Sensing the ‘Rise of Asia’: One person, one city, one day.

grant on bridge on dyad theme template
Grant Hall in Phan Thiet, Vietnam

By Grant Hall, Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

I’ve lived in the smallish seaside Vietnamese city of Phan Thiet twice now, from 2009 to 2011 then again from 2014 until now, and this time I’ve been busy establishing my business League Cultural Diplomacy (LCD). Many people have told me they think it’s a bit weird for an Australian to base himself in Phan Thiet, an emerging regional business hub relatively unknown outside of Vietnam, but I wanted to set my business up in Asia to get more experience and build good connections in the region, and I chose Phan Thiet because it’s not too far from Vietnam’s economic powerhouse of Ho Chi Minh City, but has beaches and coconut trees instead of intolerable levels of pollution and traffic. Also, my wife has family here, and I still have friends from when I lived here the first time.

At LCD, we help our clients to build outstanding relationships abroad or across cultures using the tools of cultural diplomacy. Many of our clients are interested in making money in Asia, and we also have some newly minted Asian clients wanting to expand their business operations abroad. Living and working in this environment, I often hear and read about ‘the rise of Asia’, and I’ve written this story to give you a very narrow view of what the rise of Asia is like firsthand. It reflects a typical day in Phan Thiet, and describes the experiences of one person (me), on one day, in one city, in one Asian country. Whilst Asia is a big region and very diverse in a multitude of ways, I suspect that people living in other locations in Asia will recognise my observations within their own realm of experience. Let me know in the comments section if you do, and even if you don’t!

I’ve been privileged enough to have traveled and lived in a number of places around the world during interesting times. As a kid in the 80’s, my parents took me to Silicon Valley and my experiences there have never left me. In the 90’s I visited the newly reunified Berlin and fell in love with the city. I’ve experienced the excitement of Dublin in Ireland and Perth in Western Australia in their boomtown years, and saw the peace process develop in Northern Ireland. I’ve also lived in Montreal and spent a good amount of time in London and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and I’ve done business in India, Thailand and Singapore in the last few years. But by far the most interesting changes I’ve seen have been here in Phan Thiet. Like many cities in Asia, this city is changing fast – and it’s money that’s bringing the change. Talk about the “rise of Asia” might sound abstract to some, but for me it’s something I can watch as my day unfolds.

This story, for the most part, contrasts my observations of Phan Thiet in 2009 with my observations of the city in 2017. When I first came to Phan Thiet in 2009, it barely warranted its recently bestowed ‘city’ status. These days, however, after many years of incredible economic and population growth, the city tag sits comfortably with the locals

Coffee Buzz

“Allo…. Woz your name?”.

It’s a normal start to my day in Phan Thiet, Vietnam, as I walk past a school on my way to grab my morning coffee, and smiling groups of school kids greet my day with the same array of questions they asked the day before.

“Mick Jagger” I reply to the school kids. Tomorrow I might be Elvis.

“Allo Mick Jagger, my name David”.

Making my way through the throngs of students walking or riding their bikes to school, I head towards a small coffee shop for a strong dose of cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee).

“Mijagger, fuck you!” yells a kid from a safe distance behind my back.

“Cheeky bugger” I think.

Saying “fuck you” to foreigners seems to be the latest cool thing to do in town, and there’s no malice intended from the kid who’s simply showing off his English fluency to his mates. In any case, two can play at this game. I turn around with a mock scowl on my face and watch the kids’ faces turn to guilt as they point out the potty-mouthed culprit. When I give them a reassuring smile, their fears turn quickly to relief as they start to laugh at the joke.

As he does every day, a man rushes out from one of the buildings shouting, “my friend, my friend” and we shake hands as he laughs and smiles. For perhaps the one hundredth time he points to me, himself, and anyone watching to make sure that everyone knows that I am his friend.  I finally reach the café where the coffee, dosed with an unhealthy portion of condensed milk, and accompanied by a thumping techno soundtrack, blasts out any remaining vestiges of my night’s sleep. Following my coffee with a breakfast feast of cơm tấm, which I guess is the Vietnamese version of a full English, I head to my “office” (my hallway, really) to commence my day at work.

A slave to the grind

With my head buzzing full of coffee I get back to my desk to make a call and check my emails before heading out to a client meeting. The call is to give a client some good news. He works for a Saudi retail firm who wants to connect with western expatriate wholesale buyers in South East Asia through a sport based project that he initiated, and I want to tell him I’ve found a European government sponsor for his events. The emails are from an Australian wine company wanting to sell wine in India and needs help to connect to local markets, a Canadian artist wanting to make an itinerary for a cultural project in Africa, and an accounting firm wanting to increase the cultural diversity in its staff ranks. I send back friendly emails, saying “yes, we can help you with this” and invite them to book in a consulting session*.

After my mornings calls and emails, I have a meeting scheduled with a different kind of client, a local Vietnamese man in Phan Thiet who wants to export the dragon fruit his farm produces to Australia and send his daughter there to study.

I usually ride my bicycle everywhere in town, but to visit this client I take a taxi. Bicycles are considered the transport option of the poor around here, so it’s not a good look to arrive on one at a business meeting, especially not on my clunky old jalopy. I flag down the next available taxi that goes past my house and unfortunately, it’s a Mai Linh Taxi. I’ve read recent news reports that the Mai Linh Taxi company, one of Vietnam’s biggest, is struggling to compete with Uber and other similar competition in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but these alternative taxi services haven’t come to Phan Thiet yet. As I’m looking down at my notes on my iPad ahead of my meeting, I notice the taxi take a left turn, meaning he’s heading in the wrong direction. It’s my experience that Mai Linh taxi’s will, more often than not, and whether I’m in Phan Thiet or Ho Chi Minh City, take a longer route than required, reaping in more money for the driver and the company. As I pay the fare, now late to my meeting, I wonder if it has ever occurred to Mai Linh’s management that it is their scammy business procedures that are driving people on mass to use Uber and other similar services instead of their own! Aware that Vietnam has a reputation for scamminess, which is a big turn off for tourists, the government here is implementing schemes to reduce the scams that tourists frequently succumb to, but in my opinion the problem is getting worse.

McMansion

The client’s house is new and huge and crass, and he has obviously done well for himself. The house might accurately be termed a ‘McMansion’ – a rare combination of brutalism and Romanesque classicism with a sprinkling of traditional Asian elements such as the large brass gate adorned with images of tigers, dragons and Chinese text but lacking a doorbell, like pretty much every other house in town, so I shout to be let in.

The client’s wealth is new. Only six years ago, he tells me through his son who translates the meeting, he lived with his young family in a small concrete house out in the countryside surrounded by the rice paddies they harvested. Following the lead of one of his neighbours, he switched from cultivating rice to cultivating dragon fruit, and made a fortune doing so. Stories like these are common.

This is not my usual type of client, but as the only business consultant from Australia in town, I often get asked by locals about exporting things (usually dragon fruit) to Australia or getting their kids into Australian universities.  With more money about, more families are looking to send their children abroad to study when they finish high school. Student’s study long hours, and they are under a great deal of pressure to get good grades to put them in a position where they have the option to study abroad. “Yes, I can help you with dragon fruit exports” I say before I explain to him that his daughter would have more of a chance getting a student visa to the USA than Australia, as it’s very rare for a female student of his daughters age (24) who comes from somewhere other than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to be granted a student visa to Australia, no matter how wealthy or suitable they may be. Nonetheless, I agree to help them with the visa application as well, for whichever country they choose to apply.

The family escorts me from the house to the brass gates to see me on my way. As they do this, an alarm goes off and there’s a small amount of panic and embarrassment before the alarm is switched off. The client tells me he’d forgotten to disarm the burglar alarm after he’d rearmed it upon the commencement of our meeting inside.  Crime rates remain very low here in Phan Thiet, but among the new businesses opening are many selling home security products and services, and safes and security systems are big business. It was once explained to me by a local that back when the people here had nothing, there was nothing to be stolen, but as people have increasingly nicer things, these things need to be protected. As I depart in another taxi, I recall how some years ago I found myself in Ireland amongst a group of Dubliners who were saying how much happier they were in the days before Ireland became the ‘Celtic Tiger’, an economic powerhouse of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. “We were nicer to each other then” the Dubliners said, and I wonder if the good people of Phan Thiet will be saying the same thing in the years to come.

Despite my philosophical musings about the negative effects of money, the people in Phan Thiet appear to be enjoying their improving wealth situation and the mood is optimistic. Houses like the large and well-furnished one I’ve just visited simply didn’t exist here until recently, and now there are hundreds of them. Property prices have skyrocketed, meaning people who own property have a lot more accessible capital from which they can upgrade their homes, or build new and bigger ones and buy new cars. Whereas in 2009, only a few people could afford a car, it’s increasingly becoming the norm now.

Spicy Zinger Burger

Perhaps due to the effects of having a meeting in a McMansion I’ve developed an overwhelming hunger and I ask the taxi driver to stop at KFC so I can smash a Spicy Zinger Burger. The place is full of western tourists, mostly hipsters armed with selfie sticks dressed like they are going on some wild safari in a kind of Indiana Jones attire. But whilst they look adventurous, they clearly aren’t adventurous enough to eat the wonderful Vietnamese street food outside, preferring to stick to what they know. With Phan Thiet (and more so it’s suburb of Mui Ne) being firmly entrenched as tourist destinations, the hipsters are decades too late for a trip to Phan Thiet to represent a real adventure, and I feel a pang of sadness that my arrival in a suit and tie might shatter some illusions they have to the contrary.

When I first arrived in Phan Thiet in 2009 there weren’t any American fast food chains here, but KFC and Pizza Hutt are both here now, along with the Korean burger chain Lotteria. Not long after Pizza Hutt opened, an American expat and Vietnam vet living in town declared that it meant that “America really won the war!”.

Whilst lunch times at KFC in Phan Thiet seem to be reserved for western tourists and business consultants, the evenings are a different story. At dinnertime, KFC is the place where families bring their kids to heavily attended children’s birthday parties, incredibly noisy affairs with characters in costumes, loud singing and games, balloons popping, karaoke and lots of screaming and jumping on the tables and furniture. It’s a special kind of bedlam, but not very relaxing if you just want to enjoy your bucket of fried goodness by yourself or with a friend or two, and for this reason I’ve hardly eaten there at all since it opened.

Giấc ngủ trưa (Vietnamese for ‘Siesta’)

By early afternoon I’m home and I’m tired and I have the usual post-KFC stomach ache and regret. Thankfully though, it’s giấc ngủ trưa (noon sleep) time, when all of the capitalistic action of the city calms down for a couple of hours in the heat of the day.

As Noel Coward observed of Vietnam and famously described in song:

The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts
Because they’re obviously, definitely nuts!
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun

Too bad for me that the local builders are either mad dogs or Englishmen or haven’t received the memo, as they cut my afternoon snooze short by firing up angle grinders and jackhammers, which, along with traffic horns, blaring techno and karaoke, provide the soundtrack to my life.

When I think about the concept of ‘the rise of Asia’, the first thing that comes to mind is THE NOISE!!!!!

The noise isn’t limited to coffee shops in the mornings or night times at KFC. Building construction is going on everywhere and it’s a feverish and often twenty-four-seven activity. If you live next door to a twenty-four hour a day construction site, there’s not a lot you can do about it as there doesn’t appear to be many restrictions on such activities. In most Vietnamese urban environments, it’s rare to find yourself out of the earshot of jackhammering, angle grinding and other general construction sounds, which can be irritating when you’re trying to relax at a restaurant or resort and can’t hear yourself think (the local Vietnamese, on the other hand, are more accustomed to noise and don’t appear to mind). In my neighbourhood, I would estimate that in the last eight years at least sixty percent of dwellings have either had a very major refit such as added stories, or been pulled down altogether to be replaced by much larger and more modern abodes. Abandoned piles of rubble lie across sidewalks in abundance.

Not to mention the traffic noise, which I’m reminded of as I hop on my bicycle to head out to do my daily exercise. Riding around town used to be an enjoyable and relaxing experience, but not anymore. With new businesses opening daily there are more people moving into town. This rising population, coupled with an increase of vehicles means that the once quiet roads are now heavily trafficked. The roads in the older parts of town were made for cyclos, bicycles and motorbikes rather than cars, busses and semi-trailers, and many parts of town are simply inaccessible by such vehicles due to the narrowness of the lanes that run between the houses, stores and factories. Once quiet roads are now very noisy and increasingly dangerous, as the increased pace of life appears to have increased the speed and aggressiveness at which people drive. The level of traffic on the streets is growing so fast that I can observe these increases on a daily basis because every day I’m further back in the traffic waiting for the lights to change than I was the day before. Maybe the sound of the rise of Asia is of traffic horns as much as it is jack hammers, angle grinders and blaring techno; not to mention that karaoke can be heard at any hour!

Workout

Thankfully, the gym’s a bit quieter. It’s just reopened after giấc ngủ trưa so not too many people have arrived yet, but by mid-afternoon the place will be packed and once again the techno will blare. In 2009 the public gyms in Phan Thiet were total hellholes, and nothing more than overcrowded tin sheds, steaming hot, with some rusty old weights used only by sweaty skinny guys wearing no shoes or shirts. I tried to work out in such places a few times but the unbearable heat, the pools of sweat from a hundred different dudes on the benches, plus the risk of weights getting dropped on my uncovered feet made it intolerable to my western whimpishness. Luckily for me back then, I scored a small gig training staff at the local Novotel, and I talked the hotel into letting me use their lovely gym each day as part of the employment contract. These days however, things are different, as Phan Thiet has a plethora of good gyms to choose from, and I work out each day with a boxing crew at one of them.

A gym buddy says hello as I’m working out, and I can’t help to notice how massive his body has become in a very short amount of time – with bulging biceps and ripped abs having arrived out of nowhere, I conclude that he, and many other boys at the gym, must be eating their Wheeties. But it’s not just the body builders who are working out; with so many more office jobs available in Phan Thiet these days, perhaps coupled with the arrival of American style fast food, the people here are noticeably fatter than they were even just a few years ago, and as such, more people are going to the gym. Unlike the sweaty old hellholes, almost as many women now come along as men, and everyone is dressed well, although not every well-dressed gym goer is there to work out! Taking a breather between sets, I notice two young women I’ve never seen before sashay into the gym wearing some new brand new sports attire, and for about fifteen minutes they take photos of each other on various exercise machines. What’s interesting is that whilst they take photos of each other on exercise machines, they leave without doing any actual exercise! Funnily, I see this all the time, the visiting of somewhere with the sole purpose being to take a selfie. This especially happens at resort swimming pools or the beach, where ladies (and it’s usually the ladies) will come and sit by the water, and take some swimsuit glamor shots suitable for crafting the perfect social media image, before leaving without even dipping a toe into the water.

Life’s a beach

From the perspective of most of the locals here, the perfect image requires flawless white skin, and as the sun is still bearing down its heat, the beach is mostly empty when I arrive for a post-workout swim. Most Vietnamese I know avoid the sun as if their lives depend on doing so, covering themselves from head to toe in the daylight hours and bleaching their skin white with commercially available “skincare products”, a situation that has given rise to the motorbike ninja phenomena. The beach in Phan Thiet could be world class if it wasn’t for all the rubbish on the sand and floating about in the water. I duck dive under a wave and come up with a plastic bag on my arm. Even going to the beach has changed since 2009. The kids used to love coming down here each day to play in the shallows, perfecting backflips and somersaults and playing beach football, however, the number of kids doing these things for fun has noticeably decreased. With newfound access to KFC and Pizza Hutt, long hours bent over homework in the hope of studying abroad, and the ubiquitous tablet device (the must-have babysitter), the kids who used to spend much of their time at the beach are now at home studying or perfecting their two-thumb techniques to reach their highest score on Subway Surfer or whatever the game of the day is.

Heading home after my refreshing dip, students are just being let out of school for the day and I suddenly find myself engulfed in a flock of a hundred schoolgirls, also on bicycles, resplendent in long flowing white áo dài’s (traditional Vietnamese dress). As many a photographer has observed and captured, this sight is one of the most beautiful things you can see in Vietnam, however it is becoming less common as more schools implement less traditional dress codes, or reduce the number of days in a week when students are required to wear the traditional uniforms. Also, less and less school kids are using bicycles as their go-to transport option, with many in their early teens now gunning it home alone on electric bicycles (basically motorbikes). One day this serene scene will be a thing of the past.

Parklife

Worrying about the amount of time my own kids spend in front of screens and their inactive hours, I decide to take them to the park for a run around after I pick them up from kindergarten. To get to the park we have to cross the Tran Phu Bridge across the River Ca Ty which divides Phan Thiet. Approaching the peak traffic hour of a hot and humid day, the smell of petrol fumes is only overwhelmed by the stench of the river as we cross it. To my mind, the bridge at sunset is the most photogenic place to take photos in town, as the amount of river pollution makes the water highly reflective of the colourful fishing boats, riverside stilt houses and the setting sun. My kids wave to the fishermen on the fishing boats as they pass under the bridge into port and tonnes of plastic floats its way in the opposite direction, downstream to pollute the sea and the beach from where I had just came. I take some photos, but I’m disappointed that I can never really capture the atmosphere of the place in the way I’d hoped.

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View from the Tran Phu bridge with the slum in the foreground

Environmental issues aren’t going away here. Whilst there appears to be loads of money flying about, there doesn’t seem to be enough to fix the river’s pollution issues. The Vietnamese artist and writer Phan Cẩm Thượng rightfully described plastic bags as a ‘scourge’ in Vietnam, and the nation’s addiction to plastic bags is insane – everything, for reasons unknown to me, has to be carried in plastic bags, and products here have an unacceptable amount of packaging. This, in addition to littering problems and poor rubbish removal services means that it’s the environment, sea animals and the local tourism industry that suffers. I’ve only seen two initiatives designed to counter this problem of rubbish in the waters; first, our local supermarket once made the environmentally responsible move to stop providing plastic bags, until there was an uproar from the customers who weren’t having any of it, following which the supermarket reversed its policy a day later, and second the Keep Mui Ne Clean initiative, of which I’m involved, where once a month we all head out and clean up the streets around the tourist suburb of Mui Ne. More needs to be done though; there are plans to open a six-star hotel on the beach, and a guest of a six-star hotel isn’t going to be very happy when he goes for a swim and comes up with a dirty nappy on his head.

With the sun sitting lower in the sky, the park is starting to fill with kids riding bikes, practicing K-pop dance routines and fighting. It’s not really a park, just kind of a concreted space in front of the Ho Chi Minh museum that has some trees and is one of the only spaces where kids can play.  Across the road from the museum is the Duc Thanh School where Uncle Ho is said to have taught when he lived in Phan Thiet as a cover for his revolutionary activities. Phan Thiet makes a big deal about the Ho Chi Minh connection, however in reality he was only here for about a week before he received a tip-off that the colonial cops were onto him and he fled the scene. A big statue of Uncle Ho looks over the park which is guarded by soldiers carrying machine guns who, bored off their heads, occasionally hassle the kids for playing ball games too near the Ho Chi Minh statue. One day I noticed that their machine guns don’t have clips in them, which makes me wonder how they can adequately defend the park from the apparently inevitable assault by Chinese military forces, or even deter the kids from playing football too close to the statue.

Traditional dancing
The park

To the annoyance of my kids I stop to take some photos of an interesting old building on our way back home. It’s a ruined old colonial era two-story house, probably in its last days. As both a hobby and a way to make some friends in Phan Thiet I started the Interesting Buildings of Phan Thiet social media project, in which I try to document some of the at-risk heritage buildings around town. Having witnessed so many wonderful buildings being destroyed around Phan Thiet in the name of “progress”, the project was also my way to do something small about it. The sad thing about pulling things down to put up newer, shinier things is that the things that are being torn down are often valuable heritage buildings, often remnants of the colonial days. I’ve seen too many wonderful old colonial era buildings brought down by wrecking balls, but very few of the locals seem to care. The situation of heritage architecture in Ho Chi Minh City, two-hundred kilometres away, is particularly grim, and it seems that developers, with the green-light of government (no doubt adequately reimbursed by developers), are hell bent on destroying the very things that gave the city some of its uniqueness in the first place.  Current day developments in Vietnam’s cities are creating modern-day metropoles that look and feel pretty much the same as all the other modern-day metropoles around the world, and Phan Thiet, if it doesn’t start to look after some of its less tangible assets like the environment and its heritage buildings, will surely wind up as just another city like any other city.

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Colonial era ruins

The slum

Now at home with the kids securely back in front of their screens, I reflect on these things as I crack a cold beer and watch the sunlight of the day fade away from my balcony.  The traffic is calming down a little now and the scent of enticing street food is making me think about my dinner options. But every now and then there is, when the wind blows a certain way, a stench from the nearby slum. The slum is by the river, maybe only fifty metres away from the balcony I’m standing on, but with the new stories added onto the houses near my place, I can’t see it. I guess the new-found wealth in Vietnam has put poverty out of my sight, and out of my mind, except whenever the wind blows a certain way. At a guess, maybe a thousand people live in the slum which consists of poorly built houses, stilt homes built over the river and tin shanties. There are some fishing boats docked on the rubbish and shit strewn bank of the river by the houses, as a number of the slum dwellers are fisherman.

John F Kennedy, who escalated the war in Vietnam by tripling the amount of US support to the South Vietnamese forces, popularised the aphorism ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, which reflects an economic idea that when an economy improves, so too will the lives of everyone living within that economy. Whenever I walk past the slum, or undertake charitable visits to schools or orphanages in under privileged areas, it’s clear to me that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. Perhaps symbolic of this, a couple of sunken boats sit partially submerged in the shallows in front of the slum. For all the money floating around, and all the McMansions, cars, gyms, fast food joints and security systems that come with it, not much of it is floating into the slum. The slum represents another story which doesn’t get as much attention as the ones about economic growth – the poverty and inequality in Vietnam. The economic success stories coming from Vietnam have obscured the high levels of poverty that still exist in this country. Oxfam, for instance, reports that whilst ‘Vietnam has a strong record of poverty reduction’ its ‘increasing inequality is threatening decades of progress’ and states that;

‘Economic inequality is reinforced by inequality of voice and opportunity, with the poorest excluded in favor of the rich. Millions of people, ethnic minorities, small scale farmers, migrants and informal workers, and women are more likely to remain poor, excluded from services and political decision making, and continue to face discrimination’.

It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind I guess.

Dinner and beers

A friend calls me and suggests we go out for dinner and some beers and being a Friday night I’m up for it. Eating and drinking in Vietnam is pretty much what I enjoy most.  The food is so good and the beer so cold and cheap. In 2009 dining in Phan Thiet was limited to Vietnamese food and a few crappy burger or pizza joints, but now there’s Korean, Thai, Japanese and Italian restaurants, along with the American fast food chains to choose from. That said, because most of the western food places around town are still pretty awful, and also because we are cheap-arses, my friend and I elect for tasty Vietnamese food from a street-side eatery, as we always do. We share some amazing dishes, drink a couple of beers and I’m totally full yet we’ve only spent four bucks between us. Being the end of the working week, we decide to keep the night going and head out to a bia hơi. A bia hơi is a place that sells bia hơi’s, which are refreshing beers that are brewed each day and only left to mature for a short period, thus giving them a low-alcohol content. We buy bia hơi’s by the litre, as it’s served in large glass containers with a tap at the bottom for self-pouring, but back in 2009, you poured your bia hơi out from plastic bags and it was rumoured that the beer contained formaldehyde!

The bia hơi we are at is popular with young people, and following the age old international recipe of cheap beer and food, why wouldn’t it be? It’s approaching 10pm now and young people are arriving on brand new motorbikes, wearing stylish new clothes and sporting new tattoos. Back in 2009 someone told me that ‘only gangsters and gangster’s girls have tattoos in Vietnam’ , but now they are commonplace, even in conservative Phan Thiet. Sure, a bia hơi usually consists of nothing more than small plastic chairs on a concrete or sometimes dirt floor, but the young people enjoy the atmosphere as they kick off their evening which will eventually finish in a nightclub, karaoke bar or a hotel-by-the-hour. This is totally different to 2009, when everyone was pretty much in bed by 10pm. With more money about and a larger range of dining and nightlife options, people of all ages stay out much later these days.

I decide to head home at about 11. My stomach’s full and content and I’m a bit boozed; I’ve caught up with a mate and only spent five bucks so I’m happy enough to quit while I’m ahead. I attach some lights to my bicycle and start to pedal home. Back in 2009 the streets would’ve been deserted at this time, but these days they remain busy late into the night, with trucks, tourist busses and drunk motorcyclists zooming through intersections which had their traffic lights switched off about an hour before.

Balcony cuppa

Before I sleep I take a cup of chamomile tea out onto my balcony, which looks out over the slum I can’t see, but from where I have a nice view of the Chùa Thiền Quang pagoda. I reflect on how lucky I am to have been to be able to visit and live in different parts of the world and particularly Phan Thiet, from where I have observed ‘the rise of Asia’ first hand. In thinking of such things my thoughts often uncomfortably turn to my neighbours in the slum and my own privileged position in the world, as a white, heterosexual man of European heritage. I think about how simple it was for me; I came for a holiday in 2009, liked it, and ended up staying for much longer than anticipated, married a woman here, and later came back to start a business here, yet conversely, I think about how very few people in Phan Thiet are in a position where they could go on a holiday to my country, and stay for longer simply because they liked it and wanted to do so and then start a business there. This strikes me as unfair. The only reason I can access these privileges and my Vietnamese neighbours can’t is that I was born into a privileged position, in a land that was claimed by an empire that built its wealth by colonising other countries, and did so without consideration of the people who were living there already.

It’s midnight now, the traffic noise is subsiding and the sweet smell of incense is rising from the neighbourhood where people have lit incense sticks to honour their ancestors. My thoughts turn to tomorrow, when I’ll need to finalise some big decisions for my family and I. Phan Thiet has been a great place to start League Cultural Diplomacy, but it’s nearly time to move on. For LCD to expand I need to be based in a city with more potential clients and where I can access the knowledge and networks the business needs to grow. San Francisco, if I can afford the rent, looks like a great option (considering most of the interest in LCD comes, perhaps surprisingly, from Silicon Valley), but Singapore, if I can afford the beer, is closer to home… maybe we should just move home to Adelaide in Australia, which is supposedly experiencing something of a revival, where our kids can be close to their grandparents, and where I can afford to pay the rent and have a beer. My wife likes the Adelaide option the best.

Postscript

People ask me if the rise of Asia is a good thing for the people of Asia or not. I don’t really feel qualified to answer such a sweeping question from only being a visitor here, but can rather only speak about what I’ve seen and experienced for myself. Whilst a rising tide doesn’t float all boats, in Phan Thiet at least, it’s safe to say that the rising tide has floated most boats. Most people here would say that they are both wealthier and happier. As always though, it’s the people at the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum, such as my neighbours in the slum or those in some of the poorer regions who I meet on some of LCD’s charitable visits, who are getting left further and further behind. To my mind, it’s not so much that Phan Thiet is getting better, more so that it’s just different than it was, and irreversibly so. Some things are certainly better, like more dining options and shiny new gyms, but these things often come at a cost, as evidenced by the colonial era villa that was destroyed to make way for the car park of a new restaurant, or how people can now afford to go to the gym, but only need to go there because they are overweight from eating out too much and from being too busy to lead active lives due to work and study commitments.  So – is this better? I’m not sure it is. But is it an exciting and interesting time to be in Asia? You bet it is!

*client details have been changed to maintain client confidentiality

Further reading:

Doing business in Vietnam webinars by Manuel Wendle and Grant Hall
All posts about Vietnam on wherewordsfailblog.com
Phan Thiet buildings website

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