Monday, March 31, 2008

INSEAD Memory: Vietnam

We went to Vietnam in March 2007.  I remember this because I celebrated my 28th birthday on the final day of the trip.  Strange to think that its been a year.  Damn.  The INSEAD crew for Vietnam was big because it was the break between P1 and P2.  I'm not sure exactly how many we had but we had over 30.  Either that or 15 really fat people. (I'm looking at you, you fat Spaniard you)

We arrive in Hanoi and like all good travelers we exchanged our cash for the local currency which was - I am not making this up - the Dong.  Apart from the name the Dong really is funny money.  At current exchange rates 16,000 Dong equals 1 dollar.  For $62 you too can be a millionaire.

We chartered a junk boat to do a 2 night cruise around the renown Halong bay.  It is a channel of green topped islands of exquisite beauty.  Floating about the bay feels like how you'd imagine going through the Bermuda triangle.  You wade through dense fog on top of translucent turquoise water and out of nowhere jagged volcanic rocks come into sight.  This is where Loch Ness or fire-breathing dragons call home.  Certainly not any place you'd recognize on earth.

Nightfall.   Although INSEAD students weren't the only guests on the boat, with 30 people we had the most solid contingent on the deck.  Using our 51% stake the Business school students took control of the boat and the boat became a booze cruise.  We played cards, drank, and became kids watching the night sky snuggling under warm blankets.  No cell phones, no computers, no distractions.  Just the company of friends from all over the world.

We traveled to Hanoi.  The Vietnamese landscape outside Hanoi city is sparse, wet and green.  Tall narrow houses built in french colonial fashion rise systematically like palm trees on a California Boulevard.  Mopeds are ubiquitous on the highways.  We see one industrious Vietnamese man with 4 live pigs rope tied to the back of his 50cc bike.

Hanoi is an amazing city.  I've been to developing nations before.  There's no politically correct way for me to write this.  People in developing nations are poor and they live in filth.  Vietnam is the same, however what astonished me was how optimistic everyone was.   I've been to a lot of 3rd world countries before, and although people are nice you get the sense that people are resigned to live their lives in this manner forever.  11pm in Hanoi anywhere you go you hear cars and mopeds honking their horns.  Shops are open and trading.  The city is alive with the sounds of night market merchants calling in customers and young Vietnamese drinking beer eating BBQ prawns on the street.  This is not just the case in the affluent center of town but in the outskirts as well where they don't even have electricity.  They do business in the dim of candle-light.
It is as if the Vietnamese are saying "we are poor today, but this is just a temporary setback".  When I was growing up, my father would tell me stories about post-war Tokyo and the sentiment of the time which led to the Japanese economic miracle.  Hanoi is how I envisioned my father's stories.  I wonder what Vietnam will look like in the future? I wonder if I will recognize it. 


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