Friday, August 31, 2012

Banh Mi Economics

 I've always wondered how much money these ubiquitous bánh mì vendors made on the streets. Bánh Mì is a traditional street sandwich served all over Vietnam, and it is a relic of the French colonial times, when a lot of French food traditions fused and merged with local Vietnamese cuisine. It incorporates a French derived baguette, pâté and mayonnaise, combined with Vietnamese meats, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro and hot peppers. The world over, in regions where there are vast Vietnamese immigrant communities, bánh mì refers to the classic cold-cut meats variety, which includes sliced pork belly and Vietnamese sausage. But in Vietnam, bánh mì simply means 'bread', and one has to precise which kind of sandwich one would like, such as the cold-cut one (bánh mì thịt nguội), the one with grilled meat (bánh mì thịt nướng), or with meatball (bánh mì xíu mại), amongst others.

Bánh mì is extremely cheap, and typically sells between 12,000 VND to 20,000 VND on the streets (about 60 cents to 1 dollar). Foreigners may be turned off by the bare hands-handling by some vendors or the newspaper used to wrap the sandwich in, but one thing we cannot deny is how amazing it tastes and how it just hits the right spot for a filling snack craving. There is a trend though in making bánh mì more of an upscale snack as is evident in BMV chain (, a fast-food type restaurant that sells all kinds of bánh mì and even delivers them (I am a huge fan, and I hate to admit I sometimes order delivery from them, even though they are just down the street from my house).

A bánh mì vendor I often go to is this lady who parks herself on the corner of an intersection leading to my alleyway and seems to be doing fine with her stand. People stop by her on their bikes and conveniently pick up a sandwich. I often pick up a sandwich on the way home going into my alleyway.

One day I finally lost all senses of discretion and started asking her about her dealings. She works everyday from about 2pm to around 9pm. She sells 100 sandwiches per day, and she said it with an air which showed that she did not struggle to meet the daily quota. I was puzzled by her small cart and asked her where all the breads were, and she told me that she had bread delivered to her cart in different rotations to help her stock up. She sells a sandwich for 12,000 VND.

So now, with all of these numbers in check, the fun part... If she sells 100 sandwiches a day and each costs 12,000 VND.... that's 1,200,000 VND in sales per day... so about $60.... And times that by 30 days..... WOWWWWZZERSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!! You mean to tell me that she makes 36,000,000 VND per month!!?!! Which is about $1800???!!!! Whattt???? Did I calculate that right??? I did not factor in the cost of the ingredients but I don't assume it's too high. And I am not sure if she has any permit to set up her stand there every day... But in revenue alone, it is extremely high for one local individual, considering that the average monthly salary for a local person is $185!!!

Needless to say, after the eureka moment I had that day I made the calculation, I looked at bánh mì vendors with different eyes... One of "Wow, good for you!". Unless I have overlooked details or the cost of selling the sandwiches is a lot higher than I suspected, I'd say this ain't a bad job at all!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Now THIS is an art class...

What better place to have an art class... than at the picture-perfect park ! As if my favorite park wanted to prove to me that it would never cease to surprise me with delightful scenes, I came across this art class zealously sketching the portrait of a stoic-looking gentleman with his shirt off, and a head statue. I was just finishing off my jog at about 9:40 am.

Boy do I wish my art class was like this back in high school!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hair Salon, at an alley near you!

I was due for a haircut, and I remembered my housemate telling me about a good local hair salon just down the alleyway... Surely she couldn't be talking about one of those VERY local ones... the home salons which consist of a barber armchair and mirror set, embedded in a very cluttered small room in the front of the house, sometimes doubling as a small pharmacy, convenience shop, or whatever else convened for the family to sell.

I drove around, peering at several of these home-carved barbershops spattered throughout my neighbourhood, but to tell the truth, none of them really appealed to me as a place where I could feel soothed getting my hair done.

After checking again with my housemate and getting the proper direction, I turned left instead of right at an alley split just several meters down from my house, and found the unmistakable hair salon just a bit further down. Now THIS is a proper hair salon (relatively speaking).

The mini hair salon occupies the first narrow floor of the house, and it was decorated in true hair salon style and equipped with the basic standard amenities. Through the glass doors I see the hairdresser working on a client and a female assistant. Shy to go in, the assistant finally sees me spying through the front gate and she comes out to attend to me. Um... Can I get a haircut? She said yes and confirmed that I could come now.

It turns out that when I asked if there were currently any availabilities for a haircut at the moment, the answer would always be 'yes' even if the hairdresser is already busy with a client... and there is only one hairdresser. That is because you just come in and you are sat on a chair, and you soon find yourself on the tray of multitasking of the hairdresser, who juggles his clients around harmoniously between himself, a female assistant, and a male assistant. When he finished coloring the first client's hair, he got to me and we consulted on the kind of haircut I'd get, then he got back to his other client as I contemplated and had my gown put on, then he cut my hair while an assistant finalized the work of the other client, then I was brought to the hair-washing room right beside by the female assistant, who gave me an extremely long hair wash fused with scalp massage. The head massage/shampooing lasted approximately 45 minutes and was very sleep-inducing, as my mind blissfully wandered to great places as the assistant's hands scratched at the back of my head, moulded my temples and kneaded my scalp. I did not expect this whole head massage session, but I guess it worked out for them as both a service offered as well as a buffer phase so that clients can be passed around seamlessly between the trio-workers as they became available.

The male assistant blow-dried and styled my hair with pomade while the hairdresser finished off another client and then moved on to a male client already sitting in the barber chair. Hmm.... I guess their system works, I conceded to myself.

In the reflection of the mirror, the wall behind me was adorned with imported shampoo, which was the salon's expert shampoos. Amongst the shampoos, I saw Garnier Fructis and the likes, which back home is a common household shampoo we buy at the store.

The hairdresser had been cutting hair for roughly 15 years, around Ho Chi Minh City. He established this shop a couple of years ago, as he lives in this neighbourhood. From the certificates I saw hanging on the walls, I saw that he was a self-motivated and passionate hairdresser, having attended many hairstyling seminars, training courses and programs. He works 7 days a week, and the number of clients vary on a day-to-day basis, from 5 up to about 20 or 30 clients a day. It's unpredictable, he stated. I asked him if he ever had foreigner clients, and he said that he did. How's that? Because he had clients who brought some foreign friends in, he responded. His shop opens at 9am and it will close anywhere from 7pm to 10 or 11pm, depending on his energy level and business.

I paid 150,000 VND (about $7.50) for the haircut and shampoo, and tipped each of the assistants as I had seen the other clients do. I was satisfied with the haircut, thanked them, and then rode back up the alley to home.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Spiderman on motorbike

Cool Spiderman decor toy on motorbike! (Not to mention the rockin' Wrestlemania sticker! )

Grocery shopping

Car? Pff... Who needs a car to go grocery shopping?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reverse culture shock: The first time around

Here are some of the aspects of my home place (Toronto, Canada) which struck to me the most when I first visited it last year, after living almost a year in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

How polite and courteous people are to each other, even as strangers!!!

How wide and spacious the streets are!!!

How multicultural it is!!!

How everybody speaks English, regardless of ethnicity or culture!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Congrats! You have won a getaway.... to FV Hospital!

About 2 weeks ago, I stepped out of my room, and I suddenly felt a sharp pang of pain bolting from my right foot. I yelped and sat down at the staircase and looked at the bottom of my foot. I was bleeding from a cut in my heel. I couldn't find the sharp object which perpetrated it. The pain was very livid and I felt my nerve being pressed inside my heel and I knew there must have been a piece of glass stuck in there. (Several weeks ago, a square of glass from my bedroom door broke and shattered to the ground, and there must have been remnants).

On Monday I finally decided to go visit the doctor as the sting had not subsided and every time I stepped or applied pressure to my heel (which is every time I walk), it sent shooting pain. We opted for FV Hospital (Franco-Vietnamese Hospital), a western hospital that had a clinic in District 1, close to our house. The main hospital is in District 7, about 11 km away.

FV Hospital is Vietnam's first and only internationally accredited healthcare facility, having been recognized by the French organization Haute Autorité de Santé in 2007. The hospital was created in 2003 by French doctors, and today it is staffed with highly qualified French doctors as well as Vietnamese doctors trained overseas, predominantly in France. The hospital follows many French medical processes and standards, as is evident in the ability of many Vietnamese doctors to speak French, as well as French terminology and charts used in the hospital's documents. The hospital's slogan is World Class Healthcare in Vietnam, and world class it was...

All of the rooms in FV Hospital are designed with an utmost sense of style, space and comfort. The lobby of the main hospital contains a beautiful cafe with a modern lounge area, complete with stylish flatscreen computers to use (at a charge), and a large flatscreen tv which was featuring the Olympic games. Even the in-hospital pharmacy has an appealing lime-green spacious seating area. There is free wifi throughout the whole hospital for visitors to use. There is also a cafeteria with a large array of delicious foods and desserts, and a gift shop (although I did not visit it to know what kind of souvenir gifts the hospital offered, or what kind of gifts any hospitals would offer on that matter... Can we say... a bit... presumptuous?). The smaller clinic in District 1 is equally modern, chic, and clean.

Upon my initial consultation with the doctor at the smaller clinic, we had an X-ray done within the same facility. The whole process from setting up the X-ray appointment to getting the results to the doctor only took within a span of half an hour. The X-ray confirmed there was a foreign body at the very bottom of my heel, which would have gone undetected if the X-ray film was not held against a purely bright white background and if the viewer was not a rigorous observer. The doctor referred me for a meeting with the orthopedic surgeon for the following morning for further consultation and a possible surgery.

The following morning, I met with the orthopedic surgeon, a warm and caring Vietnamese middle-aged man seemingly trained in France. A surgery was warranted after he examined my foot and after I pointed out the shard of glass myself on the X-ray, as he did not detect it himself during his scanning (This was a cause for worry for me! Was he actually the same doctor that was going to operate on me?!!). Did you eat this morning? He asked me. I replied no. How about coffee? No, again. So you've had nothing to drink or eat? I continued assuring no. So we could have the operation this afternoon then, if you want.

And that's how we fit the impromptu operation into my Tuesday afternoon. I had met the fasting requirements. The doctor explained to me that I would need to stay back at the hospital for at least the evening as he would be using general anesthesia on me. He suggested that local anesthesia would not fully mitigate the pain/discomfort. He suggested that I even stay overnight at the hospital to fully recuperate my health. I thought that was a bit far-fetched for the minor problem that I had, but you can bet as the events unfolded that I did not mind being hospitalized at FV Hospital one bit.

As with all hospitals in Vietnam, you need to pay the bills before any kind of medical procedures, including consultation with the doctors. So of course I made sure I had clearance from my health insurance provider (through my school) before agreeing to be treated at the most prestigious hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.  As the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and its inalienable inverse was definitely true, you pay for what you get. And world class sure comes with a hefty price.

The first consultation that I had, on Monday, for which I hadn't claimed I had insurance yet, cost me 450,00VND (about $22). In comparison, when I went to a local Vietnamese hospital last year, at the An Sinh General Hospital, the fee for consultation was 100,000 VND ($5). (And keep in mind that Vietnamese hospitals usually charge on a two-tiered system: one price base for locals, and a higher price base for foreigners. So that means that locals would be paying even less than the 100,000 VND for their consultation). As for the X-ray imaging, at FV Hospital, I had to pay 390,000 VND (about $19.50); at the An Sinh Hospital, I had paid a mere 120,000 VND (about $6).

Add to this pricing matrix another tier for Insurance Companies. At FV Hospital, on Tuesday, I claimed and provided my Insurance Policy information, and prices got readjusted accordingly. The hospital's bill to the insurance company for my second consultation was a whopping 1,100,000 VND ($55). As for the cost of the surgical procedure and hospitalization, if I didn't have insurance, they would have charged me a "discounted" individuals' price of 22,700,000 VND ($1100), but with approved coverage by my Insurance Company, they charged the "correct" price of 42,703,599 VND ($2100) at the end of my stay.

In stark contrast, when I told my Vietnamese housemate of the impending charge should I not be covered by my Insurance Company, she gasped in horror and told me not to do it with this hospital, as it would just cost about 500,000 VND ($25) to get the appropriate procedure done at a regular Vietnamese hospital.

The procedure at the local Vietnamese hospital would not include general anesthesia, but it would have the bare necessities, including the local anesthesia, and it would do all that it's required to do to get that shard of glass out of my heel. No extra fluff. No memorable experience. But of course, for all top-notch companies, as with FV Hospital, the high price you are paying for is not just for the state-of-the-art facilities, but also for the infrastructure, the decor, and very importantly the great service and care. And oh boy did they have incredible service at the hospital.

The medical professionals and doctors at the main hospital were all very attentive and friendly. They worked in harmony with one another, and there is always someone to take you from step A to step B, including an officer who escorted me from the surgical center, down to the admissions area, to the pre-operation area. I was thoroughly informed of the processes throughout my treatment. After providing my insurance information upon consulting with the orthopedic surgeon at the first clinic, the procedures, as they had advised me prior, included an agent from the insurance department of the hospital calling me as soon as they received clearance from my insurance company, and advising me on the scope of my coverage, and which extra services would fall out of the coverage range.

The nurses were phenomenal, paying attention to my every need, and extremely caring. The surgical staff were friendly and reassuring, as my feelings of anxiousness were mixed with bemusement as I was being pushed on a rolling bed towards the operation room with a group of masked surgical assistants hovering above my face all asking me questions about my origins and musing on my funny Vietnamese accent. I was put under by general anesthesia for about 2 hours while the operation lasted about 20-30 minutes. Upon waking up, I was gently rolled to my single hospital room, itself very nice and easily mistakable for a hotel room, and throughout the evening and the next morning, the nurses took great care of me. A separate officer came in to advise on the food menu and to take my choice, as well as another officer to deliver and advise on my medications each time I was due to take them. In the morning, a quality assurance officer in a pink nurse outfit came to ask me if I had any complaints or concerns and expressed to me the hospital's endeavour of delivering high customer care, and at the end, a group of new nurses came in and, with my consent, watched as one of the nurses worked on bandaging my foot for departure, all under the watch and guidance of the head supervisor of the nursing department who came from China and whose job was to provide continuous training to nurses at the hospital and to bring all nursing services to high standards. Dispatching was swift and easy, where I recuperated some of my items and signed off.

From consultation, to pre-op preparation, to treatment, to dismissal, I felt very welcome and well tended to at FV Hospital. You can really tell that the hospital prides itself on customer service and seeks to accentuate the customer experience. FV Hospital holds true to its core value of putting their patient at the heart of the hospital, as is proscribed on their website. Sure, FV Hospital places fees on the higher end of the spectrum ( in Vietnam, but still low compared to Western hospitals), but it also does so to your sense of wellbeing.

Small FV clinic in District 1
My X-ray result... Do you see the shard of glass?
FV Hospital
It costs 300,000 VND ($15) for a guest to stay overnight with you in your room, which includes a fold-up bed and breakfast in the morning
Foreign nurse supervisor training new nurses
The culprit (or my ticket to FV Hospital)