Wednesday, May 26, 2010

May 22-23: Final weekend in Vietnam

I'm writing my final post for the EMBA blog from Needham, Massachusetts. Yes, I'm back home, following 24+ hours of plane travel that took me from Saigon to Logan Airport. I was accompanied by about half of EMBA. The rest of the class chose to stay on in the area, or in Vietnam, in several cases joined by their respective spouses.

Our last weekend in Saigon was (mostly) about being tourists and only about being students for a few final hours on Saturday afternoon.

The day began with most of us spread out across the city for some serious… shopping. Turns out Saigon is a lot like Canal Street in downtown Manhattan, filled with thousands and thousands of designer knock-offs available for consumers with tight budgets. Several of us trekked a mile or so to the Bien Than market, a mega-block size building containing thousands of individual vendors and their booths.

Pictures from my camera don't do justice to the sheer size of this particular market, with countless narrow aisles packed with merchandise from floor to ceiling. And all types of merchandise – clothing, luggage, food, jewelry, watches, etc. etc. Only one rule applied: Every price was negotiable. If the vendor tells you she wants 600,000 VND for a Burberry wallet (roughly $30), you can almost definitely get it for 200,000 VND or less. If you're not comfortable converting dollars to VND, no worries – she can do it, even if the only words in English she can say are "dollar", "best quality", and "buy from me". She'll also produce a calculator to help make the negotiation faster and easier to understand. If she won't drop the price to 200,000 for you, just walk away: you'll likely find the same item elsewhere in the market, or she'll quickly drop the price to 200,000. But caveat emptor: What you're buying is fake, and probably a low-quality fake at that. For example, I brought a vendor down from $10 to $5 for a used English-language paperback book published by Random House. It was wrapped in plastic, but looked real enough to my eyes. Upon unwrapping, I discovered that the binding and cover were genuine enough, but the book itself was a low-quality photocopy of the real thing – even the photo pages were poor photocopies. So much for my 50% price break. Likewise, a "leather" wallet I picked-up is, upon closer inspection, definitely vinyl, and cheap vinyl at that. A similar item would likely never sell on Canal Street.

My complaints aside, most of my classmates were happier/more successful with their purchases, loading up roughly four dozen (total) "genuine" Rolexes and other similar watches, for example. Two of those "genuine" watches stopped working less than 24 hours after purchase, but I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

Heading back from the market on foot, we saw Dan and Ken seeking alternate transportation. At least they are wearing helmets!

My only disappointment today is that I had hoped to make my way down to Saigon's Chinatown – supposedly the largest in the world – to visit a church known as Cha Tam, or the Church of St. Francis Xavier (see photo, not mine), which in addition to be a stunning church c. 1900 – you can find photos all over the Internet –played a key role in the 1963 coup that overthrew South Vietnam's president. The coup is generally seen as a major turning point, unintentionally deepening US involvement in Vietnam to a tremendous degree. The coup has hung over countless debates about US interventions abroad in the 47 years since; you can be certain that someone in the White House is thinking about Ngo Diem and the '63 coup when they worry about Hamid Karzai today.

Unfortunately, despite my eagerness to make the trip, it turned out that Chinatown was a whopping 40 minutes by taxi from our hotel. Given all of our time in buses this week –and that there was a good chance the taxi (or the taxi back) would lack AC in the 90F weather – I couldn't bring myself to make the trip. Now I've got another reason to go back to Saigon sometime.

In the afternoon, EMBA gathered for our last official academic activity: our final presentations. Each team was tasked with presenting to Professors Suarez, Menezes, and Russo on our conclusions from the trip, specifically focusing on our observations during the trip, how we'd modify our original business plan in light of those observations, and whether we still believed our plan was viable. After our presentations, the faculty quizzed us on our assumptions and conclusions. It was interesting to see how comfortable and in-command each team had become of their plans: their strengths, their weaknesses, and everything in between. We concluded the presentations, not surprisingly, with a round of applause and cheering. The next time we'll meet as students will be for graduation.

Post-presentations, we put on our best duds and headed a few blocks away to the Mandarin, a beautiful, five-story restaurant where we occupied an entire floor. It was a great dinner, capped with some student awards and birthday wishes for Dan A. (seen here taking his own photos).

To our surprise, the well-regarded restaurant was right in the middle of Saigon's unusually well-regulated "red light" district – essentially, countless brothels disguised as trendy bars lining both sides of a small street (sorry, no photos!).

Sunday was our last day in Vietnam. Some members of the class who had previously done the Mekong Delta trip chose to take the tunnel trip – I guess they read my previous write-up! – and the rest of us occupied ourselves with more shopping or (in my case) wandering around the city on foot. As I passed the Notre-Dame Cathedral (across from the Central Saigon Post Office), I saw 3 weddings in progress.

Finally, it was off the airport to start the long trip home – from Ho Chi Minh City to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Vancouver, Vancouver to JFK, and JFK to Logan.

While I am looking forward to seeing my family and friends and drinking clean tap water again, I am sure I am going to miss my trip to Vietnam, and especially the people with whom I took the trip. It was not only amazing 10 days abroad, but an amazing 17 months in EMBA.

I'll leave you with this photo of EMBA relaxing in the Ho Chi Minh airport prior to take off, watching… "Tom & Jerry". Thanks for following the blog.

Written by: Phil Obbard

1 comment:

Ken Blanchard MBA said...

Thanks for the interesting and informative post. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to more in the future.