Monday, May 17, was our first day of site visits, and a very full day for EMBA 22.
We started the day early with a visit by Donald Nay, the commercial attaché for the US Consulate in Vietnam, who joined us for breakfast at the hotel. Donald started by telling us his story: turns out he is a BU grad himself whose mother grew up in Jamaica Plain and his father in Dedham. In many ways, Donald's story perfectly mirrors America's involvement in Vietnam over the last half-century. His father served in Vietnam from 1964-1965. In the early 1980s, Donald and his wife interviewed thousands of Vietnamese refugees ("boat people"). Two decades later, he found himself working for the Department of Commerce in Vietnam. Donald had lot of interesting information to share with our class about current trade-related developments between the US and Vietnam and added some insight and background on current US trade initiatives in Vietnam during the coming years. He also reminded us about Vietnam's recent economic history: the failures of the centrally-planned post-1975 economy, the famine of 1988, and then the growth of economic development in the 1990s and 2000s. Since 2000, trade with the United States alone has grown by seventeen-fold. Counterfeiting, corruption, and poor infrastructure (more on this later) remain serious problems, but with a tech-savvy, young population (75% born after the "American War"), and plenty of low-cost labor, Vietnam holds lots of promise for future development.
After breakfast, we packed into our two buses (colorfully named "Bus 1" and "Bus 2") and headed to our first official site visit at Blue Dragon. If we haven't mentioned it already, traffic in Hanoi has to be seen to be believed. Thousands of motorcyclists parry openly with cars, buses, and other vehicles on often-tight, winding roads. The motorcyclists seem to show no fear and very little respect for traffic lights and other posted signage. We learned quickly that waiting on the corner for people to stop is a non-starter; you just need to boldly stride into traffic and show no fear! The motorcyclists aren't the only offenders, as we learned on our way to Blue Dragon. Both Bus 1 and Bus 2 executed 3-lane-blocking turns to get into a tiny side street on the way to our designation, with various members of the Destination Asia team bravely blocking and re-routing traffic.
Blue Dragon is an NGO devoted to saving the street kids of Vietnam, particularly in major cities. Founded by Michael Brosowski, an Australian expatriate, since 2004 Blue Dragon has helped hundreds of Vietnamese children get back on the right track, whether to school, work, or drug rehab. They provide education and social work right in their center. Michael went into detail explaining how Blue Dragon had been established, the barriers they had faced in getting off the ground, and what restrictions they struggle with today. We also heard from some of his (Vietnamese) staff and some of the now-young adults for whom Blue Dragon had been a lifesaver. The entire class came away impressed by the dedication of the staff and work they are doing every single day despite considerable barriers (financial, staffing, and slow initial government acceptance, among others).
Next up was Breath of Life, a company that develops customized, clinical solutions to reduce neonatal mortality and morbidity in developing countries. Today, we saw them work on a CPAP device used to help premature infants breath while their own lungs are given time to develop and breath on their own. Luciano Moccia, the International Coordinator at Breath of Life, helped us tour the offices where developers, technicians, and office administrators work to help build and distribute these machines across Vietnam, with an already impressive list of hospitals using them. Luciano explained that the introduction of these CPAP machines had reduced infant mortality rates in Vietnam's neonatal wards from 30% to 10%. Breath of Life makes them available for $2300.
In some ways, what Breath of Life was doing seemed high-tech, but in other ways – for example, when we walked through their tiny, hot, assembly workshop – it seemed extremely low-tech. It was a good example of low-cost innovation using very hand-assembled basic circuit board technology, but several classmates with manufacturing backgrounds noted that you would never see similar equipment being made in a tiny, nonstandard shop like this in the US.
On the other hand… perhaps it was the earlier day's trip to various sites associated with the "American War", but talking about infants with "respiratory distress syndrome" got me thinking about the most famous American baby to die of RDS during the time of that war, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. Born only five weeks premature in August of 1963 (and weighing four and a half pounds), Patrick lived only 2 days before succumbing to his breathing difficulties. The devices Breath of Life are making for the hospitals of Vietnam may seem simple (and cheap) to Westerners now, but less than 50 years ago, when the wealthiest nation of earth couldn't save the most prominent infant in America, they would have seemed like science fiction. It probably doesn't need to be said by an American trying to learn more about capitalism in 2010 by visiting Vietnam(!), but the world changes very quickly.
From Breath of Life, we headed over to the National Hospital of Pediatrics in Hanoi to see the CPAP devices in action. Upon arrival, it was clear that the hospital, while large, was in no way comparable to a US hospital. We were all struck by the overcrowding – 150 premature babies were in incubators designed for only 90 – and by the understaffing, with only 4 or 5 nurses visible in the entire ward, and finally by the overall hygiene standards, with open doors and windows and otherwise reusable plastic medical components being washed in unsterilized environments for quick reuse. Despite the presence of some modern lifesaving technology thanks to Breath of Life, Vietnam's state medical system is not something you would see in a developed country.
On the positive side, we did see signs of new development, with a brand-new ward taking shape next door.
From the hospital, we stopped for a great lunch at Le Tonkin before getting back into our buses for a longer trip out into the countryside to visit Ford Motor Company's plant in Vietnam. (Ford in Vietnam… what would former President of Ford Motor Company Robert McNamara think??) Ford has an enormous piece of property in the countryside with a small manufacturing plant, built in the mid-1990s. Through this plant, Ford has captured roughly 5% of the domestic car market, selling over 8,000 new vehicles in 2009. The automotive industry in Vietnam is really in its infancy; Ford's 5% is out of total sales of 120,000 new vehicles in a country of 80+ million, and that has to be measured against motorcycle sales of 13 million in the same year. Unfortunately for Ford, they don't sell motorcycles (the ones you see in the photo below are in the employee parking lot). Nonetheless, the Finance Director (who spoke with us for over an hour) was optimistic about Ford's prospects and their new "One Car" world strategy. We also had an opportunity to tour Ford's production plant extensively in the company of several plant managers, although unfortunately (but understandably) we were not permitted to take pictures. On the plus side, we did get to wear stylish Ford-blue hardhats and safety goggles.
After our visit, we headed back for Hanoi and a terrific debrief with Professor Melvyn Menenzes. The daily debrief gives us an opportunity to share and compare our learning for the day- both personally and professionally – and to discuss what if any impact today's visits had on our Capstone business plans. One item every team cited was the unbelievably poor state of infrastructure everywhere we looked; in a country where every other citizen seemed to have a cell phone, a Starbucks-like coffee chain appears on every other corner, and authorized Apple dealers could be found throughout the city, you'd see wiring like this everywhere you looked (sometimes worse), poorly maintained roads, etc. It was clear to everyone that infrastructure concerns were directly affecting each of the groups we had visited during the day (we even witnessed a blackout at Breath of Life).
After our debrief EMBA headed out for a self-directed last night out on the town. About half of us went to Quan Ngon for a big, fast, inexpensive dinner not far from the hotel before heading out for one last night on the town in Hanoi. Tomorrow, we'll spend one more day in the city before catching an evening flight to Ho Chi Minh City and the second half of our trip.
Bonus picture: A shot of beautiful of Hoan Keim Lake, not far from our hotel, taken from the roof deck of the Cityview Café. ($4 for 4 local beers – not bad!)
Written by Phil Obbard