Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mission Accomplished*

Ok. I'm back. I didn't forget about this, I just kept putting it off in lieu of other things. Last time I talked to you I was homeless (although I had a wonderful couch with wonderful hosts), jobless (although if I started to starve, I could have started teaching English immediately), and one pair of shoes closer to being shoeless. Let's just say a lot has happened since then.

Also, I have decided to start writing in installments in order to help motivate me to actually post more often. This is one of many installments of events from the last month....

Now, when I say Mission Accomplished*, the asterisk is to denote that this statement is more comparable to when Bush declared Mission Accomplished in reference to the Iraq war 5 years ago than when Neil Armstrong (supposedly) landed on the moon. I have now accomplished phase one of my mission, which was to show up to Vietnam without a job and to get a job via networking. However, as I realize that I don't really have a phase 2 or beyond planned yet, I guess that is my entire mission as of right now, and it has thus been accomplished. Step 1: Get Job. Step 2. Step 3: Profit. Figuring out that blank of Step 2 will be the key to removing the asterisk.

I have now been working for the last two weeks at a venture capital company called Mekong Ventures. It was founded by some of the top entrepreneurs and people in the investment community here, such as Chris Freund, the founder of Mekong Capital- the largest private equity company in all of the land. He was the first person I met here as part of my network-establishing process, and although at the time he had no openings at his larger firm, he recommended that I speak to the CEO of Mekong Ventures. Unfortunately, although I believe I made a smart move to leave the US as it was imploding, things are not much better anywhere else. Every person I met with, while impressed by my ambition, was either firing, not hiring, or only hiring specific senior roles. Additionally, just about every expat here is in a more senior management position, which I am clearly not qualified for (or am I), and companies want to fill more junior positions with people who speak the language and are willing to work for a few hundred dollars a month- i.e. Vietnamese locals. (Granted, my salary is slave wages).

Another problem is that there is a huge gap between first steps and final steps here. I have cold-called CEOs of investment banks and fund management companies here, and they were willing to meet just a couple hours later. However, in one specific instance that is still ongoing, the final steps of actually getting a job offer are so dreadfully drawn out and frustratingly vague, that it makes me want to push a random person off of his motorbike at full speed to ease the tension. It also made me realize that although a lot of people and companies here are talking themselves up to be the king of the hill, they are just blowing smoke through the floating smoke rings that embody Vietnam. The truth is that there are so few worthwhile deals to be made right now that if you want to play the game, you need to talk yourself up well above your actual notch on the totem pole. I have now met with a good portion of the investment community, and everyone has spent part of the time talking shit about other people- which is actually great insight for me and has been the best part of getting a job after arriving rather than by who looks good on their website. At least there have been some people (that look very good on their website) who have garnered no respect from the majority, so I can gauge the accuracy of these opinions accordingly.

Anyways, when I first met the Tuong Anh, the CEO of Mekong Ventures, I really had no idea it was for an actual interview. The nice part about networking and meeting for coffee or a drink rather than in an office for an interview for a specific position, is the calming informality. I really knew nothing about the company other than what was on the website, which was outdated, and had no idea of the company's needs at the time being. To my surprise, she was looking for a partner to take the company into a new direction. It is a small ($3 million) holding company put together by the board members, and although she wasn't the only one involved, there were no other full time employees. To her surprise, I look 16, which is why one of her questions was how do I think other people would feel if I were sitting on the board of a company and they saw how young I looked? While my stated answer was that once they realize I am capable, it wont matter, the truth is that most Vietnamese are really young, and some 40-year-olds look younger than I do. Leaving the meeting, I was a little dumbfounded about the position I was just interviewed for, but also realistic that there was no way that I was getting it.

That afternoon, I cold-called the guy from the investment banking company mentioned above, and when I heard back from Tuong Anh that now would not be a good time to take me on at Mekong Ventures, I became gung-ho for this other company. Although the company name is not widely known, this man is known to others in the community as Mr. Vietnam (even though he is British), and after meeting other people there, I became intrigued by this opportunity. They were looking for people, although they weren't really sure what for, but it didn't really matter. Every meeting I had, it seemed like I had the job, but every meeting turned into meeting after meeting and waiting for over a month for the process to run its course. I talked to one person who came here and the process from interviewing until getting the job at one company took 6 months, so I guess I shouldn't be too impatient at 2 months time.

After realizing that there weren't going to be any other jobs here, I decided to sit tight and wait for this other company to figure out staffing issues, and in the meantime I would read every report and news article on Vietnam in the last year and work on my Vietnamese. Then one day I got two calls- one from the head of a fund here that had a vacancy and who had heard about me from one of the people I had met along the way, and the other from Mekong Ventures to say that (3 weeks later) they actually did want to give me the job. The former call seemed very promising at first, but in the end they really were looking for a local Vietnamese. I probably should have seen this coming when I went to meet all the people there, and I met all the expats in their offices which surrounded the floor of the Vietnamese people they were managing. One of the guys made a very candid statement that the Vietnamese can be managed to do amazing things, but they can only produce to the extent that you manage them. He was basically making a point, which has been reiterated to me by many people, that the Vietnamese cannot think outside of the box. This is a theme that will recur in future posts, but in the meantime don't take this as an all-encompassing or racist statement by these people. There have been many Vietnamese that will honestly tell you the same.

When I actually received my offer at Mekong Ventures, I was still in limbo with these two other places, so I agreed to a contract where in the first month I could continue weighing other options and look for other jobs. Right now I am working in a beautiful office that is actually a villa that used to be the Chilean consulate. It is a place where I have the most room to make my own decisions and have the most influence in the future success (or failure of the company). I will also be working with exciting young companies and influential businessmen and investors. The downside is it is not at all what I was expecting when coming here. I came in order to have much more responsibility than I could in the US and to learn as much as I could about another country and economy. I assumed that the best way to do that would be to work at one of the biggest and best regarded companies here, where I could be mentored by seasoned professionals and be around a lot of other people. In my current position, while I do have access to these people, I am in essence creating my own company here solely with the CEO. I will be doing a lot more learning on my own and from my own experiences, but I will have to be making or breaking my own way here. I wont be pulled along for the ride while just sucking in information as I would be at other places. This is an extraordinarily unique opportunity, and I am still try to grasp the full monty of what I am and what I will be doing. But the most important reason I chose to come to Vietnam is a result of getting the advice to take as much risk as I could while I am young, so this clearly fits the mold. Worst case scenario, I fail, and it takes me a few more tries to invent the light bulb.

Next installments will discuss my house/assortment of housemates, the drunk/homeless/mentally disturbed motorbike driver who lives on a pushcart outside our door, my motorbike that I just bought today and driving in the city now that I am comfortable, my one trip out of the city, and more. Hopefully I will get into more of a groove writing these and you wont have to wait as long.

And more pictures....

Monday, September 15, 2008

Who steals a shoe?

One of the best things about Saigon, especially compared to living in Cape Town, is the ability to walk the street at any time, by yourself, and feel safe.  Whereas in Cape Town, you can't walk to the bars 10 minutes away, here there is almost no violent crime or hold-ups of any kind.  This is largely because owning a gun is illegal here.  In South Africa, on the other hand, I was told by a guy in the elevator after one of my jiu jitsu classes that his gun (which he pulled out of the back of his pants to show me) was the only thing that would protect him.  Ironically I was able to survive 7 months in South Africa without being robbed, but I have now been robbed in my third week in Saigon.  The difference here is Vietnamese thieves are masters of sneakiness rather than brute force.  They specialize in cat burglary as well as bumping your cell phone out of your hand by knocking your elbow as they drive by on a motorbike and then catching it on the way down.

Most Vietnamese townhouses, including Erica and Dave's where I am staying right now, have one entrance gate, and then a little area for shoes and motorbikes before the front door.  We keep the front gate locked even when we are here, but apparently Vietnamese shoe thieves are so sneaky that the little hand hole to get to the lock is all the space they need.  Presumably using the stick that we found lying outside the next morning, our suspect was able to remove every pair of shoes from the area.  He (or she) was nice enough to spare the flip flops.  Surveying the scene, it didn't seem physically possible to remove a shoe through either the bottom of the gate or the keyhole.  We learned to never underestimate the slick and sly shoe thieves of Saigon, and also to leave our shoes inside.  

At the present time we have one suspect.  The other day we stepped outside of the gate only to find a mysterious Vietnamese man sitting on his bike across the alley and staring at us.  He was wearing a traditional pointed rice patty straw hat and holding a bamboo cylindrical object in his hand.  What on earth is this guy doing and what is that mysterious item in his hand?  As these thoughts went through our heads, he put his mouth to the top of the cylinder, and lit a lighter to the bottom.  He took a deep breath, slowly drew his mouth away, and exhaled a serious cirrus cloud worth of smoke.  He then offered me some of this mystery cloud-creating substance.  I thought back to my D.A.R.E. classes and all the anti-drug commercials back in America, and remembered that I would probably either die or end up killing someone else if I did, so I politely declined.  I also had a networking meeting that I was going to, so I didn't think that would help.  When the shoes disappeared, I also thought back to health class and scare tactic commercials and realized that if this man is smoking DRUGS, then he will clearly branch out to commit more crimes.  Thus he MUST be the man who stole the shoes.  We are taught so well in America.

This story really turned on my intrigue of the widely accepted illegal and counterfeit market of Vietnam.  You can get everything cheap here, but it's either going to be stolen or fake.  DVD's are about 75 cents each, and you can even buy them at upstanding supermarkets.  Nobody cares, and since it's so widespread, there is no chance anyone is ever going to sell a legitimate CD or DVD for 20 times the price until there is a crackdown.  But I am not complaining about that.  I was able to buy every episode of both The Wire and South Park for less than 20 dollars total.  Just one season of any TV show is more than that.  

As far as clothing goes, one would think that since so much of everything they own is made in Vietnam, you could get it cheaper here before they ship it out of the country.  However, since most of these companies have explicit export-only agreements, this is not possible.  As I perused the aisles of the Nike Store here (selling real Nike merchandise), everything was made in China, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, or anywhere other than here.  It was also ridiculously expensive.  If you want Vietnam-made you need to go to the sketchier establishments in the markets or to stores on the backstreets.  There is a chance that this stuff is stolen from the factories making legitimate products, but more likely from these mystery factories that only churn out counterfeit goods.  It is my ultimate goal here to find these factories and really learn the ins and outs of the this thriving industry.  I don't care where they make the real North Face bags; I want to see the place where they are ripping them off with much shoddier materials.

It reminds me of the mystery behind the international arts and crafts that dominates tourist markets in all African nations.  Although every vendor claims that he made every wooden giraffe and batik piece on his tables, it is clear that there is some factory somewhere churning out the same crap and sending it to markets far and wide.  Unassuming tourists who can't bargain for their life then buy the crappy elephant thinking they bought it from the art master of Swaziland or wherever they are.  In both situations, although the African art is slightly more legit, these are some of the biggest industries which no one seems to really know the inner workings of.  I can only hope to learn.

Now to the specific stolen shoe industry.  Saigon is like one enormous department store.  The only difference is the aisles are full streets.  There is a separate street or set of streets for every product from power sanders and power drills to giant stuffed animals and, of course, shoes.  Each street will literally have store after store of the same stuff for the same price (which always fluctuates based on how white and vulnerable you look), and this can continue for multiple blocks.  As our good friend Benson deftly noted on, I am as white as they get, and thus they usually start me pretty high.  According to Benson, he is slightly less white than I am, but unfortunately he is going to be given the same ballpark price, and he wont be getting them to take off many dong at all.  The Vietnamese are notorious tough and stubborn bargainers and if you are in a touristy area or are exceptionally white, like Benson or myself, the price is barely moving.  For instance, there is not much hope in Ben Than market in the city center.  If something is 500,000 dong (around 30 dollars) and you undercut it to 200,000, the shopkeeper's next offer, after a huge shocking cry and wince of pain, would probably be a measly 480,000 dong (true story of another very white traveller).  That is savings of a dollar and a quarter.  I guess this is a result of too many tourists coming in matching shirts and stickers and jumping at the first comparatively cheap price.  

My apologies for getting sidelined.  After the infamous shoe incident, we decided to wander down to the stolen/counterfeit shoe street.  While Dave needed to buy new shoes, I went just to find my recently stolen shoes to see if they had made it to a storefront yet.  Every store was full of shoddy looking shoes and dirty used shoes lining the racks.  There were people sitting on the street cleaning off the new arrivals, so this was the opportune time to track down my shoes.  On the other side of the "legitimate" store fronts were people selling their goods on blankets on the sidewalk.  The endless piles and rows of shoes were overwhelming, but I was committed to checking every place for my stolen goods.  However, not long after noticing all these merchants, there was a sudden panic that spread through that side of the street.  With no rain in sight, it was clear that they were alerted to police that were on their way to crack down on this industry.  Nobody was arrested or forced to give up their products, and all it did was increase the possibility that someone was running away with my shoes.  Big B minus to the Ho Chi Minh City police force.  

Now I realize that in the US you can buy illegal and counterfeit goods and you can illegally download whatever files you want.  However, in the US this actually is illegal and is enforced by the law.  Here it is part of daily life.  There is absolutely no understanding or respect of intellectual property, and theoretically, this economy would collapse (even further than it has) if these laws were strictly enforced.  It is such an integral part of the system, people's livelihoods, and people's daily purchases that it is nearly an unstoppable force.  If such laws were enforced, I would just be sold shoes and dvds out of some guys handbag in an alley rather than from a storefront in an alley.  Pornography is illegal, but just the other day I had some guy whistle at me and flash me a dvd of counterfeit porn.  That would be a double-whammy.

Now I need to go to the Pharmacy, which is a wonderland of prescription drugs sold over the counter.  There has been a little gnome living in my stomach for the last few days and he has been trying to gnaw his way out.  Hopefully they have something that will kill him.  And hopefully whatever drug I get isn't produced in the same factory as the DVDs and faux North Face bags.  

Monday, September 8, 2008

Motorbikes, drug dealers, and hookers OH MY!

So a lot has happened since I last posted.  I moved out of Brendan's in the 'burbs of An Phu (District 2) into my own little penthouse suite in the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao, where I worked out a deal of 6 dollars a night for a week.  This included 2 beds (which I needed since the first night I woke up in a swarm of ants and was thus able to move across to the other); a TV which had all the movie channels, some form of ESPN which seemed to only play the Yankees (at least it had baseball), and Bloomberg, which was the only news station; a great view of a bunch of other apartments on the back alleys; my own bathroom which was a shower, toilet, and sink all in one (the floor of the shower was just the bathroom floor, which was actually great because you could take care of everything while showering); and wireless internet (though pretty unreliable).  It was great to be in the center of everything, since I had been in the boonies for the first week, but a week of getting approached every second by xe om (motorbike) drivers, taxi drivers, drug dealers, masseuses (hookers), and cyclo drivers who claimed to know an American or two back in the war, was more than enough for me to want to get out.  So this morning I packed my bags and moved to the couch of my friends' new townhouse on the other side of district 1.  It is quite a relief to be out of the prime touristy spot.

Before you nag, no I don't have a job yet, but I have been networking like crazy.  I have been setting up as many meetings as I can with some of the most well connected people in the city.  Everyone is really within two degrees of separation from each other in the business community.  However, I misspoke at a meeting/breakfast and said "tight-knit" instead of "small" and was quickly corrected.  Although it is small and everyone knows each other, it does NOT mean that they like or respect one another.  I do not want to go into the details of specific opinions I have heard on the different companies I am meeting with, since this blog can be viewed by the public, but there is a big difference here in what local companies versus international companies can do and how they operate.  International companies have to play by the rules, whereas local companies- not so much.  So, if it comes down to bribing a government official, the local company that sends the hooker to his door, beats out the goody-two-shoes international corporation.  This was a real and eye-opening example.  And when I say eye-opening, I mean that I now see that the way for me to get a job is just to send a hooker with my resume to the HR guy.  Sure-fire plan.  Done. 

Speaking of hookers, they can get quite aggressive here.  Just as I was walking home one night pondering the fact that I had never been approached by one, a motorcycle pulled up with a middle aged woman and a young, heavily made-up girl on the back.  I was very proud of them for wearing helmets, which is a law here (but only for adults- kids can be free to ride helmet-less and crush their heads, even though they are the future of this country).  However, I was less proud when they offered me a "massage" at midnight.  I was clearly a prime target, so they realized that couldn't just give up after one try.  All I understood was massage, one-hour, and nice girl, but clearly she didn't understand "no" and me crossing the street to get away.  She did a u-turn and followed me up on the sidewalk and then cornered me in while the girl did a fake smile and touched me on my arm.  I almost pushed the bike over when that happened, then realized that her pimp was most likely lurking in the background and would pour hot pho all over me if I did.  So I had to back up and keep dodging the bike until she finally got the idea.  However, now I need to find that girl so I can send her to get me a job.

Another little thing I want to talk about, is old, sleazy Caucasian men, who come over for young, unknowing Asian women.  I have much love for interracial relationships, however the couples that you see in the backpacker district are a far cry from even Woody Allen and Soon Yi.  You see them in every bar: old greasy white guy drinking a beer and talking nonsense, while the younger Asian woman sits there with a very unhappy look on her face.  She probably can't understand what he is saying, and can't understand that he is one of a whole group of ex-NAMBLA members who come to South-East Asia on a mission to find girls who, unlike the girls at home, will actually sleep with them.  These men usually have some seriously fantastic mustaches.  That being said, upon leaving the grimy backpacking district, there are plenty of healthy and normal East/West relations.

For the finally and most thrillingly scary event of the week, I rode a motorbike for the first time.  Riding a motorbike on the open road is one thing, but riding one in this traffic is another.  People come into your lane to pass people in their lane, they take lefts across oncoming traffic into more oncoming traffic, and they swerve and weave and blow through red lights.  The only traffic rule that is ever enforced here is that people over the age of about 7 must wear helmets.  Ladies and gentlemen, this does not make sense.  Although I have built up a lot of confidence in my one epic ride, I cannot count how many close calls their were.  Luckily it is rare that you can gain a lot of speed, but then again, if you get in an accident at any decent speed on a motorbike, you are going to have a bad time.  Not to mention, you would be safer putting a paper mache dragon on your head than wearing the flimsy little kids helmets they have here.  Anyways, we spent the whole day getting lost and only making it less than 20kms outside of the city, but the change in scenery was drastic and it was well worth the experience.  If I learned one thing, I learned that you just have to trust that everyone else doesn't want to hit you and they will get out of your way if you get out of  theirs.  Just hope that you both don't dodge each other by turning in the same direction.  

I know I never really continued that last post, and to be honest I probably never will, because there is just too much to talk about.  But maybe, just maybe, I will update this more often than I have.  Don't count on it though. 

Until next time, when I hopefully have a job and a permanent residence.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

5 days, 5 senses

So apparently I have been too slow with updating my blog.  This might have to do with the fact that I have been busily exploring the city in order to have stuff to talk about on the blog.  I think it's a fair trade off to have fewer blog posts with more to talk about than blogging about sitting at my computer all day blogging.  Cut me some slack here.

Hold on there is a huge cockroach that I need to go kill.

Ok, I'm back.  It flew upstairs.  Hopefully it wont come back.  Also, it's a palmetto, not a cockroach.  Looks the same to me, but I will try to be culturally accepting and use the correct term from now on.  Wait, now I need to kill some ants that are trying to climb into my bed.  Ok.

HELLO WORLD!!!  Guess what?  I am on a wireless connection right now and just a few years ago this area, An Phu (District 2) used to be a jungle.  I was even able to check email on my ipod touch today when I was downtown.  I'm pretty impressed.  But the power does go out frequently, so again, don't expect blog updates every day.  It's better to be pleasantly surprised whenever one pops up.

As I alluded to earlier, Saigon is different in every sense that a sense can be down to my sixth sense that I will get a job sometime in the near future (future being broadly defined).  Since it was dark when I landed, the first sense I used was that of smell.  Although it took a little while to pinpoint what was wafting every which way, the air has a common scent of a campfire burning incense.  People keep fires going on the streets and in their houses for cooking and burning rubbish, and combine ritualistic or just plain just-because-it-smells-good incense.  They most certainly are not burning anything for the purpose of heating themselves, since it's so humid you might as well be in the river.  While that smell does encompass the whole city (or at least what I have seen so far), there are frequently some particularly gnarly (it's been a while since I used that word, but that's the best way to describe them) scents that completely override the bonfire of the incense.  These can particularly be found in the markets, but for the most part there is no place that is immune to pungency.  In this heat, with no dip in temperature ever to kill things off, bacteria and fungi and mold and whatever else that smells worse than stretch of Rt. 68 in Durham by Greenbacker Farm, keep growing and growing and stinking and stanking.  Winners in this category include the fish section of Benh Thanh market, many other sections of that market with unrecognizable potential food products piled high and wide, and numerous random patches of air in the streets.

When I was finally able to see the city, I immediately noticed two things- motorbikes and construction.  Although there are cars, trucks, busses, bicycles, and pedestrians, motorbikes run the show.  There are no traffic laws (that are enforced) and the xe om (zay ohm) drivers are in a constant race against time to create the quickest, although not necessarily straightest, route between point A and point B.  If traffic is stopped and the sidewalk is clear, then pedestrians watch out.  If taking a left means cutting across traffic and they see an opening, then oncoming traffic watch out, and if they do need to cross traffic, brace yourself.  I rode on one for the first time today, both in and out of the downtown area (District 1), and there is definitely a sense of fear weaving in and out of bikes and cars and over uneven surfaces and flash flooded streets.  I have already seen 3 accidents, but only one third resulted in death, and who knows- that guy could have moved right after I saw him motionless in a gutter.  Another was two bikes t-boning each other.  Whereas in the States, people would be screaming back and forth while exchanging mandatory insurance information, these people (and one of them was a Westerner) didn't exchange so much as a glance and pretty much bounced off the pavement back onto their respective bikes and off on their merry ways.  They didn't even brush themselves off until after they got back on the road.  Then again, this also could have been the realization that they were both stopped in the middle of an intersection, and they could go without getting run over.  Finally, there was one guy we came across that had just fallen over, and with him went his entire delivery of Coca-Cola bottles.  Nobody honked at him; he didn't seem upset; he just meticulously picked up all the bottles, picked up the bike, and moved on.  I'll probably buy a Coke tomorrow that will explode in my face.  This accident brings me to my favorite picture so far and transitions perfectly to the famous Vietnamese smile.

As I learned from reading Vietnam Today, Vietnam is proof that although popular quote-maker "Unknown" may say otherwise, a smile is not the same in every language.  The Vietnamese smile many times does have the same broad-happy-I'm nice-you're nice-even if I don't understand a single word you are saying- connotation, but it can also be used to mask anger or embarrassment or even garbarrassment (the popular new term which is a combination of garbage and embarrassment and is catching on like wildfire from Bangor to Bangalore and Nassau County to Dekalb County).  You will frequently see people nearly escaping accidents and smile in lieu of shouting obscene epithetical threats.  So, let's analyze this picture.  The guy in the foreground is smiling at me because he is happy and wants me to see that he doesn't need an orthodontist to have a high self-esteem.  On the other hand, although you can't see his face, the guy who is picking up his bottles and his bike is smiling because he knows that his riding skills are better than that and he is pissed off.  On a side note, I didn't even realize that happy smiling man was in the picture until after I looked at it.  Then I smiled an American-English smile because I knew that that picture was going to make the blog.

Anyways, I know I promised five senses, but unfortunately it is far later than I have been up yet and I have a full time job of exploring that I need to wake up for tomorrow.  I also don't want to overwhelm you, the reader/person who actually cares what I am doing or what I think, or myself, the writer who is extremely A.D.D. and has trouble staying on one topic for too long.  Thus I will leave this at to be continued.  As a note to myself, I still want to talk about my trip to the Nike Store (not the factory), my living quarters, animals, more about the people, some comparisons to South Africa, and a whole lot more.  Stay tuned and GOODNIGHT WORLD!!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I Have Arrived

I am in Ho Chi Minh City, but even the American pilot called it Saigon, so I guess that is what it will be from now on.  The flights didn't seem that bad, but there was a lot of them and a lot of moving around and getting delayed.  I flew from New York to San Francisco, then had a two-hour layover to board a flight to Hong Kong.  At less than 13 hours the flight was a lot shorter than I envisioned it to be.  For some reason I thought the Pacific took much longer to cross.  In Hong Kong, I had to get off the plane and go through security to reboard even though it was the same plane to Ho Chi Minh City.  Because of typhoons the past few days, flights were really backed up and a lot were cancelled.  Thankfully mine was only delayed about 2 hours, and I was even able to connect to the internet there.  Splendid.  

On that flight I opted to read this fascinating book on Vietnamese culture called Vietnam Today.  United Airlines only had one movie screen far away, but it was good in that it forced me to read this book that I really needed to read before I got here.  It talked a lot about having patience and gave many examples of the differences between Vietnam and Western culture.  After reading the book, when I was in Hong Kong, i saw a guy that had a sixth finger right next his thumb.  Now if you think this is crazy, when he turned his hand over, he has a swastika clear as day tattooed on his wrist.  The Germans standing next to me were gawking and whispering, but that could have just been about his unfortunate second pinky which, looking at the looking at the long fingernail could be very handy to him.  Anyhoo, I'm am not going to jump to any judgement, but it was just a shocking tattoo to see on a man that could not have been older than early to mid forties.

Other than that, and some slight confusion navigating the Hong Kong airport, there is nothing extraordinary to report.  Customs was a breeze (trying to steer away from using the term 'joke' although I just did there), and I could not have been more fortunate to have Brendan (my friend from home who is living here and whom I am staying with at first) pick me up at the airport.  I am sleeping in a nice alcove underneath his staircase, where I am going to attempt to fall asleep now, although it is mid afternoon for me.  

I can't believe I am actually here.  I have never been more excited (with a hint of nervousness) for anything in my life, and I can't wait to explore this city in the daylight.  It smells different, it feels different, and I am looking forward to be culturally shocked starting tomorrow.  This is going to be one hell of an adventure.  But don't worry, Dad, first things first is getting a job.

Friday, August 15, 2008

VIETNAM?!?! Why the hell would you go there? I spent many years trying to AVOID going there!

WHOA THERE BUDDY!  I have gotten this from many people in my parents' generation.  Why would I go to a country that most people in America only associate with the war, when I could go anywhere else?  Why not London, or even Hong Kong?  Why not New York or Boston?  Do I hate my country?  

Fair enough.  Theoretically, I could have gone anywhere in the world.  How did I narrow that down to Vietnam?  Let us take a step back.  

After graduating college last May, and after packing boxes and working a forklift in a factory in order to save up some money, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa for seven months.  I worked (interned for free) as a business analyst at Cape Venture Partners (CVP), a venture capital and consulting firm which pairs entrepreneurs with investors and is also in the process of raising its own fund.  Although I was tearing through my my money from graduation, the warehouse, and other life savings, this was an incredible learning experience that allowed me to have much more responsibility than I could have had anywhere else.  Most importantly, it was my first lengthy experience in a foreign market and it made me hungry for more.

At first I was set to move to London.  I had worked there for a short while before and thought it would be a great next place to go to work in international investing.  Two things/people helped changed my mind away from London and towards the East.  

One was a banker from London who gave me the clear view that everyone was getting fired and the only people staying on were 35 plus with years of specific experience.  He was surprised that I would want to leave my current position when I was in the process of raising a fund for an emerging market venture capital firm, and said that if I succeeded in that, it would greatly increase my job offers.  When I told him that I wasn't being paid, he was no longer surprised.  This shattered my hopes of going to London, but opened my eyes to the possibility of staying in South Africa or going to another emerging market.

The other was a private equity fund manager from Cape Town whom I met at the "unquote South Africa Private Equity Conference, which I attended representing CVP.  This guy sat down at the end of the night with me and my friend Alison and gave the most moving motivational speech I have ever heard.  Our conversation changed the thought of moving to another emerging market from idea to necessity.  His single biggest regret was not taking more risk when he was younger and that above anything, he would recommend that we do what he did not.  He said I should just plop down in a place like Lagos or Sao Paolo, much riskier in terms of markets (and personal safety) than London or New York, which are quickly being viewed as financial centers of the Old World.  Although my salary would be a small fraction of what I could get in the developed world, the experience would pay off exponentially in the future.  

Now I decided that I would be willing to go anywhere.  However, as much as I enjoyed South Africa, I wanted to try a new place and get a fresh start.  Although Brazil always lingered in the back of my mind, I decided that Asia was the place.  I have never been there and it is clearly going to be the leader of this century, particularly with China and India at the head of the pack.  So I started with these two.  As I looked at some of the more frontier markets though, Vietnam came up over and over.  For a while I was leaning towards Mumbai or Bangalore, India, but after a less-than-confident talk with a hedge fund manager who invests only in India, all signs pointed to Vietnam being the right place.  He told me that the Indian culture and business practices rely mainly on inter-Indian trust and that because of that he would never hire an ex-pat for his ground operation in India.  This confirmed my prior belief that it would be tough to break into these huge markets which already had a billion qualified people each, and finally gave me the excuse I needed to narrow in on Vietnam.  

I didn't give up on India yet, since there are many more venture capital companies in India compared to the nearly non-existent market in Vietnam, and I also wasn't going to let one person on the pessimistic side of the spectrum rain on my parade.  However, I thought back to the risk-taking advice from the South African guy, and decided that now would be the best time to explore a frontier market that is in the process of building its financial sector right now.  Vietnam is one of the fastest growing markets in Asia and the World and it is thus showing a lot of potential to foreign investors.  Unfortunately at the same time that I decided to go, the country is experiencing its biggest financial crisis of recent times.  But I am going for experience and adventure, and the best time to experience these emerging markets is to go during a crisis.  

Everyone who I have talked to who has been to Vietnam (post-war) has fallen in love with it.  It is a beautiful country which is apparently quite friendly to Americans, despite what most would think.  This is mainly because 28% of the population is under 14 and 30% is between 15 and 30, and thus has no memory of the "American War" as it is referred to there.  This young population is extraordinarily resilient and entrepreneurial and strives for the success seen in the developed world.  Because its financial sector is in its infancy, there is much more of a need for outside talent than in China, India or Brazil.  This, coupled with the ease of getting a work permit, was enough to convince me.  The decision took a few months after returning to the US, but I finally realized that if I wanted to ever go, now's the time.  Otherwise, it would never happen.  It is the biggest decision of my life, but I am confident it is the right one.

I booked a one-way ticket from New York to Ho Chi Minh City on August 22nd.

Oh, and I don't have a job yet.  More on that to come...

In Case You Don't Know....

I am moving to Vietnam on August 22nd.  I have learned from past trips that I am notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people, so I thought I would set up this blog to let you know what I am doing and that I am still alive and kicking.  I can't make any promises as to how often I will update it, but I will do my best, so keep checking back.

This, however, is not a trip.  I am going with the intent to get a full time job in private equity, venture capital, or asset management, and I have no idea how long I will be there.  I only have a 3-month single-entry visa as of right now, but I got a one-way ticket, so time will tell.  

I love visitors.