Thursday, February 09, 2012

It's a Jungle Out There

I'm packing my bag again for another overseas adventure. Chances are it'll be 1-2 weeks, which is barely enough time to get over the jetlag. This one is short compared to most trips I've made overseas and better yet, I'm going to a place where people speak my language. Admittedly the weather will likely be pretty cold and damp, but I doubt it'll be much more troublesome than Chicago this time of year.

I've mentioned that I spent plenty of time in Asia recently and having done so does help me to appreciate the value of working in a place where an industrial base is well established and a more or less capitalist economy is considered normal.

I spent considerable portions of last year and the year before in Vietnam. I forget the exact amount of time, but I know it was long enough to rack up 4 visas in my passport, become a familiar face to the entire lobby staff at the hotel, get invited to a local wedding, and navigate through much of Saigon without a map. I even had a chance to take in the Liberation day festivities while I was there. (Congratulations. Uhm, how's that whole, liberation thing working out for you?)

I stayed at a pretty nice hotel on the waterfront where you could see the fireworks display quite well. I'm glad too because I would not have wanted to be in the crowd on the street.

Of course I didn't actually work in Saigon, I actually travelled out to one of the nearby provinces every day where I was trying to piece together some back engineered surplus equipment for a new factory. It wasn't that far away, but it seldom took less than an hour to make the trip. The traffic and the roads made me glad I wasn't the one driving (the rental car came with a driver) because I'm certain somebody would have been hurt.

As you start off in Saigon, the roads are pretty good. The main thoroughfares are several lanes wide, well paved, only flood during heavy rain, and they have functioning traffic lights. I soon found out the traffic lights were mostly for show. Right of way seems to depend on the size of the vehicle, the volume of the horn, and whether or not you have a passenger hanging out the window waving people out of the way. Mopeds could usually weave in and around other traffic, but if you were in a car or small bus you had to go with the flow, and sometimes that meant you were going so slow that a one legged boy on a bicycle could pass you. (One time members of our team were able to get out for a smoke and a beer without fear of losing sight of our bus!)

Once you got out of Saigon the road conditions went downhill. I was working in a developing industrial region so the pavement had yet to catch up with the traffic. That wasn't really a problem on dry days but when it rained the unpaved surfaces combined with the lack of proper drainage meant that you would end up with enough potholes and washouts to slow traffic to a crawl. It didn't really help that most of the vehicles weren't particularly roadworthy.

Improvised taillights were probably the least of the hazards on the road. Overloaded trucks with poorly secured loads were the norm. I recall being in one traffic jam which was caused by a truck loaded with rebar stopped in the middle of the road. When we finally got to the head of the jam you could see that the rearmost axle had let go and the wheels were splayed outward in resigned acceptance of gravity's superior strength. I think the most accidents and traffic jams must have been caused by flat or blow tires. I'm pretty sure everyone there was operating on a 'run to failure' maintenance system because mopeds, cars, and trucks all had their share of bald tires. One case in particular was parked at the loading dock one day when I pointed it out to a coworker. The tire had obviously been retreaded at least once, and the replaced tread was coming off in such big chunks that you could no longer consider the tire to be round. My coworker commented on it, poking at the bare patches with his finger. The rest of us moved away and asked him not to tempt fate by poking the tire again.

Once we finally made it to work things weren't always so bad. I was working in a new factory, which meant it was pretty clean compared to what have seen elsewhere and we actually had an office and workshop area that was air conditioned, so you could always get away from the factory floor and cool down a bit if you needed to. We did have a few problems like flooding (or even rain) in the production area, but it's not like it rains every day in Vietnam, and walking around the puddles to check for wires is good exercise.

Of course being a new factory meant that there were a few things missing like workbenches, vises, calipers, air hoses, safety glasses, polishing compound, polishing wheels, light fixtures, electric cords with plugs, pipe fittings, bolts, micrometers, electrical tape, duct tape, solder, spare parts, cabinets, height gauges, flashlights, hand presses, taps & dies, and wrenches to name a few. The tricky bit was that when you needed something, or needed to have something repaired/modified, you couldn't just run down the road to Grainger or the local machine shop. You needed a guide who knew all of the local shops and businesses or else you were sunk.

You see, most of what is sold here comes through small shops, and while I like seeing local businesses make money, you really have to know your way around to find anything. To put it in perspective, suppose you were doing home repairs. Instead of going to the home depot and picking up everything at once, you would stop at a place like this for plumbing fixtures. Then you would look for a shed with a bunch of poles leaning against it to get your lumber, a shop with big spools of wire for your electrical supplies, and then maybe another shop after that to buy your hardware.

Plenty of times when I asked for a piece of equipment the answer was, "Saigon" meaning the nearest place to get it was in or around the city. That meant sending someone back to town. If they had to take a bus, it was usually a 4 hour round trip, but if you were lucky, you could send someone on a moped and cut the time in half.

Mopeds are the dominant mode of transportation for people and any other less than truckload shipment you need to make in Vietnam. You could break up the monotony of a long drive a little by looking for crazy things being carried on the backs of mopeds. There were usually two approaches to this. For bulk items people would hang baskets from the sides of their bike, stack the rear seat with boxes and then have the driver carry another basket or box in his lap.

It's blurry, but you get the idea. The other approach was the buddy system and this was usually for single or oddly shaped items like bookshelves, lamps, or plate glass windows. The driver would watch the road and the buddy would hold the package in between them. One time I noticed a moped with an oddly shaped cargo and I managed to get out my camera in time to capture it.

It was hard to see clearly at first.

It must be some kind of pipe, but how is he holding on to it.

Ah, he's wearing his cargo. Now I will refrain from making any flatulence jokes here, but if you are so inclined you may wish to make up your own that include the terms 'alternative fuel' and 'afterburner'

There were more colorful moped cargoes as well.
That reminds me, is Valentine's day coming up?

Ah well, I've never been big on buying flowers, why start now.

I have to say, the people I met in Vietnam were generally quite nice. The language barrier made things a bit difficult, but I was never treated with any hostility.

In fact I was sometimes surprised the number of willing workers around. Sure we played the little games where the mechanics tried to find excuses to go home early, but for the most part the mechanics and floor level Supervisors seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing and responded positively to both instruction and direction.

Where things got a bit tricky was dealing with management structures. I won't speak ill of anyone I worked with as we all managed to get the job done in the end, but you could certainly tell that when some subjects came up there was a resistance to make critical decisions or say potentially unpopular things. That's not really a surprise. Communist mindset is still quite strong in Vietnam and even though it's moving into a market economy. As a general cultural observation, making a decision means you're vulnerable to punishment when it goes wrong, and you'll get more work if it goes right. It's not surprising that few people will stick their heads above the parapet. Maybe that will change in the future, but I doubt it will change quickly.

Billboards like this are pretty common. The themes vary from heroic figures to idealistic looking villages full of healthy people working and 'doing their part.' I'm not really so interested in the translation of this billboard as I am the opinions of the people who go by it every day and the people living in the hovels just 100 yards down the road. I'm guessing not everyone sees eye to eye with the department of cultural affairs.

All in all, it wasn't a bad time. I suppose if I weren't trying to set up a factory in the jungle it would be a decent place to visit. Still, I think I enjoy spending my time in places with better motorways, fewer mopeds, safe drinking water, and fish that doesn't taste like the Mekong delta.

Until next time, look out for those bicycles and Ox carts!



At 12:34 PM, Blogger BobG said...

Hope you have a good trip and a good experience over there. Don't forget to post some photos when you get back.

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Brigid said...

Sometime I will have to show you a photo of what a small water buffalo can do to a Squirrel airplane.

Roses are pretty as far as flowers go, but hate the scent. So I'll pass on the rose covered moped.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Mr. Engineering Johnson said...

At least you don't have to petal a moped!
Bob, I have a few photos in the hopper from my last trip. Hopefully I'll get a few more this time.

At 7:49 AM, Blogger KurtP said...

At least you'll be in a civilized country this time, even though I imagine you'll have to remember to look left when crossing the street.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Brock Townsend said...

There has been much building, but the people and traffic haven't changed much since the war. The price of living, however has skyrocketed since '92. The last time I was there in '05, I saw an old deuce and a half on the road and you could still make out U.S. Army on it.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger God, Gals, Guns, Grub said...

A thought that occurred as I looked at your photographs and listened to political pundits arguing on the idiot box in the background...

Americans don't really comprehend true poverty...

Dann in Ohio

At 6:07 AM, Blogger Mr. Engineering Johnson said...

Brock, you might find it interesting to see the traffic now. There are plenty of cars too, most of them no more than a few years old. It's kind of funny considering the age of many of the mopeds and trucks on the road, but I guess these vehicles have only become availible in recent years

Dann, indeed! It's a bit hard for me to comprehend really. The guys I worked with were getting at least one good meal a day. A few of them even made it as far as to have a moped and a smart phone, but there are plenty of people making do with almost nothing.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Brock Townsend said...

there are plenty of people making do with almost nothing.

No welfare there, but the norm is for extended families to live under one roof. If some have no more, they usually have three bowls of rice a day and there are dark green leafy plants that grow by the river which are not sale-able because of the taste, but are healthy and in abundance for picking. Then there is always at least a small fish or two to catch. There are some who are beggars though as in most societies. Lovely country and I lived there for about 8 years.

At 7:27 PM, Blogger Mr. Engineering Johnson said...

Brock, Certainly can't argue with you there. It's a beautiful place, just not a wonderful place to build a factory.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Brock Townsend said...

What kind of factory, if I'm not too inquisitive?
I stayed at a pretty nice hotel on the waterfront.

Was that that Majestic, by chance?

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Mr. Engineering Johnson said...

I wouldn't mind telling, except that it would put everyone within one or two google searches of figuring out who my employer is. As it's possible to figure out, but would take plenty of thought and research. I like it that way.

I ended up spending the most time in the Duxton. It's not fancy, but very comfortable, had hot water all the time, no obvious rodent problems, and breakfast was always good. Considering how much time I was there, I should have been in an apartment, but that would have just confused the accounting boys too much.


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