Saturday, December 12, 2015

Hollywood Brings Crispy Bacon to Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand

Whenever I'm asked why I like Bangkok, I quickly mention my friends in that city. It was easy to meet other ex-pats in Bangkok. There are many guys there from my generation as well; retirement money goes a long way in Thailand.  While some of the rural parts of Thailand can still accurately be described as an emerging economic region, the capital, Bangkok, is prosperous and modern, very first world. So it's a modern, inexpensive city of friendly folks containing a congenial set of western dudes with positive attitudes. What's not to like?

I noticed when describing my Thai social life to inquisitive state-side friends and family, I would often mention Guido.  He's actually a new acquaintance for me.  But he is a colorful guy in city that has a reputation as home to many colorful folks.

There are legends of former American CIA agents that decided to remain in Bangkok after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.  They opened bars and invented the bawdy nightlife the city has become known for, or so the stories go. There's a story for every bar. And the Thais - who no doubt really own the nightclubs - are happy to embellish the legends.  If you listen to the hype, Bangkok is filled with hustling, American wheeler dealers that converted their counter culture lifestyle into a party town fortune.

Well Guido is not one of them. Guido and my circle of friends are boring tea totalers. But Guido still qualifies as colorful.  I first met him at a gathering of guys for dinner. Guido was recovering from a leg fracture he sustained in a motor bike accident. He was joking about how the cane and his limp were a guarantee to a seat on the MRT.  I liked him right away.

Guido was a feature film set dresser with a long list of films to his credit. "Precious" (2009) and "Thirteen Going on Thirty" (2004) are amongst the many movies where Guido's sets are featured. When I asked him how he wound up in Bangkok, Guido said he once did a film with Oliver Stone set in Bangkok. They had a fun time partying whilst filming and Guido decided it looked like a good place to retire.  Currently Guido lives in Bangkok and is married to a local gal who now owns a restaurant.

Guido on his latest set

Under Guido's influence, the restaurant has become an oasis of New York style deli food that is hard to find anywhere in Southeast Asia.  I must assume Asians do not care for crispy bacon because it is nearly impossible to find around these parts.  Not so in Guido's "New Yorker Cafe" steps away from the MRT's bustling "Asoke" station.

"Crispy like thin glass" chuckled Guido.

And he serves all day breakfast, god love em.

So if you are in Bangkok and have a hankering for good New York food, drop in and tell Guido I said hello.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Vietnam: Anh

It was not her car I was impressed with, although it was a very nice car. It was the driver. It is only the truly wealthy that have full time chauffeurs. Anh had her own chauffeur. 

Modern Hoi An is a beach town much like beach towns anywhere. The town lies on the clear waters of a river delta a short distance from the sandy beaches of the South China Sea. Hotels, restaurants and upscale boutiques targeting tourists abound. My friend Rich met Anh on a dive boat out of Hoi An and made a date to have lunch later in the week, in Ho Chi Minh City.

Hoi An, Central Vietnam.

Anh had attended UCLA, spoke English perfectly and gave me excellent guidance on how to navigate the Vietnamese bureaucracy to obtain a business visa. Anh’s family owned several hospitals. She was accustomed to moving amongst Saigon’s elite. Anh was an affable woman, intelligent, articulate, socially conscious and aware.  Were it not for a slight Vietnamese accent, it would have been easy to mistake her for an American. But even in a rich country such as the US, Anh would not be considered average. She had many gifts, including that chauffeur, a really nice perk.  In Vietnam, Anh was a dramatic outlier; there aren’t many in her class.

Ho Chi Minh was a determined guy. He led an anti-colonial effort to unite North and South Vietnam, a politically divided country long before Ho’s communist army drove out the French and Americans. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 before the end of the war. But in 1975 his successors united North and South Vietnam under classic communism. The New Republic of Vietnam elevated Ho Chi Minh to iconic status and erected a bunch of Ho statues. About five years later, when the country was starving to death, they dumped the commie ideology and invited in Starbucks.

My friend Anh is emblematic of Vietnam’s growing wealth under the current political and economic hybrid emerging out of the communist era. Ambitious and enterprising, the Vietnamese are becoming players in the world economy.  However, new Vietnamese wealth is concentrated in a very small minority.  Much of the country struggles to survive. 

Saigon street vendor.

In my next story I will introduce Nhung, a more typical Vietnamese woman doing whatever it takes to live and prosper.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Travel Stories You Will Not Read in Lonely Planet

Oil paintings for sale on the wall of The Swiss Hotel Singapore

I like some of the popular travel books. But you sure don’t read the really interesting things about traveling in “Lonely Planet”.
Last week I met an old friend Rich in Hanoi, Vietnam. Rich is a computer training consultant between projects; he is also a kind of gregarious roving gourmet. Rich travels quite a lot, speaks four languages and loves engaging folks around the world in conversations, especially about food and drink.
Accompanying Rich was Dan, an old farm boy from Tennessee. Dan is now also a consultant specialising in computer security. After spending a few days in his company, I was convinced the CIA is one of Dan’s clients. Dan, of course, would not confirm that.
From Hanoi we traveled south to Da Nang, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many locals. Having come of age in the nineteen-sixties, the names of these places are evocative for me, stirring memories of a more turbulent time. The American War, as it is known in Vietnam, was a war fought over ideology: communism verses capitalism. It seems to me since we stopped fighting our two countries have blended some aspects of both ideologies into each culture.
The night before Rich, Dan and I were to go our separate ways, we met at a Sushi restaurant in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, in a part of town frequented by visiting Japanese businessmen. The waitresses were dressed in school-girl costumes. Rich speaks Japanese and made friends with a somewhat inebriated Japanese guy who bought us all a round of sake. First we made a Japanese toast, then an American toast.
“Wait”! Said I. “We are in Vietnam”.
Having lived in Ho Chi Minh City for nearly four months, I considered myself the Vietnamese cultural expert in our group and taught them a Vietnamese toast.
“Mot, hai, ba (one, two, three) YO!
Our Vietnamese toast was met with approving laughter from the waitresses and a table nearby with two Vietnamese couples eating sushi. The Japanese guy bought the Vietnamese folks a round of sake as well.
So there we were: a computer consultant from Staten Island; a CIA spook; a drunk Japanese businessman; an old fireman from Brooklyn; and four Saigon locals out on a date surrounded by provocative waitresses in plaid, pleated miniskirts.
If Ho Chi Minh roles over in his grave we will hear about it. He is in Hanoi preserved and entombed under glass in one of those bizarre commie mausoleums that are open for viewing, like Lenin and Mao.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

When Traveling in Asia, Don't Order Meatballs

I was born, raised and lived most of my life in the United States of America. The US like many other prosperous and influential countries such as Canada; Australia; Singapore; New Zealand; Hong Kong and others, are former British colonies. Our language is basically the same, and many of our customs similar. British culture has influenced the world. I discovered it is easy these days for me to travel globally and really not truly experience foreign cultures. Observe and appreciate yes; but truly experience?

Not so much!

I have now travelled a little in this part of the world. Australia felt a little like my hometown Brooklyn: tough but good natured with an incomprehensible accent. In Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines I was a tourist staying in places that catered to English speaking customers. Not much in the way of assimilation challenges happening there.

My home for much of the past five year was Singapore. I once heard Singapore described as “Asia Lite’ because it is prosperous, English speaking and has many Western amenities.  However, when I first arrived in Singapore it took time to adjust. Climate, food and etiquette were Singaporean. In addition to English, most Singaporeans spoke Chinese as well. So it felt new and different to me. But I could always find a familiar restaurant and everybody spoke English. It was not until I moved to Vietnam did I start to really learn how to be part of foreign land.

Well-known Western business are present and growing in Ho Chi Minh City. But Vietnam has its own distinct way of being, a challenging language for an English speaker to learn, and a lot of pride in its national identity. I arrived here two months ago with an idea and a business plan. Putting the plan into action required me to let go of my ingrained ideas about how people think and act. I’ve learned to eat “local”. Truth is the coffee at the little mom and pop stall near my home is superior to the Western franchises. And the local shop is one-tenth the price. 

Really, one-tenth!

I am using the coffee shop as an example of the many learning experiences I have had recently as I seek out contractors, merchants, graphic artists, web site designers and all the folks needed to get a small business up and running. I have to communicate and negotiate with them in their language. And I must learn and respect their customs and etiquette. And the only way to do that is be part of it, not an observer. It is the only way to really lean the details. 

BTW: the title?  The thing about the meatballs?

 Ah yeah, I’m not kidding:)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A New Yoga Business Model

Imagine a young person applying for a job at a small business and the business owner tells them they have to pay $12,000 for training first. After training you may or may not get a job.
That's crazy!
But that is exactly what happens now in the yoga business. The most popular styles of yoga - the styles that can support independent studios - charge a lot of money to become certified in that particular style.
At Modern Hot Yoga we intend to turn that model on it's head. We are in the process of training hot yoga teachers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. By January 2016 our first studio will open. We selected the current trainees based on their entrepreneurial drive and willingness to work hard. Our training method uses a senior teacher  who leads while practicing to an audio/visual presentation.  As the trainees progressed it became clear how backwards the old model of training can be. 
While many proficient teachers have come out of the guru led paradigm, many less than capable teachers emerge as well, weakening the system. And there is no follow through. Basically one pays a lot of money for a certification and then you are on your own.

As Modern Hot Yoga grows we intend to select teacher trainees based on ability and drive. We will pay them a stipend during training and when they are proficient we will employ them. As the system grows, Modern Hot Yoga will identify prospective small business leaders and invest in setting them up in partner studios. This model will create teacher loyalty to the style and promote quality services delivered in small boutique studios.