In December I logged a lot of travel. After my long weekend in Manila (see previous post), I went up to the Republic of Vietnam. Asia Pacific Breweries has an operation just outside of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, but still referred to as Saigon by most residents). That is where my colleague Venus and I were headed. Our first stop and base of operation would be the luxurious downtown New World Hotel Saigon. It is not often that I get to linger in such opulence, but as nice as the rooms were, we were here to work. Still thinking of how comfortable the bed was I made my way to the Lobby to meet our driver (Lin) and off to the brewery we went. One of the first things that one notices about Saigon is how many people (and motor bikes) there are there. Saigon is vibrant city and abuzz with activities. The official population is about 7 million, but most residents suggest that the number is closer to 10. The traffic is astounding. The second thing one is likely to notice is how modern and affluent downtown Saigon looks and feels. As you drive through the busy streets you'll see shops carrying a variety of high end consumables; Louis Viutton, Cartier, Gucci, Prada and even (I am sorry to say) Starbucks. It's hard to believe that less than forty years ago Vietnam and American were at war. As one looks about it is hard to imagine what that conflict was about. What's more amazing is how little Americans seemed to have learned from it. If one gauges by the available shopping it is easy to forget that Vietnam is run by a communist government. But Saigon is not just the downtown, Saigon is huge and spread out (covering approximately 2000 square kilometers) and not all of it is flashy store fronts.
As one leaves the central area Saigon begins to take on a different look, taller buildings give way to two and three story shop houses. Signs become less frequent and the streets become more congested and noticeably narrower. Driving in Saigon is an exercise best left to seasoned experts (hell, even crossing the street in Saigon takes nerves of steal). There are no demarcations of traffic flow and the rules of the road are the most basic; size (and bravado) have the right of way, it is like a constant game of Chicken. Driving in Saigon is so nerve wracking that the best you can hope to do as a passenger is try to think about something else - look at the colorful scenery and shops or maybe just close your eyes and think happy thoughts (if you can) - never look into the head on coming traffic, you are not in control here. Our trip to the brewery took about an hour. We were going there to discuss the feasibility of new beers for growing markets around Asia. Archipelago had brewed some test batches for consumer evaluation and I was there to consult from that perspective. The Vietnam Brewery (VBL) is a joint venture with APB, Heineken and the Vietnam government. And they brew a lot of beer. Their total capacity is over 2.2 million hectoliters a year (about 2 million barrels). Their Brewer, Mr. Man Hoang Huu, is a man with a lot of character and a great knowledge of brewing. Our discussions with Huu were lively and interesting, and as usual in our industry they ended in the tavern over a pint (or two). The Vietnamese have a different view of beer than some of the other Asian countries. Huu told us that the beers for Vietnam had to be a little bit stronger. They could not be too weak as his country men (and women) were in the habit of adding ice to their beer and too weak a beer ended up tasting thin and watered down. The habit of adding ice to beer has dual benefits; it keeps ones beer cold and it keeps one more hydrated - both important in a country known for it hot climate. Light beer, it was explained, would never sell well in Vietnam. Coors tried to market the silver bullet there but as of this date they have had little success. We were also informed that the Vietnamese per capita consumption was one of the highest in Asia and that in Vietnam one ordered and drank not by the bottle or glass - but by the case.
Saigon sits in the middle of the Mekong delta. It is a very flat area and with the exception of a few tall buildings (which were not in sight) there are no prominent land marks. It seemed to me that our driver (the normal driver for one of the brewery's executives) should know his way back to downtown. Surely he had made this trip innumerable times before. Certainly we could not be lost. (I had never heard of the kidnappings of foreigners here in Vietnam - should we be worried ?) Finally after it had become clear to all of us that we were in fact quite lost our driver pulled over to ask for directions. The exchange was brief (and in Vietnamese) and I assumed simple - "yes, back the way you came, then take a right at the .... " And once again we were on our way. Another 30 minutes later we had retraced out steps and then some, but seemed no close to our goal. Again we pulled over and asked for help. After a further 20 or so minutes I was in dire need (it had been about 2 hours since we left the brewery - and discomfort was turning to pain). Although we were close to town it was obvious to us all that we were still lost. More directions and this time I was in luck. When he pulled over I saw a restaurant across the street and I bolted for it. It was with much dismay that I discovered that some restaurants in Vietnam (regardless of external neon lighting) have no restrooms. I was forced to take my chances elsewhere, on my own, and not speaking a word of Vietnamese. I ran from the restaurant. A crazed white man running through the back alleys of a small town looking for an open field (or a shadowed tree).
This was even more evident after our discussions in the brewery tavern. About dusk Huu found our driver and sent us on our way back to the city center. Saigon traffic can be very bad and I knew the trip would last at least an hour. I took the appropriate precautions and visited the gents before departure. As the sun began to dip below the horizon we took our leave. Venus and I sat back to relax and discuss the progress we had made. After an hour or so I looked out the window and noted that there were no tall buildings to be seen in any direction. In fact there had been a general decline in density - of cars, of buildings, of people. Hmmm, where were we ? and where was town ? And more importantly when could our driver conveniently pull over.
The following morning we had off to wander the streets before our afternoon flight back to Singapore. I went to the Ben Thahn market and then wandered the streets and parks near by. In a country that had known such hardship for so long and at hands of so many I wondered how it was that I was greeted with nothing but smiles and friendly nods. Shouldn't they be suspicious and angry with all foreigners? Maybe they were, maybe politeness wouldn't allow it show. I stood there watching the throngs pass by. A young lady road by on a old bicycle in her flowing and fluttering Ao dai and her Non la. I wondered at the many changes here. I wondered how much had changed for someone like her.
When I returned the driver had figured out why I braved a mad dash through traffic and across the road. He had very kindly arranged for me to use the facilities of house near by, but that time had passed, so we continued on our trek. The entire trip home took almost 3 hours. Our apologetic driver dropped us off at the hotel and we headed out to dinner at the famous Pho 2000 next to the Ben Thanh market. The Pho at Pho 2000 is pretty damn good (and inexpensive) but what makes it famous is that Bill Clinton ate there in back when he was the Man. It not your typical Vietnam Pho house but the food is just as good (or better) than most places and it has good service too. Plus we were starved we couldn't complain.
Suggested reading: The Quite American by Graham Greene. An excellent book with deep insight and many layers to it. It captures a Saigon of a time now past, but the story has as much relevance and meaning today as it did when written in the 1950's, maybe even more.
Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it - George Santayana (paraphrased)