Monthly Archives: November 2010

Vietnam, a Fascinating First Visit

A young country: bride and groom posing for photos, Hanoi Opera House

It was a long ride from Tokyo to Hanoi, longer than expected. We landed just after ten, and it took awhile to get through the airport. The cab driver was really pokey, but $14 on the meter was way cheaper than the proposed $30 from a travel agency in airport arrival hall. On the way into town, in the dark, I thought back to the 1960s and 1970s, a time very different for Vietnam and for my country. I was really looking forward to seeing the place.

The Quoc Hoa, a small hotel I found after a lot of research, was pleasant and welcoming, and my room, $60, had everything I needed. Called home, ate three bananas, and clocked out. I was dead tired.

Was up at first light Saturday morning, ready to explore. Stop one was a HSBC ATM, then, map in hand, ambled toward Hoan Kiem, a pleasant small lake nearby. The place was bustling and really interesting. Traffic was crazy, mainly motorbikes zooming in all directions. At the first busy intersection, I advised two American tourists (from Tampa as it turned out) not to look, but simply to walk slowly but decisively across. Once we got to the lake, I volunteered to snap their picture. There were more Western tourists than I expected; lots of French at my hotel, tons of Aussies, plenty of Yanks. The street sellers, offering bananas, postcards, guidebooks, motorbike rides, were hustling, but were not aggressive, and a friendly wave-off worked well.

Crumbling colonial home, Bat Dan Street

Motorbikes are the de facto mass transit; city officials know that public transport will soon be an essential

Long Live the Heroic Workers; vanished nearly everywhere in the world, posters like these are still common in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, often in splendid contrast to, say, a new KFC fast-food joint or a glitzy high-rise

First stop was Ngoc Soan Temple, for the Buddhist and Taoist faithful, in the lake (across a short red bridge). Along the shore were lots of trees and lots of park benches, making for a pleasant place. I spotted lots of hammer-and-sickle symbols, and propaganda posters – a throwback (you never see that stuff in China). I walked to the south end of the lake, then east toward the wonderful French-built opera house. It was a popular place for wedding photos, and I congratulated a young (and nervous-looking) couple; at a moment like that, I wished I could have spoken reassuringly in their language.

The faithful, Ngoc Soan Temple

Dragon and offerings, Ngoc Soan Temple

Hanoi Opera House

It was time for a coffee, and I stopped into the splendid Sofitel Metropole Hotel, which opened in 1901. I enjoyed a couple of cups of French-pres coffee by the pool. I did not enjoy the affluent Europeans and Americans wearing torn T-shirts and other inappropriate clothing. Stop them! Take their passports!

Splendid contrast, Hai Ba Trung Street

Former French school or hospital

From the Metropole, I walked west on a busy retail street (mostly devoted to electronics and appliances) to the Hoa Lo, the French-built prison that American POWs dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” From August 1964 until the end of March in 1973, Hoa Lo housed people like John McCain. Before that, the French used it to incarcerate revolutionaries and others they deemed troublemakers. It was a grim reminder of past mistakes; I kept repeating the latter word. One room focused on what the U.S. officially called Operation Linebacker, December 11-29, 1972, which many of us remember as the Christmas bombings; there were some very graphic photos of death and destruction. In that room was also the sense of defiance and determination that ultimately led to U.S. withdrawal and national unification – one interpretive panel noted that heroic forces shot down 23 B-52s, 5 F-4s, and 2 F-111s.

Entrance to Hoa Lo

Depiction of manacled Vietnamese political prisoners

Christmas art done by a U.S. POW, 1972, during the Christmas bombing

I took my first motorbike ride from the railway station to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was closed; walking north, I snapped a pic of the presidential palace before I saw the sign with the no photos symbol. Oops. In the old days, I probably would have been jailed, but the guard just wagged a finger and I walked on, toward the Quan Thanh Temple, then to lunch at Malaideli, a jazz cafe-bar on West Lake. Mr. Luc, owner of cafe asked where I was from, and I introduced myself. A very friendly city. On the walls were framed, autographed pictures of musicians, like Herbie Hancock.

Facade, Quan Thanh Temple

Glitzy high-rise apartments under construction near West Lake

A good lunch restored my energy. Hopped a taxi to the Temple of Literature, actually a sort of ancient university, established 1076, interesting. Ambled back toward a statue of Lenin (flowers at the base – there are still True Believers), then zigzagged through a pleasant and leafy neighborhood of old French mansions, many now embassies. A friendly motorbike guy, Doan, asked about providing a ride; he was very engaging, and before hopping on we had a friendly but quite serious dialogue about the Vietnam War. I apologized to Doan for what our government did to his people – that was the only time on my short visit when I expressed something that I have long felt. He zipped me back to the hotel. It was a long but efficient day of touring, covering stuff I wanted to see.

Statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin

Young artists, Temple of Literature

After a tonic nap, I headed back out. Stopped for a beer by the lake, then hopped in a human-powered pedicab to my dinner venue, Hoa Sua. It was my first ride in such a vehicle, and it was interesting, and by definition green! I found Hoa Sua on the web version of Frommer’s Vietnam guide; it was actually a hotel-restaurant-tourism training school for disadvantaged youth, which delighted me: I could eat well and do well at the same time. The staff was friendly and eager to please, and the place was filled with fellow do-gooders, including a table of 25 Norwegians next to me. I had spring rolls, and a yummy plate of Hanoi-style grilled fish. Fortified, I opted to walk back to the hotel.

I awoke at first light again Sunday morning, quick breakfast and out the door, ambling around the fascinating Old Quarter. It was a place of hundreds of small specialty shops: in the first five minutes I spotted the door-hinge guys, the plastic-bucket ladies, the locksmiths and keymakers, and the canary sellers. Similar purveyors were often clustered, as along Hang Vai Street, where the bamboo masters offered all gauges of pole, simple ladders, and even decorative pieces with green plastic leaves. The Old Quarter had lots of small tourist hotels like the Quoc Hoa, and minibuses plied the streets, collected visitors bound for cruises on Halong Bay, a hugely scenic area about 60 miles east (next trip, for sure). It was fun just to hang at a busy intersection and watch the Sunday morning scene, especially the movement of scooters, cargo bicycles laden with bales of clothing, building materials, cabbages, and more.

Fruit seller, beneath a Budweiser awning

I hopped in a cab and headed south to Bach Mai, a large hospital that U.S. bombers destroyed during the 1972 Christmas bombing. I ambled freely around the outside corridors, and toward the end came upon a moving bas-relief sculpture commemorating the attack. Powerful and grim.

Bach Mai Hospital

Memorial to the hospital bombing, December 1972

Took a cab back to the Old Quarter and found a very agreeable perch at the Highlands Coffee outlet at the top end of Hoan Kiem lake. This store was on the third floor, and the balcony was the perfect place to watch the bustle below. I connected via Wi-Fi and sent family and friends a video of traffic, which looked less chaotic from above. I had my first ca phe sua da (literally coffee, milk, ice, the wonderful Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk). Yum!

I also used the internet connection to learn a bit more about the Vietnamese language. The Romanized alphabet, rare in this part of the world, began about a century ago when education became more widespread, and a simpler writing system was sensibly viewed to be more expedient and accessible. The language is tonal; for example, the simple “ma” is pronounced with six different tones, and can mean ghost, but, cheek, tomb, horse, and rice seedling! Whoa!

Leaving the café, I learned something: because tipping is not expected, it’s best not to hand one directly to the person. The sweet young woman seemed embarrassed; subsequently, I left them on the table, tucked inside the table wallet.

Stimulated, I hopped in a cab and headed to the last site from the U.S. war. We headed west, past Ho’s mausoleum, which was clearly open on Sundays – a long line snaked a block south. The taxi driver did not seem to know where to go. I was sure we were too far west, and sure enough we turned around, driving for ten more minutes until he asked directions. I don’t think it was a scam, I think he was truly lost – my direction read “Hun Tiep,” but the signage was for “Huu Tiep.” I walked a few hundred feet down a narrow lane, and came to a pond, Huu Tiep. In the middle was wreckage from a B-52 downed in December 1972. There was a memorial, and, further on, a strongly-worded plaque. It was a remarkable sight.

B-52 wreckage, Huu Tiep

Took a very short siesta at noon, then walked a half-mile across the Old Quarter to another Frommer recommendation, Restaurant 69, a simple place on Ma May Street. My table on the second-floor verandah offered a swell view of the street scene below. Way fun to watch the comings and goings – people having lunch at across the road, an old lady carrying brassieres and undies on a shoulder pole (common in East Asia, you suspend both loads at both ends of the pole), an older white guy fumbling with his scooters controls (the idea of a tourist renting a motorbike just seemed like a bad one). Lunch was ground pork, noodles, grilled vegetables, yum. I was certainly eating well.

Enough leisure. Time to work, even on Sunday! I suited up and at 2:30, a young faculty member from the Hanoi Foreign Trade University, Nguyen Thi Huyen (Vietnamese name order is the reverse of ours: last name, middle name, given name), picked me up on her motorbike and we drove across town, getting to know each other a bit. She was not shy about asking what some would consider personal questions, and I found her directness endearing. The school is 50 years old, established in a very different time to build relations with the rest of the world. The campus was pleasant and green, and surprisingly busy for a Sunday. I met the Dean of the Faculty of Business English, Bui Nguyet Anh, as well as Phong Phuong, who was my original contact person (met via my USC host, Joe Nunes; Phuong got her MBA there). At 3:30 I was introduced and gave my career-advice talk, well received, and with good questions. Loud applause at the end, and one of the students presented me with an enormous and fragrant bouquet. How sweet was that?

After the lecture, we drove to a great restaurant nearby, Highway 4, for a colossal Vietnamese dinner. When you travel alone, you can only order a dish or two, but when there is a table of four, you get lots of variety. The first two dishes were barbecued smoked pork (like ham, but with more character), and fried tofu. The next dishes were outrageously good catfish spring rolls with a remarkable dipping sauce, not piquant but very flavorful, and a mixed wok dish. Then we had a dish made from freshwater clams and chopped vegetables, scooped onto rice crackers. To finish, soup and rice. It was a really lovely meal. Anh drove me back to the hotel, where I read for awhile, but was asleep just after nine, for the deepest slumber since leaving home.

Was up at dawn and out the door for a brisk walk to a public market. I was expecting food, but it seemed mostly to be clothing and housewares. Ambled back to the hotel, suited up, and headed to the second school, RMIT University Vietnam, a branch of the Australian institution formerly known as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. The school was in a high-rise office building, not a campus. I lectured on alternative energy sources (at my host’s request; I told her I was no expert, but I did manage to cobble together a coherent presentation), repeated it, and spoke in the afternoon about leadership and charisma. New topics! Lots of fun, good questions.

At six, Phuong took me back to the Hanoi Foreign Trade University, by motorbike. It was nearly dark and rush hour, and even though I had not yet (in three days) seen a single accident, it still seemed like risky business! But we got back to the other campus with nary a scratch. I gave the leadership talk again, fourth presentation of the day, and by the end I was beat. But I was also hungry, and Phuong and a student took me to dinner (again by motorbike, whoa) at a fish restaurant, for grilled fish, a Hanoi specialty. It was good, but better was the seafood congee that was served last (in Vietnam soup comes at the end). I was happy to climb in a taxi for the ride to the hotel.

The next day was pretty much a repeat, with three lectures instead of four. At noon, Gareth O’Hara, the school’s external-relations manager, took me to lunch, back to Highway 4, where we ate dinner two nights earlier. We sat on the second-floor balcony and had a great chat. Gareth had been in Vietnam eight years, had worked for several NGOs, and had just the week before married a local woman (his parents came out from Ireland for the happy moments). Early in the conversation I mentioned that I had visited some reminders of the war, and he offered an interesting insight, one that locals would never tell me: the absence of animosity – despite the devastation and the loss of family – stemmed in large measure from the fact that they won. They won, against all odds. Interesting.

Gareth also offered a funny story walking back from lunch about his learning the tonal Vietnamese language; not long after arriving, as he worked to get some basic words and sounds right, speaking to an old one-eyed lady, did not quite intone the word for pig (lợn) correctly, and it came out as the word for, well, a sensitive part of the female anatomy. Oh dear. I would have been glad to spend days with that fellow.

After two afternoon talks I said goodbye to some new friends and rode a cab back to the hotel.
Changed clothes and zipped out the door, bound for a little shopping. The Old Quarter was hopping, and the near-dusk made walking a challenge (at one point motorbikes were rolling on the sidewalk. I bought a stuffed animal, a dragon, sewn from different fabrics by tribal folk in the mountains. It was a wonderful cross between folk art and toy (I had spotted the style at the Highway 4 restaurant two nights earlier). It was time for a beer, and I headed back to the building where I could sit above a busy intersection and watch the traffic ballet. Instead of the coffee shop I went two floors higher to a café-bar and enjoyed a beer. Dinner that night was at Koto (Know one, teach one), a charity similar to where I ate earlier, a place that trains and helps street kids. The place was full of earnest-looking people from all over; above my head a plaque noting the visit of the Queen of Denmark in November 2009. Food was superb – I had green-banana stew, a vegetarian dish that included the peels!

Was up early on Wednesday the 10th. As I did on the previous two mornings, I had a nice chat with the bellman, who spoke pretty good English (“I listen to the BBC”) and who each day said he wanted human rights and freedom. That morning, when I said goodbye and headed to the airport, he told me he wanted our countries to live in peace. Nice.

I flew to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) on Jetstar, a new low-cost airline that Qantas owns. The brand-new Airbus A320 was packed. Vietnam opened its market to competition, and Jetstar is giving the state-owned Vietnam Airlines a run. As happens everywhere, open markets mean lower prices, making it possible for a peasant in a coolie hat to fly. That’s progress! Onboard, the cabin crew hawked food, drink, and an array of Jetstar merchandise: T-shirts ($4), ball caps ($2), tote bags.

The democratization of air travel

North of Ho Chi Minh City

As we approached Saigon, I could quickly see it was as people in the north described it: bigger, richer, flashier. I spotted two golf courses, one with a Florida-like villa development adjacent. It was also much bigger than Hanoi. I dropped my suitcase and hopped in a taxi. The propaganda posters on the wide street leading from the airport (close in, only five miles) seemed even more incongruous. I think Uncle Ho might be disappointed with his namesake city, though perhaps not – he was a practical fellow.

That this place was way more market-driven was made plain in two of my first three transactions. The luggage-storage guy was honest, but the taxi driver had installed a cheater-meter. The fare should have been $10, and was $35. I was in town just for the day, so I got out not at a hotel, but at the Reunification Palace, a sort-of museum where no one spoke English. Not worth the protest, I entered it in my ledger as U.S. restitution. The palace was closed for the lunch hour, and a seemingly friendly pedicab driver told me that the nearby War Remnants Museum was open and he’d take me there for one dollar. Done. But when we got there, it was also closed for lunch and he claimed I misunderstood the fare. Nope. Handed him the local equivalent of a buck. I needed some lunch, and a decent-looking place popped into view. I bulked up with fried rice and a beer.

Money and flash, exemplified in this new mansion, are much more common in the former Saigon

Then something fun happened. A Vietnamese toddler approached my table. I smiled at him. He smiled back. In a blink I zipped out my iPhone and scrolled through recent pictures of Dylan and Carson (and one or two of Miss MacKenzie). I’m pretty sure that the tot’s mother and aunts were squealing “so cuuuute” in Vietnamese. It was sort of T-t-S, and a sweet reminder of our common humanity

My new friend, curious about the man who looks different

The War Remnants Museum was far grimmer than the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. The courtyard was full of restored American fighters, ‘copters, and tanks. Inside were a whole series of exhibits reminding us of the tragedy that was the Vietnam War, French and American: the notorious “tiger cages” for Viet Cong prisoners; black and white photos of destruction and civilian massacres; quotations from Abraham Lincoln and the late, great Senator Wayne Morse.

Perhaps the name of the institution, the War Remnants Museum, is not so odd; the front yard is filled with captured U.S. war materiel

Glass handicraft for sale, made in a rehabilitation hospital by an Agent Orange survivor

The notorious "tiger cages," used to hold Vietnamese POWs and political prisoners

The most hideous were words and photos accounting for the impact of Agent Orange and other toxins. Some of the facts were stunning: 2.8 times more ordnance was dropped on Vietnam than in all of the Second World War (in both theaters). On the top floor was a special exhibit entitled “Requiem,” which showcased the work of photographers of all nations and beliefs killed while covering the war. I was drawn to Ms. Dickey Chapelle of Shorewood, Wisconsin (1918-1965); born Georgette Louise Meyer, she reinvented herself and in her role as war chronicler moved to the front lines, snapping pictures at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Then there were photos from Robert Capa, for Life magazine, including the famous photo of a medic tending a gravely injured soldier. I seldom walk away from grim truth, but I could not enter the gallery with yet more photos of Agent Orange victims. I had seen enough. Tears flowed. We must never forget.

War widow, from a portion of a touching painting

It was still summer in Saigon, and I was thirtsy and in need of a jolt. Iced coffee, yes! And there was Gloria Jean’s coffee house, like Starbucks, right down to the prices, which were about 2.5 times higher than those of Hanoi. They had free Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning. Nice! Soon I was in a true T-t-S moment, with three Dutch accountants from Eindhoven, who had just opened an office in Ho Chi Minh City. We yakked across a bunch of topics, including the recent U.S. elections (they were dumbfounded); tax laws in Wyoming (go figure); the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup, and more.

Zipped and cooled, I ambled around the very leafy and agreeable old section of downtown, past a church right from France, and the truly amazing main post office (1896), where I mailed Dylan and Carson the second postcard that day. I hopped on a motorbike down to the Saigon River. I had hoped to find a short boat ride, but none of the hydrofoils headed upriver were returning that night. Second best was a four-minute ferry crossing, round-trip for five cents. Thunderclaps suggested an imminent tropical downpour. I walked briskly, pausing at a crafts store to buy another of the distinctive stuffed animals from the mountains, a water buffalo. I admired the wonderful city hall (while they were looting and oppressing, the French did build some nice buildings).

Main post office

Interior, main post office

Ferry to Thu Thiem

A commuting family of four

Saigon River

Graceful old mansion, downtown

Entered the 1930s-era Rex Hotel just as a heavy rain began, and made my way to the rooftop bar on the fifth floor for a beer and some chilling. The wet breeze felt good, but I was still really sweaty. The rain stopped, and I walked around a bit more, snapping a night-time shot of a lovely colonial opera house (in much better condition than its Hanoi sister), then on to another old hotel, the 1925 Majestic, right on the river. It also had a rooftop bar, with a great view of watery traffic: the ferry to Thu Thiem, tourist boats, barges laden with containers (which must have been transferred at a downstream port).

Main facade, Opera House

It was time to go home: loneliness was setting in. The evidence was clear in the zeal with which I engaged the Dutch accountants; and the fact that I started talking to myself on the street (Australian tourists moved to the other side of the sidewalk)! The kindly bellman at the Majestic hailed a taxi for me, and after relaying the ripoff coming into town he barked the fare to the driver. Nice! Enroute to airport, I spotted another convincing indicator of too-too: offices of Herbalife, the bogus sellers of modern-day snake oil. Ugh.

Waiting for my midnight flight to Tokyo (then home to Texas), I thought about a quotation from Ho Chi Minh that I read earlier in the trip. In September 1945, Ho declared Vietnam’s independence in a stirring speech that began with the “all men are created equal” quote from our Declaration of Indpendence and ended with this: “Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country, and in fact it is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”

I left Vietnam with the same thinking as I had four decades earlier, when the United States was at war with that small, poor, but resolute country: all countries should be free to decide for themselves how they wish to organize their society and their economy. That Vietnam now has that basic right is a great thing.

It was a wonderful trip.

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Tokyo, and Even Better, Yokohama

Gleaming Yokohama, a delightful, smaller city

I was home three nights, and on Tuesday morning, election day in the U.S. (I voted two weeks earlier), I flew to Tokyo. It was my first visit in three years, and I was excited to be on my way. The flight across the Pacific is long, more than 13 hours, but it went fairly quickly. Landed in mid-afternoon, hopped on the Narita Express to central Tokyo, then the Metro north a few stops, then on foot up Hongo Street to my lodging – I was staying at Ryokan Tsutaya, a traditional inn, rather than a conventional hotel. The inn was on a quiet back street and the sign in front was only in Japanese, so finding it was a bit tricky. Once inside, a warm welcome. The clerk spoke little English, but was friendly and explained various things, including the location of the down-the-hall toilet.

My room at the ryokan; no chairs!

My room was larger than I expected and spotlessly clean. There was a futon on the floor, no chairs. Local! And about one-third of the price of the rather fancy hotel where I typically stayed. I took a shower, changed clothes, and ambled back to an internet café close to the Metro. Filled out a registration form and in no time was checking e-mails.

Parking structure, Bunkyo district; one could only wonder how much it cost to park the Honda for a month!

Splendid, fitting decoration atop a mailbox, Japan Post, Bunkyo district

At 6:45, I rode the Metro two stops south and met Wharton classmate John Vandenbrink and his wife Donna. We walked a block to an old-school soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant (in business since the 1880s) they had wanted to try for some years. Food was great. We caught up on families and more. John spent years as an investment banker, and like me now teaches part time, but at only one school. We walked a few hundred meters to a Starbucks-like coffee house for dessert of chocolate cake and cocoa. I headed back to the inn, donned the hotel-provided robe, and went to the basement for a traditional Japanese bath. Before leaving home, I re-learned the ritual and etiquette, basically soap up thoroughly before the bath, which is simply for soaking. I was the only one in the big tub, so there was no risk of touching off an international ruckus! Struggled to keep my eyes open until ten, and slept relatively well – at least until Mark, a longtime friend and our accountant called at 2:51. I flopped a bit, but fell back asleep.

Thursday morning I was out the door before seven, for a good walk around the nearby campus of Tokyo University, back to the Internet café to work my e-mail, then across town to the Shibuya shopping district. Visited, as I always do, the Tokyu Food Show in the basement of the department store of the same name, to ogle the fancy and pricey food (two medium sized tomatoes for $10). Grabbed a Starbucks, hopped on another train over to the Shinjuku commercial area west of downtown, walked around, then headed back to the inn.

Like the end of the Toyota assembly line: perfect boxes of sushi, Tokyo Food Show, Shibuya

The highrise nicknamed the Cocoon, Shinjuku

Suited up at noon, and rode west to the Waseda University campus. First stop was a wonderful lunch at Rakkyo Brothers, a tiny place that specialized in spicy curry soup from Sapporo on the big northern island of Hokkaido.

The view from my table, Rakkyo Brothers, specialists in spicy and hearty soup


My variant had chicken and autumn vegetables, filling and very savory.

At 1:30 I met my host, Ken Grossberg, a friendly and energetic American. We yakked for an hour, and I then delivered two back-to-back talks to MBA students, the latter more of a seminar to just three students in his office. Great fun. We had a nice dinner in a faculty restaurant, walked back to the subway, and I peeled off. I was tired, but not so tired that I couldn’t head to Ginza for a beer at the Lion Beer Hall, a wonderful Art Deco room. Ginza, bright with huge signs, was hopping. Quaffed a beer and headed back to the inn. Took another pre-sleep bath. Though I was the only man in the tub, the inn was noisy with teenagers, presumably in Tokyo for a long weekend. But nothing could keep me awake! The futon was comfy, the room cool (by my choice).

The Wako Department Store, Ginza

Mosaic back wall, Lion Beer Hall, Ginza

Friday morning I packed up and wheeled out. The front-desk clerk opened the front door for me, bowed, said goodbye and thanked me repeatedly. A very nice place – I would stay there again. First stop was the Internet café, where a good-news e-mail caused a small “whoopee” moment: Linda and I paid off our mortgage. It was a good feeling indeed. Not so good was the homeless kid sleeping in one of the booths of the internet café – John Vandenbrink told me it was a problem.

Had a light breakfast and a coffee and rode the Metro south to the central station, put my suitcase in a locker, and hopped on the train to Yokohama, the port city about 25 miles south of central Tokyo. It was a clear and relatively warm morning. I walked out of the central station, and at first glance Yokohama appeared completely redone. Standing on the harbor, on the Pacific Ocean, gleaming high-rises marched north and south, including Nissan’s world headquarters. The place looked like Miami!

Miami Beach meets Yokohama

I quickly appreciated the positives of a smaller place. Indeed, it reminded me of my September visit to Long Beach, in the shadow of L.A. Yokohama had much the same feel: slower pace than Tokyo, friendly people (standing in front of a large local map in the train station, an older lady asked, in great English, if I needed help).

The map pointed the way, out of the station and north along the water to the Sea Bass water taxi. It was a little hard to figure out the itinerary from the Sea Bass leaflet and a ticket agent, but I understood that it was a 20-minute cruise. Still, a short ride on salt water on a lovely and relatively warm fall day was tonic. We docked at the location of the original port, a place laden with history: it was here in 1854 that Commodore Perry signed the historic Japanese-American Amity Treaty. A plaque nearby told me that the area subsequently became a center for international relations and world trade after the Port of Yokohama opened in 1859.

The old port of Yokohama's avian welcoming committee, perched on a chain anchoring the NYK Hikawa Maru

The Sea Bass tied up adjacent to the NYK Hikawa Maru, a graceful old steamship that crossed the Pacific to Seattle 254 times from 1930 to 1960. A pleasant green park lined the waterfront. I was in the old center of Yokohama and really liking the place – even more when I ambled into the splendid lobby of the New Grand Hotel, which opened in 1927. The scene along the Bund (which, like Shanghai, is what they call the waterfront) was so pleasant. From the hotel I could see the NYK liner, and imagine a decade of peace before World War II.

Staircase, New Grand Hotel

The leafy Bund, Yokohama

I walked along, past the graceful former British consulate, now the city archives. In a park just to the south was a reproduction of a painting (turned lithograph) by Commodore Perry’s fleet artist, W. Heine, depicting the treaty signing ceremony. Onward, past the Kanagawa Prefectural Building, 1928. Down a few blocks to the polychrome brick Kaiko Kinen Yokohama Kaikan (1917), built to commemorate 50th anniversary of port opening. I was walking in the past, and really enjoying it – one seldom gets that sense in Tokyo. And it was great to be in a place that had clearly been planned for more than a century. In Tokyo, things seem just piled on top of another. It was a delightful bit of serendipity.

The former British Consulate

Detail, Kanagawa Prefectual Building

Kaiko Kinen Yokohama Kaikan

Window depicting Commodore Perry's arrival in Yokohama, Kaiko Kinen Yokohama Kaikan

I hopped the subway three stops, had another big bowl of soup in a sort-of shopping mall above the main Yokohama station, got on the JR train back to Tokyo, and returned to the locker for my suitcase. Okay, full disclosure: it took about ten minutes to find the bank of lockers – the station is huge and on many levels. Took the 2:03 Narita Express back to the airport, checked in for a Japan Airlines flight, and met a couple of old friends, Tim Zandbergen and Hideo Miyabe, senior guys at the airline caterer TFK. We had a nice chat, and I peeled off to the Admirals Club.

I hadn’t been in the club a minute when I ran into a friend and longtime AA colleague, Patrick O’Keeffe. I knew that a bunch of American Airlines people had been in Tokyo for meetings with their Japan Airlines counterparts (both carriers recently received permission to form a joint venture across the Pacific). Patrick invited me into a private room, where I saw three other pals, including AA’s general manager at Narita, Arimizu-san. We had some laughs and a beer, and at 5:30 I zipped to Gate 81 for the flight to Hanoi. My first trip to Vietnam, and I was excited, excited, excited. That’s for the next post.

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Europe: London, Milano, Torino, Lugano

Detail, palace gate, Turin (Torino), Italy

Late on Sunday afternoon the 24th, I stepped onto an American 777 bound for London. Rolling down the runway at 150 mph I was grinning broadly. Flight is still a thrill. It is so cool. And all the more so on that ride, because an hour after takeoff, my “flying odometer” moved from 3,999,999 to 4 million miles. Regular readers know that I’ve tracked my flights since the first one in June 1966, and I knew I was approaching “four-mill.”

Before leaving home, I looked in my flight database to see when the odometer turned one, two, and three million:

One million, July 1991 (just over 25 years since first takeoff), a flight home from Toronto, after visiting American’s Canadian ad agency

Two million, July 1998 (the second million took 7 years), odometer turned over on final approach to St. John’s, Newfoundland, enroute to a fishing adventure in Labrador with son Jack and some pals from American and the now-deceased Canadian Airlines.

Three million, April 2005 (the third million also took 7 years), halfway across the Pacific, enroute to Tokyo, then to teach in Shanghai.

About 5.5 years to the next mark. When the flight-information display in the cabin showed 4350 miles to London – speeding along at 613 mph 35,000 feet above the earth – I smiled, hoisted my glass of London Pride beer, gave thanks to God, and reflected on my great good fortune. The airplane has meant, and continues to mean, so much to me. It has provided a meaningful career, enabled me to see more of the world that I ever could have imagined as a child, allowed Linda, Robin, and Jack to see quite a bit of it, and made much else possible – especially the overseas teaching, like the lectures at Imperial College London that I would present two days hence.

We landed at Heathrow Airport about eight, zipped through immigration and customs, and onto the Tube into the city. The ride has gotten a bit pokier, but was at the dumpy Grange Strathmore Hotel by 9:20 (my hosts at Imperial College have a contract with the threadbare place). The room was not ready, and I was headed to meet a colleague, so I found the gents’ in the basement, washed face, brushed teeth, combed what little hair remains, and dropped my suitcase. Hopped back on the Tube to Euston Station and a fast train north 50 miles to Milton Keynes, a pleasant and well-planned “new town.” At noon I met Martin Cunnison, a young entrepreneur and friend of a friend. He showed me some stuff he was working on and we yakked a bit about how I might help. Ate lunch at an agreeable old pub on the edge of town, he dropped me back at the railway.

Street scene, Milton Keynes; note separation of sidewalks and streets

On the train to Milton Keynes, my iPhone stopped working, so I used a payphone to call AT&T’s international support line. After a lot of to and fro (but with actual people, and in the U.S.), we determined that the problem was a the new 4.0 operating system I downloaded a couple of months earlier – and which had been giving me problems ever since, but none as large as the phone not roaming. After putting me on hold, Tony helpfully told me that I would need to get a new SIM card at AT&T. Well, that would not have been a problem if I were in the U.S., but I was 5,000 miles from the AT&T store where I got the phone.

On the train back to London I hit on the idea of visiting the Apple Store, and when I got back to Euston a helpful young railwayman provided directions to Mr. Jobs’ huge facility on Regent Street. One of their roaming geniuses tried to fix it, but could not. Happily, I have Truphone. A Skype-like app that enables very cheap calls if you have a wi-fi connection, and UK Starbucks all offer free wi-fi, so that would be the workaround in England, and indeed it worked fine. I was not thinking happy thoughts about Apple that afternoon, especially because they had recommended I upgrade the operating system, and once it’s changed you cannot revert to the older system that actually worked better. Sigh.

It was a fine blue-sky afternoon, and I ambled west on Regent Street, then two blocks south to Grosvenor Square. The statue of General Eisenhower on the north end of the U.S. Embassy grounds drew me like a magnet, and standing beneath the bronze I gave thanks for all that he accomplished. I emphatically did not give thanks for the fortifications around the embassy – as I wrote in the first quarter update, all the protection makes us look weak, not strong. It is just silly.

Gable, late-19th century building, Mayfair, London

I ambled west to Park Lane, then south to the Hyde Park Corner Tube station, and back to Gloucester Road. My room was ready. Number 522 was a postage stamp, but no sense in whining about it, so I unpacked, took a shower, and felt better. At six I headed back out, stopping in front of a Starbucks to call Linda and work a bit of e-mail, then north for a pint at the Gloucester Arms pub, an agreeable local place. The young Polish woman behind the bar drew a pint of London Pride, and I brought this journal up to date. After slaking my thirst, I hopped on the Tube one stop to Masala Zone, a chain-but-still-great Indian restaurant, for a nice plate of many small dishes – a sampler. As on previous visits, I asked for a small bowl of chopped green chilies.

In the middle of Monday night, I awoke and hit on a plan for the next morning: visit the Apple Store as soon as it opened, and see if their “Genius Bar” technicians could fix my phone. Lauren the Genius was kind and genuinely helpful, but after two hours I left the store with a new phone with the same problem. Well, that wasn’t quite it – by getting the new phone, I had to re-download all the extra applications that the old phone had (why Apple does not back up those apps on your computer, like it does for their own stuff, is a question worth asking).

That’s when the headhurting began. Somehow their security software would not recognize the MasterCard that we have long used. And even though many apps are free, you had to revalidate the card on the new phone. Aieeeeeeeeeee! Neither Lauren the Genius nor any of her fellow Geniuses could sort that one out. As a practical matter, the Truphone app was gone, so my iPhone was no longer a phone. Aieeeeeeee, again. I was muttering out loud when I left the store, and youngsters gave me room. It was a classic case of Rob wanting so much to promptly fix things that he made them worse – although, dear reader, let us also cite Apple and AT&T for more than a few flaws.

I went back to my postage-stamp hotel room, suited up, and walked a few blocks to the Imperial College School of Business, where I met my host and friend Omar Merlo, a swell fellow. We grabbed a quick lunch and caught up with each other’s job and family life. From 2:15 until 4:00 I delivered my lecture on frequent flyer programs to an engaged and very diverse group of 80 MBA students. Lots of fun. Omar peeled off and I spent 20 minutes introducing myself to Imperial’s head of executive education. I changed out of my suit and headed back out into light rain.

Newer buildings, Imperial College London

The iPhone fiasco continued: thinking that the credit-card problem might have been Citibank’s doing, I tried calling them twice earlier, with Omar’s mobile phone, but got cut off both times. I needed to call Linda to ask her to call the bank, but didn’t want to pay the Hotel Dump the equivalent of six dollars for a really short chat. After exhausting my low-cost options but on principle unwilling to give the Dump any business, I walked into a small greengrocer, explained the jam, and offered to pay the young Pakistani clerk to use his phone. He handed me his mobile, I called both home and Linda’s mobile, and he refused to accept my offered coins. I shook his hand and wished God’s blessings upon him. How I love trusting souls.

I ambled back to the hotel, picked up my laptop and headed back to the pub for a pint of Guinness and free wi-fi. The credit card was still jammed, but I got some other work done, then headed to dinner at Canteen, a favorite eatery focused on locally-sourced and fresh ingredients. Had a plate of smoked haddock, mashed potatoes, and spinach, and a really good piece of carrot cake for dessert. Yum! Clocked out on a day with more than a few frustrations, but still a really great day.

Was up at 0:dark Wednesday morning, suit up, quart of yogurt at Tesco, and onto the Tube back to Heathrow. Checked in, grabbed a nice sandwich from Pret a Manger, and flew to Milan.

Detail, sign, Glouceser Road Underground station

Alps on the Swiss-Italian border

It’s always great to be in Italy, and I ambled through Malpensa Airport with a big smile. “These are my people,” I thought – well, at least 25% of me. I caught the Malpensa Express train to the suburb of Bovisa, and walked a few blocks onto the newer campus of the Politecnico, Milan’s great school for the applied sciences, which opened a business school about a decade ago. At one I met one of the deans, Raffaella Cagliano, to introduce myself and my B-school portfolio. We had a nice lunch and a good but fast yak, and I waved goodbye just before three.

MIP, the business school of the Poltecnico di Milano, in suburban Bovisa

As a close-up, much graffiti has an aesthetic sense; as a collective, what a mess

The T-Geek had scoped out, online, a route to my next stop, Torino (Turin) that did not require a backtracking trip into central Milan, and the nearest station (different from the place where I arrived) was only a couple of blocks from the campus. But the train was at 3:09 and I didn’t have a ticket, so I had to hustle (hustling and my knees are a bad combination). But I got the ticket and was up on the platform with four minutes to spare.

Things got interesting at Fiera Rho, the station where I was to change from a suburban train to a mainline service. The facility was brand new, which was good, but the signage was not fully installed and it was not clear if they had a ticket counter staffed by people. After a couple of false starts (the ticket machine for the suburban train had instructions in four languages, but this one only spoke Italiano), I determined that I could in fact buy a ticket to Torino, but when I made my choice, one-way, second class, one adult, a red screen flashed “TARIFFA NON DISPONIBILE.” Dern (actually I used a different word). The train was due to arrive in two minutes when an idea flashed: take pictures of the screens on my iPhone (the camera worked!), and show them to the train conductor. I did it, dashed up and onto the train. Ten minutes into the journey I spoke clearly, but in Spanitalian, that the ticket machine was not working. She understood a little English and while writing out a ticket I showed her the screens for good measure. She smiled. I could never be a criminal!

The ride across the wide plains of the Po Valley was pleasant. The sky was really blue, something I have rarely seen in often hazy and smoggy Lombardy. Farmers were harvesting grain, herons swam in streams, all was well (except for way too much graffiti; and only in Italy does one still see spray-painted hammers and sickles!).

We arrived in Turin just after five. I had directions to my hotel, and was soon passing a pretty rough-looking bunch of people. But, hey, I hitchhiked through U.S. ghettoes, and I am fearless, so I pressed on. In a couple of blocks the neighborhood quickly changed to respectable, and I wheeled into the pleasant lobby of the Hotel Piemontese, where Giacomo the desk manager greeted folks in three languages. Room 126 was at least three times larger than the cell in London, and even though the hotel only claimed three stars rather than the Dump’s alleged four, it was way, way nicer. Free internet, too. Nice!

I changed clothes, worked a bit, and at six walked downstairs to the very cozy lobby, where a friendly combination doorman and barman offered a glass of wine. He recommended a Dolcetto d’Alba, and it was good advice indeed. The free canapés were a nice touch. This was posh. Even better, when I my iPhone connected to the Internet and the App Store I found that Apple had fixed the credit-card problem, and I could begin downloading about 20 apps. In between, I sent my brother (a huge fan of Italy and of their vino) 63rd birthday greetings.

A plesant Torinese still life, captured in the lobby bar of the hotel

At 7:30, my young friend Flavius Stan entered the lobby hugged me. It was great to see him – last time was 2003 when he married Francesca, from Torino. My connection to Flavius takes a bit of explaining. Briefly: The New York Times published his essay “The Night of Oranges” just before Christmas 1995. In it, Flavius tells the story of waiting in line for six hours in Timisoara, Romania, to buy fruit before Christmas in 1989, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end for the Romanian tyrant Ceausescu. A tiny slice from the close of the essay:

I get home and my father opens the door. He is amazed when he sees the oranges, and we decide to hide them until dinner. At dessert that night, I give my brother the present. Everyone is silent. They can’t believe it. My brother doesn’t touch them. Maybe they aren’t real. Maybe they are an illusion, like everything else these days. We have to tell him he can eat them before he has the courage to touch one of the oranges. I stare at my brother eating the oranges. They are my oranges. My parents are proud of me.

How could I not reach out to Flavius, who at that time was fortunate to have been invited to finish high school in a private school in New York City? I tracked him down, we got together for a meal, and we’ve been friends since, albeit at a distance. I am fortunate to know him. He has accomplished much in a short life, with much more ahead.

We walked several blocks to a simple trattoria enjoyed big bowls of mussels, and got caught up on life. Francesca, their daughter Emma, and he left New York in 2007 to be closer to family and the support it provides. We covered a lot of ground, but by ten I was really worn out.

Next morning I was out the door for a quick look around Torino, a city of roughly one million. You may remember NBC’s great introduction to the city during their telecast of the 2006 Winter Olympics. The center is compact, and I got a good look at the shopping district (elegant), the former royal palace, a spectacular baroque church of San Lorenzo, and the really unusual Mole Antonielliana, built as a synagogue in 1889. I even caught a ride on Turin’s new Metro, riding a few stops. Pure serendip: I surfaced opposite an absolute gem, a 1902 Art Nouveau house. Very cool.

The palace, Torino, home to the House of Savoy, Italy's royal family before it became a republic.

Confectioner's shop window; Europe has embraced Halloween!

In our neighborhood in Texas, mothers drive their children to school, typically in a huge SUV; in Italy, nine-year-olds ride the tram

Ceiling, San Lorenzo church

The Mole Antonelliana, a most unusual building and the symbol of Torino

Art Nouveau house, Torino

Italian soldier meets cute young woman driver, who just happened to be blocking the narrow street and causing a huge jam

Headed back to the hotel, suited up, and at 11 met Flavius and Francesca (she was working the night before in her online luxury goods brokerage; she had been a rising star at Prada before returning to Italy). We had a cup of high-test coffee; it was a sunny but cool morning, and we sat on the sidewalk outdoors. We had another really good chat, covering topics that only close friends discuss. They smiled and nodded when I told them my deep admiration for how deeply Italians care about their food. I ranted a bit about the U.S. where people are focused on quantity, and where “the system” focuses on making food cheaper and cheaper, and for what? For what? So people can buy more stuff they don’t need at Walmart?

At noon they walked me a few blocks and I hopped on Tram 4, headed south. On the way, Francesca stopped in front of Giordano, an old-school chocolatier with its beautiful wares in the front window, and said, “Rob, this is what you’re talking about.” She asked Flavius for his wallet, and a few minutes later emerged from the store with a present for me. Such sweet young people.

Next stop was ESCP Torino, the newest branch of the oldest French business school (besides Paris, other campuses are in Berlin, Madrid, and London). Flavius actually brokered an invitation to meet and lunch with the school’s director, Roberto Quaglia, a very energetic former consultant with Accenture and McKinsey. We instantly hit it off, and I very much hope that he invites me back – it looks like a very dynamic school. While learning about their programs, I tucked into a plate of pasta with octopus sauce, and it was really yummy.

I peeled off at two, and hopped the train back to the main station. I had a bit of time, so in addition to buying a postcard for Carson and Dylan, I lined up at the post office to buy a stamp (as I noted earlier, I am now sending them a card from every city I visit, though I usually cheat a bit and post them when I return). Ordinary experiences – like visiting the post – are to me a good window on places, and I enjoyed watching the to and fro at the counters. At 3:47, the Frecciarossa (“Red Arrow”), pulled out of Torino. We were in Milan in an hour, the arrow accelerating to 180 mph. The T-Geek enjoyed the ride.

Out of character: the Swiss Federal Railways train left Milano Centrale almost 20 minutes late. I celebrated our departure with a can of Heineken: la dolce vita! In character, the train was packed. I was headed to Lugano and to the Università della Svizzera Italiana – like 2009, this trip included two schools with Omar (who grew up in Lugano). We arrived Lugano 40 minutes late, at 6:50, which meant I had 10 minutes to meet him a block from the hotel. The station is above town, and there’s a funicular that “lands” a few feet from my hotel, but they only accepted Swiss currency. It would have taken more time to track down the ATM, so I walked down flight after flight of steps, down streets, down, down. Checked in, walked to the appointed meeting place, and Omar and Sandro arrived – they were also late, so it all worked perfectly.

In no time we were at my favorite Gallo di Oro (“golden rooster”) restaurant above the city. We had eaten there on both previous visits (Sandro joined us in 2009), and the place is just delightful. I repeated the starter of marinated octopus (second time that day, and a repeat from the visit the year before, but the main course was new, a hugely tender and large piece of rabbit. A glass of local (from Ticino) merlot, a dessert of pannacotta, and all was well. As in 2009, the three boys had a lot of laughs, and we had to work hard to keep the noise down!

After breakfast Friday morning (a couple from San Francisco were at the next table, and we talked friendly trash about each others’ baseball teams, which at home were battling in the World Series), I ambled down to the big lake at sunrise, then to the university. Omar e-mailed me that he was sick all night, so at 1:30 I introduced myself to about 25 Masters’ students, and delivered a talk on airline advertising. At 3:30, I trekked back up the hill to the train station, almost all on sloped sidewalks, not steps.

City hall, Lugano

Elegant town house in the center of Lugano

Unlike the day before, we departed right on time, headed north to Zurich. We still had almost two hours of daylight, which made for a beautiful ride through the Alps. The opening of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony fit the landscape perfectly: the trumpet notes were reminiscent of a Swiss alpine horn. Nice. About 40 minutes into the ride, we saw the first signs of the massive Gotthard Base Tunnel project, a new route under the Alps that will shorten travel times and that is the largest ($10.2 billion) infrastructure project ever undertaken in this country of impressive transport engineering. Indeed, three weeks earlier they had completed the 35.4-kilometer bore. I rode the train north on previous Lugano visits, but both were at night. The daytime scenery was superb, a remarkable mix of dramatic natural landscape and the work of generations of industrious mountain people, who had built prosperous lives in a rocky and mostly vertical milieu. We went through the relatively long and original Gotthard Tunnel (15 km., completed 1880), and on the other side the place names were German and the stream was flowing toward the north, not the Mediterranean.

The best picture I could muster on the lovely ride from Lugano to Zurich

We arrived Zurich a few minutes late, and I needed to hustle across to platform 15 and the German Railways’ ICE fast train north. It was Friday night and the train was packed, but I found a seat and chilled for an hour. When we arrived Basel, the train emptied and I headed to the dining car for a weissbier and a hearty bowl of cabbage stew – peasant food, like my ancestors in Brandenburg ate. Yum. I spent a couple of hours there, reading the day’s New York Times and a book on my iPhone. Ambled back to my seat, and in 20 minutes hopped off at Mannheim and onto a connecting train to Frankfurt Airport, arriving just after 11.

I got a little cranky when I rang the Ibis Airport Hotel and the fellow told me the “last bus” left at 11:10. What airport hotel (the bus actually serves two hotels, both in the Accor chain) stops a bus at 11? He suggested I take a taxi. “I don’t do taxis,” I replied, “what about public transportation.” There was the S-Bahn, the suburban trains, so I ambled back through the terminal, to the station, bought a ticket, and rode one stop west. I dimly recalled looking on a map and seeing that the hotel was more or less in the village of Kelsterbach, but a friendly older fellow directed me, in German, and said it was quite a ways. After walking about a kilometer, I asked some friendly ladies outside a bar, and in English they gave me further direction. It was a pretty long hike, but I am stubborn. I was not going to pay $25 in cab fare for a hotel that was only charging $85 a night, and where I was staying less than 8 hours! Head hit pillow at 12:15, for seven solid hours.

Up and back to the airport, this time on the free hotel shuttle, and flew home. Two items of note on an otherwise routine, pleasant flight. First, the flight attendants wear totally in Halloween mode (it was the day before). The galley crewmember wore a black witch’s hat, the purser had cat ears and a tail. After dessert, they reversed the customary trick or treating and came to us with candy. As granddaughter Dylan would say, “awwwww, so cuuuuute”!

Second, I watched the 2009 film “The Devil Wears Prada.” I suppose it’s what youngsters call a “chick flick,” but it caught my eye because Francesca Stan (from Torino, above) worked for Prada, and because fashion has caught the eye of generations on my mother’s side (the Italian side), including Robin. It’s a story about a bright young woman, a recent journalism graduate, who turns down a place at the Stanford law school to break into New York publishing, and lands a job as the assistant to a totally tyrannical editor of a fashion magazine (Meryl Streep in the role). The gloss and superficiality of fashion, and the editor’s bitchiness, reminded me of why I will always buy my clothes from L. L. Bean and Lands’ End!

I was glad to be home. MacKenzie was on the leash by four on Saturday afternoon.

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