As a true nerd, I always loved getting report cards as a kid. Some strange, twisted streak in me loved getting judged (and the inevitable praise that followed). Anything less than As were unacceptable. Even a B+ was the equivalent of an Asian F.
To set the record straight, there was no pressure from my parents. At all. Unlike most Asian parents, they barely glanced at my report card, happy enough in the knowledge that I was doing well. I just remember taking my report card to the local video arcade where you could cash in good grades for game tokens. Every three months, I was flush with brass tokens and ran rampant trying to set the high score in Galaga or Ms. Pacman.
As an adult, I still have that strange, twisted love of judging and being judged. Sometimes I’ll go on job interviews just for the fun of it and am always incredulous if I don’t get an offer.
But as an adult, report cards aren’t that much fun. Take the annual United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report. Every November or so, they commission an independent report to measure and assess the long-term progress of 187 countries and UN-recognized territories. Countries are assessed in three basic dimensions of human development: (1) a long and healthy life, (2) access to knowledge and (3) a decent standard of living. There are lots of indicators used including life expectancy, average years of education received in a life-time and gross national income per capita.
Because I recently moved to Vietnam, I checked out the statistics. Overall, Vietnam sits at 128 (out of 187), wedged between Tajikstan and Nicaragua. But it’s still 11 spaces above Cambodia, where I’ve spent the last 10 years. So it looks like I’m moving up in the world! (Yay, me!) Given my rate of migration, I should reach Norway, the number 1 country in the world to live in (for the 10th time in 11 years), by the time I’m, oh, about 154 years old.
But there were some surprises. Since 1980, the life expectancy of the average Vietnamese has increased by 20 years (!) to 75, beating out Thailand and the Philippines. And the adult literacy rate is a whopping 92.8%. But it’s not all roses. Thirteen percent of the population still live below the poverty line (calculated at USD 1.25 per day) and the rate of development is slower than other nations in East Asia / Pacific. It all made for an interesting read but the more I clicked on all the graphs and charts, and adjusted rankings for inequality, gender and poverty, the harder it was to understand for a simpleton like me.
So, I’ve compiled my own Vietnam Country Profile with my own very scientifically chosen indicators. And instead of a rank, I’ll assign grades, like in school. Did I mention that this report is very scientific? So, without further ado and in no particular order…
In Cambodia, I had a housekeeper cum cook who was awesome. Over the years, we built up a repertoire of about 120 dishes. Each month, I’d make out a menu and when I got home, voila, the exact meal I wanted would be waiting for me. So I was a little worried about what I’d be eating in Vietnam. Left to my own devices, I’d be buried in spag bol and mangoes.
Lucky for me, Vietnamese food is awesome. Every third shop seems to be a restaurant, not to mention the mobile food carts serving up simple fare, cheap but delicious. My favorite lunch spot has an “Office Lunch” – a main, a soup, a veggie stir-fry with steamed rice and some fruit for USD 1.50.
When I’m in the mood for something more upscale, there’s always sweet and sour soup with shrimp, the sweetness coming from chunks of pineapple and the tartness coming from tamarind. A splurge at USD 2.
Saigon traffic: D
With over 6 million inhabitants and almost 4 million motorbikes, it’s not a surprise that traffic is a constant problem. Lots of narrow and one-way roads don’t help. Neither does the incessant honking of horns. I can’t say that I’m too stressed about it yet, but wait until I finally get a job and have to be somewhere on time…
Parking your bike is a chore, as motorbike theft is commonplace. So parking requires finding a supervised lot. In my building, the parking guys shuffle the bikes around every night so finding your bike amongst hundreds of bikes that all look the same is a really fun (!) exercise I do every morning. I’ve tried everything – buying decals to stick on the front and back of my bike, adding on little flashy silvery things, all to no avail. In a final act of desperation, I ended up wrapping red ribbon around the mirrors. Yes, it looks sissy. But at least I can find it. Don’t hate.
Standard of living: B
Compared to Cambodia, it’s refreshing to see people enjoying life instead of merely subsisting. Don’t get me wrong, I know that for many, especially in the countryside, life is tough, but at least in the city, there are lots of fashionably hip youngsters driving around on flash bikes and enjoying the many glitzy clubs about town.
When furnishing my apartment, I went to a couple of the most popular electronics shops. They didn’t even have any TVs smaller than 32” or not a flatscreen. Same for the computer shop. I actually had to pay for a licensed version of Windows. Sigh. I miss Cambodia where they just automatically installed pirated versions of everything for you including Photoshop and anything else you wanted for USD 2 per program. Those were the days.
While the living standard is pretty decent here (I even found the equivalent of a Costco the other day. Score!) it does come with a price tag. I blew through almost 7 Gs in two weeks getting everything set up. But safe to say, I’ve never had it better with new everything in my apartment. Now if only I could find a Bed, Bath and Beyond…
The serendipity of unexpected sights: A
One of the things I just love about Vietnam is not knowing what I’ll see around the next corner. Sometimes it’s a cart loaded up with flowering cactuses for sale or walking through the park where a dozen old men have brought their finest songbirds out for a morning concert. Or this woman who had a mobile aquarium set up. (Funny story about this photo. Apparently, Vietnamese are very superstitious about anyone photographing their shop if they haven’t sold anything for the day. So this photo actually cost me USD 1, after buying two weird looking fishes before she’d let me take her photo.)
The bureaucracy of getting set up: C-
It takes a lot of paperwork to move to Vietnam. There’s the driving license (which either requires attending driver’s ed class or getting your driver’s license translated and notarized and a scary driving test). Then your landlord has to register you with the local police. Then there are visa extensions and motorbike registrations necessitating multiple trips to various offices around town. To get a work permit requires a police clearance from your home country. And the list goes on… I feel as if entire weeks have been eaten up getting everything set up.
Crazy deals: A
Remember that I said it was kind of expensive to live in Ho Chi Minh? Well, every now and then, it’s offset by some crazy deal that seems too good to believe. The day after I arrived, a local friend set me up with 3G wireless for my phone. The rate for unlimited data usage? USD 2.
Then there are the tennis courts that are five minutes away. Back in Cambodia, you had to choose between USD 12 per hour per person at one of the ritzy international hotels around town or USD 2 an hour on the unsurfaced, concrete local courts. In Saigon, an hour of tennis on nicely surfaced courts, with balls and a ballboy thrown in for good measure? USD 3.
Don’t even get me started on the crazy term deposit rates the banks give on Vietnamese currency accounts. Last year it was 16%. This year it’s only 12%. If only I had USD 100,000, I’d be livin’ large on the interest alone. Sigh.
Things to do: B
Not quite up to the standards of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, Saigon still has lots going on. There are trendy restaurants to try, fashion shows to watch and even international artists pop through every now and then. Even the Heat has come to town. No Lebron James because it was actually the Saigon Heat, Vietnam’s first pro basketball club. Fans were rowdy. Cheerleaders were cute. Basketball is so new that every person got a rule sheet. If it weren’t for the height differential between the local and foreign talent, I’d have almost thought I was back in the US…
But all in all, my move here has been overwhelmingly positive. I love spending hours just exploring the city and new-to-me places. Tonight, I’m heading up to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premier beach town where I hope to stay in the #1 rated hotel, eat fresh seafood til I puke, snorkel around one of the national marine parks and take a trip to Vietnam’s version of Disneyland.