doubt that he’s willing to share and take care of those around him which is obvious by his generous and friendly nature.

What brought Kai back to Vietnam was a gradual process of learning Vietnamese culture, first back in Munich and continues in the present now living in Ho Chi Minh City. Unlike my experience in the US, Kai did not have the same early opportunities to attend adoptee reunions to learn about Vietnam and meet others adoptees. Being adopted was rather a fact, remaining for a long time undefined, and something that Kai had to process by himself.

From the day Kai arrived into his mother’s care, Kai was a part of his German family and undeniably accepted as German from that point on. To discover what it is like to be a Vietnamese adoptee came later in Kai’s teenage years as what he explained as a personal self-exploration to understand who he is. It was later in Kai’s early adult years that he started to connect with other adoptees and had a Vietnamese girlfriend. From dating a Vietnamese girl Kai said he learned so much about Vietnamese culture and the importance of Vietnamese family such as dependency and his role to take care of girlfriend which extended to her family.

There have been many studies on how much environment affects one’s behavior and for many adoptees the ratio between nature versus nurture can never be fully answered. One thing we can undeniably state is that we are the sum of our experiences. For Kai, he laughs when he says many things about him are typically German. For example, he says like other Germans he complains a lot, that he’s not flexible and that he’s very decisive. Kai is eager to learn Vietnamese and embraces the culture, however he knows that characteristics about him are Western and it also important that others understand that about him as well. Kai states that “as adoptees we are lucky since we can go back and forth between being western and being Vietnamese, we are both. This is to our advantage.”

Being adaptable is a common trait amongst Vietnamese adoptees. Having grown up in western culture, mostly in white families and neighborhoods, we accepted our difference and adapted to fit in. Coming back to live in Vietnam is also challenging being confronted by language barriers and learning the nuances of the culture, but again we can adapt and continue to grow.

To live with a Vietnamese family is probably the best way to know Vietnamese culture and for Kai this was something he had sought and found with his fiancées family. Something so little as sharing a meal with a family is considerably an ordinary activity; however as adoptees we take to such actions with both pride and humility. We know that others who do not know our backgrounds usually expect us to have gone through these motions our entire lives. And so we can only identify with this and feel a sense of fulfillment as it is something comforting, almost familiar as it makes up who we are.

Kai Kleiber

Hometown: Munich. Germany
Birth date and Birthplace: April 18, 1974
Occupation: Regional Sales Director for Medical Devices
Duration of stay in VN to date: Been coming to Vietnam to visit and for work since October, 2004. Living in Saigon since September 2008

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Turning Vietnamese

Comfort Food:

I had wondered and the wondering is over. Hallelujah! While I’ve been eating Vietnamese food for the past 12 years, it’s only recently that I’ve been trying to cook it. I’m not talking about anything elaborate, but some home-style cooking. To my and sometimes guests’ disappointment, my dishes never really hit the mark and turn out to be Asian only by the fact that a wok or rice cooker were involved.

Growing up I watched my mom make her routine dishes like macaroni and cheese (with beef if it were a special day), spaghetti and meat sauce, and beef stroganoff. As you can tell beef was a staple in my family’s diet. All are great comfort foods if you ask me. Later on, my dad took over a lot of the cooking teaching me dishes like veal Marsala, pasta carbonara (butter, bacon, and cheese hear attack bliss), spaghetti and pesto, or barbecuing just about anything that can fit on a grill. Being in the kitchen and helping out is something I enjoy, but till recently stepping into a Vietnamese kitchen and I was better off saying I just know how to boil water.


The first challenge is to go and get the ingredients. While this is not so hard to do with modern supermarket conveniences, but you’re much better off going to the outdoor market were the locals go since the ingredients are fresher, more abundant and cheaper. It's no big deal when it comes to such tasks as picking up groceries. I even fondly remember my trips with my dad several times during the week together. However, you can forget any warm and fuzzy childhood memories of grocery trips with your parents and you'd be better off going to a few concerts and dancing in a mosh pit to prepare yourself for the scene at a market in Saigon, a longtime nogo for me.

While my Vietnamese language skills are beyond basic, it’s not always easy to figure out what’s being said and one slight hesitation in your voice at the markets here in Saigon and they’ve upped the ante. Conversations are flying from all directions so just focus on what you need to say. Yell randomly and repeatedly and you'll fit in fine, not to mention get someone's attention. There are no formalities, no nice to see you again crap, and the faster you make a transaction the more you look like you know your way around. Prices aren’t marked and depending on the vendor; he or she will try to get you to buy more. “You want ½ kilo, oh I just sell for 1 kilo.” Fortunately all items are out in the open for you to point to for which you ask by knowing your 1,2,3’s (amount, price or weight). Like most places Saigon, the market is crowded, chaotic and filled mostly with women in their pajamas and conical hats, who unlike me, know what they came to get.

The great thing about going to most markets in Saigon as that you can just ride your motorbike right up to any stand and buy what you need. How convenient is that? Mc Donald’s in your face! So for a meal’s worth of ingredients it only takes a dizzying 10 minutes to get your stuff and you’re zipping your way back home.


As the saying goes, timing is everything. For master chefs all the movements goes into slow motion once you’ve got the right steps, get in the zone. Wash the veggies, start the water boiling, chop the veggies, chop the meat, etc, etc… As you know from watching any skilled cook, it’s all in the timing like working on another dish while the meat is browning, or starting the rice when the juices are being reduced. However, for me timing has usually been impaired; a little wine for the food, a little wine for the chef.

While ingredients like olive oil, garlic, wine, and butter are common to me, other ingredients like fish sauce, MSG, and bot nem (you’re ubiquitous all-spice mix) are only recently becoming patterns in many dishes. First of all fish sauce smells god-awful, but like fine French wines, it has its qualities with age and serves as the salt base for most dishes. While it has a potent smell as you’d expect from fermented fish extract, the health benefit is immense. Next the much reviled MSG that Chinese-American restaurants proudly defy in their store windows. MSG as we all remember from bio class serves as the sugar base. Like many dishes, some sugar, salt and pepper can be added, but nothing goes further than bot nem which makes your dish tastier. Even if you don't use it, you look like you know your shit for having it in your spice stash.

This weeks Attempt – Thit Kho Tau which translates to Chinese braised Pork

With a grocery list of what to buy and the detailed pointers to, “just try” ..try I did. After prepping all the ingredients I gave myself 2 hours to cook this simple, yet time consuming dish. As any Vietnamese person will tell, cooking Vietnamese dishes are easy. Of course they are! Given my mastery skills in cooking ramen instant noodles, no problem.

I’ve eaten this dish more times than I can count and many will tell you this is something their mothers cooked for them. This succulent, juicy, spicy and sweet is another comfort food I have grown to love. And so the experiment began. For starters the electricity was out which isn’t uncommon as blackouts occur just like the passing rains. I assure you it was just a shirtless experience, but hey it’s hot here in this tropical climate.

After some chopping, boiling, frying, and simmering my dish looked like a real dish. Voila! Here is the run down:

- Hard boil 4 eggs
- Chop pork (300g) into 1 inch slices
- Carmelize a sauce pan with sugar and water till brown, then add the pork
- Add ½ onion, a couple cloves of chopped garlic and chopped red pepper
- Brown the pork then add about 1 cup of coconut juice, simmer for about an hour adding coconut juice as needed not to burn the dish
- After about 1 hour add the hard boild eggs and simmer for another 20 mins

- For a healthy balance, I boiled some ochre, one of many vegetables I never really ate till I came to Vietnam. So ochre wasn't just a color used to decribe JCrew fall wear? Hmmm. Anyway, just wash the ochre and boil till green (about 3-5minutes). Be careful not to over-cook or they taste like mush.

- Also, can’t eat rice without canh (broth) for which I boiled some rau cai ngot (what does this translate to?), added some diced pork, salt and pepper. I’ve heard quite a few locals say they can’t eat without or their dish is too dry. A cold beer helps that problem for me, but go with the flow.

- Lastly steam 2 cups of rice and this serves 2-3 people.

The Verdict

“Did you taste the food after you cooked it?” - Hang

“Oh, yeah..taste the food. Um no. I thought it smelled great, but I did take a lot of pictures though!” - Me

Hang's comments...

• The braised pork was tasty, but a little too sweet - needed more salt
• The broth was a bland – needed more salt, pepper, MSG and that bot nem that I totally left out. Sacrilege!
• The steamed white rice – 1/3 burnt as it’s been ages since I cooked rice in a pot. Damn electricity was out. Can’t beat a rice cooker!
• The ochre was ochre – I aced that


Of our favorite pleasures in life, food is tops! Even with this tough critique I was told next time would be perfect and to keep cooking. The Vietnamese love their food, love to eat together, and for good reason. Vietnamese food is simple, healthy, tasty and cheap... a tough combo to beat. The Vietnamese also live off the land as many of their dishes use ingredients that are in abundance here which is also comforting. I’ve never eaten so much rice, seafood, vegetables, and fruit in my life. It’s great!

This weeks Attempt 2 – Dau Hu Thit Bam Ca Chua (Tofu filled with Pork and Tomatoe Sauce)

Tofu stuffed with minced pork (mixed with shallots, salt & pepper).

Sauteed tomatoes, add tofu, simmer, adding water gradually, and top with green onions right before serving.

Side dish of morning glory (boiled in water with some salt and MSG) for about 5 mins.