In English, Observation

Ho Chi Minh City: A Surprise

As the 777-300 taxied, I looked out the window and saw darkness with specks of light scattered along the horizon. I could barely make out the faint shape of a harvested ricefield by the dim light. I did not know what to expect from the airport if the runway was built near a productive ricefield.

Then the big jet made a right turn, and suddenly the terminal building appeared from the right side of the window. It was new and modern. It wasn’t a low, traditional styled building like the 26-year old Jakarta Airport, but very much like Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong.

Before we landed, I asked the purser for an immigration form. “I don’t think you’ll need it, Sir, but to be sure, I’ll check.” He disappeared behind the curtain to the Business Class Section, and in a few seconds returned. “The immigration form is only if you need to declare something. But in general, you don’t need it.” He explained.

I returned a blank expression to him.

“Anything else I could help you with, Sir?”
“So I don’t have to fill out any form, at all?”
“No, Sir.”
“Thank you.”
The purser left to attend to other matters. I could not believe my ears. Ever since the first time I went abroad, filling out an immigration form has been a routine, and having to do without it felt very much out of my comfort zone.

After passing several travelator, and made a quick stop at the restroom, we arrived at the immigration hall. It was a big hall with a long row of checkpoint posts. Very modern, and very efficient, starting from the design of the hall, down to the quick pace of the people at work.

Without saying a word, the immigration officer took my pasport, check it on his computer, stamped and signed it, and returned it to me. It was all in less than a minute. And by not having immigration forms to collect from passengers, they must have saved thousands of man hours of work, and also thousands of trees!

It didn’t take a long wait before my luggage appeared on the carrousel. The custom check was a breeze, and in less than ten minutes we were out of the terminal door. The waiting area was clean and orderly. No taxi solicitors, and all the people who came to pick up passengers waited patiently in a designated area.

As the hotel sedan was making its way along Ho Chi Minh City streets, I marveled at how organized the city was. Including its motorists. There were thousands of motorcycle riders on the street, just like in Jakarta, but they drove carefully.

From my hotel room window I could see a big intersection. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to it because it was just like any other intersection you can expect to find in a city. But on a closer look, I found one peculiarity: there were no traffic lights! Despite of that, the traffic in that intersection worked just fine.

Like Jakarta, there were street vendors selling food along the sidewalks. The big difference is they simply put chairs and short tables, without erecting big tents that took up a lot of pedestrian space.

And in some part of the city, the sidewalks featured stores, cafes, restaurants, clubs, karaokes, with neon signs flashing over well-designed establishments. For a minute, it did bear some resemblance to the night entertainment districts in Jakarta. But with a more tourist and family friendly air about it.

With the weather so fine, it was not a surprise to find people congregating in parks surrounding the Reunification Hall near the city center. To help them quench their thirsts, vending machines were placed in strategic locations, with sufficient number of dustbins to throw empty bottles and cans in.

Opening the desk drawer in my hotel room, I found a pamphlet containing tips for travelers coming to Ho Chi Minh. Here’s an interesting excerpt:

STREET SENSE – in the interest of security and well being, it pays to be security conscious at all times. There are many incidents of pickpockets and motorbike snatchers preying on foreigners especially those carrying handbags, exposed jewellery or money.”

Good to know that. Okay, so Ho Chi Minh City does have some shortcomings, like many cities in the world. But so far, So far, Ho Chi Minh City has exceeded my expectations.

In English, Personal Experience, Personal Reflection

Believe in Your Dreams

This is an experience that I have kept to myself for over two years. In a selling skills class that I recently co-facilitated, I thought it would make a good illustration for a point that I was getting across, so I shared it for the first time.

I suppose I might as well share it here.

It was in 2008. I was on a trip to the Dale Carnegie & Associates Annual International Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Before leaving for the trip, I made quite an extensive research on Vancouver and its surrounding areas, fully intending to make the best of the trip.

I noticed that Vancouver was not so far away from a winter vacation village of Whistler. I heard about the village during my network marketing days from my diamond uplines. In motivational meetings for the independent business owners in their network, they shared their experiences enjoying award trips to Whistler. They spoke about snow, skiing, dining in Whistler in great details that I became pretty curious about the place.

I once watched an episode about yam cha tradition in Hong Kong. It is a custom of Hong Kong people that is somewhat similar to English high tea. While in England it is customary for people to have tea and bite sized snacks and cakes in afternoons, in Hong Kong people have tea and dim sum, whenever they feel like hanging out in tea houses. The program was so interesting, I could not help wanting to have yam cha in Hong Kong. Of course you can get a decent serving of dim sum almost anywhere in the world. But there is something special about having it in a Hong Kong yam cha.

Based on my research, I found that Whistler was about 2-3 hour bus ride from Vancouver. That means it would take 4-6 hours just for travel time, not including exploring the area. No matter how dying I was to see Whistler, it was not the practical choice of sightseeing.

Since our flight from Jakarta to Vancouver transited in Hong Kong, I was hoping that we could spend a few hours in the City, to enjoy a yam cha. Unlucky for me, our itineraries only allowed a short time in Hong Kong, not enough for a short trip to the city.

Here’s when things got strange.

Since our flight would not leave until midnight, and the entire convention was scheduled to be concluded the night before, we had an entire Saturday free. We planned to use it for a long tour. In lieu of visiting Whistler, Adam, my colleague and travel companion, suggested that we took a tour to a nearby destination, about an hour drive from Vancouver. I was all up to it, and we reserved two seats in the tour.

The day before the tour was supposed to take place, Adam got a call from the organizer. Due to low number of participants, the tour was cancelled! Since we had hours to kill, we decided to take the Whistler tour. So I got to see Whistler after all!

Adam (left) and I on the Peak to Peak Cable Car station in Whistler

We returned to Vancouver from Whistler at dusk. After a few hours of rest, we did a final packing of our luggage, and checked out. When we emerged from the hotel lobby into the street, we found that it was snowing. The snow was heavy enough to line the roads with thin ice, making them very slippery and dangerous to travel on.

It was already difficult to find a cab that was willing to brave the elements and take us to the airport. It was even worse because at the same time, we were competing for taxis with people who were leaving a party at the Convention Center across the street.

With the help of the hotel doorman, we finally got a cab. After piling our luggage into the trunk, giving a generous tip to the doorman, we got into the cab and started to the airport.

A few minutes into the drive we could see cars, SUVs, jeeps, that were slipping off the icy road into the ditch. Our cabbie was visibly upset. “This is dangerous. It’s wasting my time. I had better take you back to the hotel,” he said.

Adam and I had this sinking feeling inside us. “Please, sir, we need to get to the airport. We will pay you extra,” Adam persuaded. Still grumbling, the cabbie turned the dial on his radio to check for clear routes to the airport. He took the Prius off the main road into residential areas.

After a few minutes of darkness, the cab returned to the main road, and a few minutes later, we could see the airport! I was dancing gleefully inside. In gratitude we paid the cabbie more than double the fare.

We made good time, and we still had time to grab a bite at Burger King, the only outlet that was still open in the airport food court at that hour. We boarded the plane on time, but the aircraft had to sit for an hour or so on the apron to wait for the snow to lessen, and to give the ground crew the chance to de-ice the plane.

Nearing Hong Kong, the pilot announced that the flight would arrive late, and missed all the connecting flights. The passengers were advised to contact ground crew for change of flights.

Getting off the airplane, we found a row of tables where passengers could get new boarding passes to replace the one for the missed flights, and hotel vouchers to clean up and rest. When we checked our flight, it was still hours away. Adam called his friend in Hong Kong, and it turned out that there was a shopping mall halfway between the airport and down town Hong Kong where we could find a dim sum restaurant!

We cleared immigration, took the high speed train and arrived in the shopping mall that Adam’s friend told us. We found the dim sum restaurant. After a few minutes of figuring out the menu and how to place an order (since nobody in the restaurant could speak English), we had the precious dim sum served on our table, along with a pot of tea. We commenced our yam cha.

Ready for yam cha!

I could not believe it! I already gave up hope of ever seeing Whistler, and somehow the circumstances changed that gave us, or actually forced us, to detour to Whistler!

I thought we would not get the opportunity to enjoy a yam cha in Hong Kong due to the very short conneting time between flights. Thanks to the snow storm in Vancouver, we missed our connecting flight to Jakarta, and got extra time to have dim sum!

Providence? Divine intervention?

Looking back to this experience, I learned two important lessons:

  1. Never give up on your dreams.
  2. When plans don’t work out, sometimes better things may come out.

Keep believing!