Sunday, May 30, 2010
Jimmy Antzoulis is the project manager on the Bitexco building in the heart of Saigon. He's a Greek-American from Astoria, Queens, New York City. Jimmy is the best of America although he hasn't lived there since 1983. He works for Turner, one of the biggest building contractors in the world. He's lived in China, Abu Dhabi (his favorite), Dubai, London, and a host of other places before coming to Vietnam two years ago. Yesterday, he loaded us in the external hoist and took us to the 57th floor of the new building. It will eventually be 68 stories, but they are only up to 57 at the moment. The crews work 24/7. This is Vietnam. They plan to open for business with 5 floors of high-end retail and 63 floors of leased office space by the end of October.
When I got to Floor 57 I poked my camera through the webbing and took a picture of the Saigon River and the green grassy patch on the other side. It's not all grass; there are houses on the river and the government is building a tunnel and a freeway to take away some of the traffic stress that plagues the city. But, beyond the riverside houses it's grass, trees, and farmland.
I was in Shanghai this time last year and witnessed the most amazing urban landscape on the planet. It's called Pudong. It's across the river from The Bund, the old commercial district of the city. At night you can stand on the promenade and look across to Pudong. There are hundreds of modern skyscrapers, including the world's second tallest building,the world's tallest hotel, as well as a building with a 60 story video screen that runs day and night. It's incredible. 30 years ago it was all farmland.
Jimmy told me yesterday that the green patch I was photographing is Saigon's Pudong. There are plans to pave and build just like they did in Shanghai. The Sunday Vietnam News had earlier reported that there are projections of 30 million people in the greater Saigon area by 2050. Unofficially, there are 10 million now. This is a centrally controlled economy. The people in those riverside houses and huts will be "relocated". I think that means evicted.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
If you looked at the picture of our spa in the previous blog you will see the contrast in lifestyle amenities. At the other end of the scale is the guy in the picture on the right. I pass him every day on my walk to work. He always says hello and touches his chin to show that he'd like to give me a shave. Since I don't have any hair there isn't much else in his marketing quiver. Still, that doesn't seem to keep the shoeshine boys from wanting to shine my flip flops or Marilynn's running shoes. After all, this are bootstrap entrepreneurs. My barber friend is a classic sidewalk operator - he has two ripped unmatched chairs patched with strapping and duct tape sitting on the sidewalk with an torn dirty awning above and a hand mirror propped on the windowsill. There is no running water, so he has a bucketful sitting against the wall. He's not always busy, but he's busier that I would imagine, and he does shaves with a straight razor (scary thought) and lots of haircuts. Since he works in the street he doesn't worry about the hair that falls on the ground. Apparently no one else does either, because all the broken pavers and and cracks in the sidewalk are full of hair and have been ever since I started walking this street 9 months ago. It's an interesting contrast, because almost everyone has a small Vietnamese broom and they are always sweeping dirt and leaves. There must be a special dispensation for fallen hair. No one else seems to care or notice. I guess it's a cultural difference.
There are many...
I'm feeling guilty, negligent, remorseful, petulant, and unworthy at the moment, because I made a promise to myself to be disciplined and diligent with this blog. I could blame work, which involves long tiring days, but I think it's a different kind of fatigue. I have too much to write about and by the time I decide to sit down I can't sort and select the right subject so I do nothing.
This picture was taken at one of the spas where we go on the weekend to be pampered. Saigon is full of spas. I guess, if I had thought about it before I came, I would have imagined that most would be what we Americans call massage parlors. The truth is that there are many high-end luxury spots where pampering is an art and the price at the top end is about one-third of what you would pay in the US. Marilynn and I have become massage sluts; we can't get enough of a good thing. I don't have any hair, but Marilynn gets her hair shampooed and blown dry, complete with a half hour neck and head massage for $10. Then, for $15 you can have a one hour foot massage with two masseuses working from the toes to the knees while you sit or snooze in a big easy chair. Or, for $27 you can have a 90 minute "relaxation" massage with your choice of scented oils to improve your circulation. But, the ultimate massage experience is the 90 minute 4-hands massage with two therapists working out the kinks at the same time. I know it's a rationalization, but with the heat and chaos of the city and the long work days it is easy to justify the indulgence on the weekend.
Saturday, May 1, 2010
We live one mile from the United States Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. The new Consulate was built on the ground where the US Embassy stood thirty-five years ago, and on this day thirty-five years ago NVA troops were pouring into the city and US helicopters were running a last desperate shuttle between the Embassy grounds and ships of the Seventh Fleet carrying US citizens and loyal Vietnamese nationals away to safety. It was the end of the "American War," the end of a divided Vietnam, and the beginning of the Vietnamese diaspora - the displacement and dispersal of more than 2 million Vietnamese across the world.
After the war the US embargoed Vietnam and the victorious North Vietnamese confiscated all the private property in South Vietnam and built "re-education" camps to enlighten its newly unified countrymen in the South. I've met people whose family members spent 7 years in re-education camps. There is still friction between the North and South over the camps, and South Vietnamese that didn't escape in the last days of the war resorted to desperate escape strategies on overloaded, unseaworthy vessels or arduous treks across borders to find refuge.
Vietnam today is modernizing at a remarkable rate. There is an emerging middle class and some have established great wealth, but for more than 15 years after the war the country was desperate and impoverished. The change began in 1989 when the government made the decision to accept private investment and allow a flow of market products and services. Today Vietnam's economy is thriving even though there are still large pockets of poverty.
April 30 is Vietnam's Fourth of July - Liberation Day. It's huge - parades, fireworks, political posturing, red and yellow banners on every tree and the red Vietnamese flag with the big yellow star flying from every house, including ours. It's a four day holiday that includes May Day. Thirty five years after the fall of Saigon the old Embassy buildings are gone. Fifteen years ago the US and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam resumed diplomatic relations. Vietnam returned the property where the US Embassy stood and a new Consulate was erected. We went to a lawn party there recently and the Consul General addressed the mixed group of global citizens in perfect Vietnamese.
But tonight we decided to have our own party. We went to a new Mexican restaurant where we drank Margaritas with chips and salsa and got an early start on Cinco de Mayo. After all, Liberation Day isn't really our holiday.