Hello from Saigon! As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been MIA for the past two weeks due to a crossroads in my life. One one hand I was offered a position at a trading company in Tokyo and on the other, I’ve been invited to interview with a few companies here in Saigon. Therefore, I decided to get out of my ridiculously expensive apartment in Mejiro and come here for two months to get a feel for the environment and decide if I should stay or return to Tokyo. The ordeal has left me like a whirlwind of uncertainty yet it’s been quite a interesting / hectic ride.
I decided to try my luck here about 3 weeks ago and started the process of moving out of my apartment in Tokyo which was just slight of a nightmare. In America when one decides to move it’s usually very easy to get rid of or move all your belongings. Needless to say, moving internationally is both expensive and difficult, especially from Japan. I was able to have friends take most of my big stuff since I really didn’t want to bother with trying to sell it for a pittance on the Tokyo Notice Board. The trouble was with the extra clothing that normally one could give to the poor but since the Japanese usually distain second hand clothing unless it comes with a 100 dollar price tag in a trendy Harajuku store, I had no choice but to throw it in a trashbag reserved for burnables and hope that they would take it. I also put a thousand unburnables in those bags on the last day and ran as fast as I could. I just cannot pay money to throw non-burnables away as they want us to do although they will probably suspect it was me and take it out of my deposit. Oh well.
So after a layover in Malaysia, I finally arrived in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City – The official name for Saigon) and have been staying with a Vietnamese friend. I was feeling very anxious and even a little depressed leaving Tokyo since I feel so comfortable there and have devoted so much time to learning the language and understanding the mentality of the people. I guess I was a bit afraid of leaving the convenience and familiarity. However, I’m very interested in Vietnam due to the nice weather, friendly people and chaos of the third world. Also, since the country just recently liberalized the economy a bit I thought that now was an opportune time to check out the possibilites here. So for all you Tokyoites thinking of going on vacation here or checking out the business opportunites, I thought I’d give you a heads up about the environment.
Coming from Tokyo the aspect that will shock you most is the disorderly nature that is HCMC. Tokyo and the Japanese are so ordered and there is usually a set way to behave, interact with others and generally one accepted way to do everything. Here is complete chaos, and one must be aware that thieves are amist and you are a target but as long as you are cognizant of this and take precautions, everything should be fine. Actually this place feels much safer for me than Ohio where there are gangs and random killings everyday. The mafia is here as well but if they cause trouble the punishment is death by the communist government so unless you are specifically looking for them then you probably won’t even notice them unlike the Yakuza in Tokyo.
Another aspect that is such a contrast from Tokyo is the facial expressions and character of the people. First, these people smile at me when I smile at them!!! Coming from Tokyo this seemed very odd. Also, their expressions are quite animated and you can tell by their face weather they are happy, agitated, sad or anything else. Also, the Vietnamese and foreigners are much more open and relaxed here. I went to an event by the American Chamber of Commerce which was to introduce the new members of the American Consulate and the American Ambassador was even in attendance. Everyone was much more willing to talk and be open about things then at events at the American Chamber of Commerce Tokyo. I guess in Tokyo there is simply too much power and money and “good old boy” network. I had some interviews here already but after that event I gained at least 4 more interviews. I even met the Federal Agent in charge of security for the Consulate and he seemed willing to meet me should I have any questions in the future!!! I can’t imagine anyone being so kind like that at the American Embassy in Tokyo. I guess what shocked me most about the evening was when the people from the Consulate were giving their presentations and the political analyst started talking about the Communist Government, corruption and touched on the religious freedom issue (the US just listed Vietnam as a “country of concern.”) He said “yea, it doesn’t make me too popular with the ruling elite at the moment.” Actually, this made me nervous and I was expecting soldiers with guns to storm the place or something but luckily that didn’t happen.
I also went to an event hosted by the Saigon Times for their anniversary and was introduced to the “High Society” of HCMC. Now in Tokyo, high society is much to high for me to even catch a glimpse of and I guess one must be very very rich and well connected to plug themselves into their network. Not here however, since everything is starting from the beginning and people haven’t mastered the art of excluding others yet (oh and the ideology is still somewhat Communist). However, they have learned a little bit about being superficial and the second question they ask immediately after your name is “So, what do you do?” Not that they don’t ask this everywhere else in the world, but it is always the second question here and is automatic at these little cocktail parties. After a while I wanted to toy with them and say something like “Yea, I’m in the mafia and buying drugs, or I’m a new superstar in the adult film industry.” But I decided to limit my fun and tell the truth about my situation.
Now for the interviews…
The most interesting one by far was in Hanoi for a trading company. As you may know there is a very important governmental meeting ASEAN going on in Hanoi and Vietnam even stopped issuing Visas for business and tourists unless you got “special permission” from the department of immigration. Well, I got my special permission and found it funny that the place I was interviewing just happened to be where all the European delegates were staying! So I had to pass the police who checked my passport and in my bag and finally made it to the interview. I didn’t know much about the company but it was in the best building in Hanoi so I thought it couldn’t be all bad. However, the lady who interviewed me was 45 minutes late and wearing a red short skirt with fishnet stockings. She also droned on in terrible English (side-note: I understand the difficulty of speaking a foreign language and usually understand everything a foreign speaker wants to say, but this lady just strung a bunch of difficult business terms together in no logical order.) and I really didn’t understand anything. At any-rate she told me that I was to be the head of the international department due to my language skills and be in charge of the entire staff.. WTF?? I have no experience in this and she just wants me to take everything over with no senior advisor?? Further, she told me she wanted to let me do everything so she could go invest in new companies… Needless to say it was too much and I am not afraid to say that I need a supervisor to learn from and to help me understand the business. So, things seem certainly a little shady there. However, there are many companies here that are backed by foreign capital and are just starting up. Two of the places I’ve interviewed at are in education and have solid, credible managers. It seems to be an exciting time if one can stand the chaos of it all and looking for adventure.
This blog is long enough and I’ll write one more about going out here in case you guys come on vacation (your yen will make you a king here)