Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Amazing Race 29, Episode 9

Ninh Binh (Vietnam) - Hanoi (Vietnam) - Incheon (Korea) - Seoul (Korea)

signs for check-in counters at ICN airport

[Some of the airlines serving Incheon International Airport in January 2002. This way to the check-in counters for Miat Mongolian Airlines to Ulaanbataar, SAT Airlines to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Dalavia to Khabarovsk, Mahan Air to Tehran, Uzkekistan Airways to Tashkent, Krasair to Krasnoyarsk (where else would Krasair fly?) — and Vietnam Airlines to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.]

The Amazing Race has visited Vietnam several times, but this was the first time that it did so without the Vietnam War being mentioned in the television broadcast.

Most people in the USA and in Vietnam today were born after the end of the war between their parents’ countries. Vietnam is a country not a war, and it’s a sign of progress that a mainstream American TV show can depict it as such.

I’m troubled, though, by those who want the USA to “move on” without first coming to terms with, as David Harris titled one of his books, “Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us”.

I don’t think tourists from the USA should go to Vietnam without thinking about the fact that a government claiming to act in our name and an army of millions of our fellow citizens (mostly conscripts, but ones who were too often willing to carry out their orders as good Americans) tried first to conquer Vietnam for capitalism and then, when it proved unconquerable, to bomb it back to the Stone Age.

If we don’t want another U.S. war like the one in Vietnam, we need to study — and encourage younger people to study — why it happened, for the same reasons that Germans continue to think it important to teach younger generations not just about what the Third Reich did but about how and why German voters elected Hitler and the Nazis.

This sort of thing cuts both ways, in Japan for example. The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, while Japan tried to conquer all its neighbors. These days neither most Americans — even those who travel to Japan — nor most Japanese spend much time thinking about why either country did what it did. Is it a sign that I’m getting old that I think the world would be a better place if we all tried to learn a little more from history?

This episode of The Amazing Race 29 also highlighted the changed relationship between Vietnam and South Korea. The racers took a direct flight from Hanoi to Seoul, but no such flight existed in early 2001 when the first season of the reality-TV travel show was filmed.

Several hundred thousand South Korean soldiers fought on the side of the USA against the reunification of Vietnam. South Korea was the last country in East Asia to establish diplomatic relationships with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China.

Since then, however, anti-Communism has taken a back seat to profit in South Korea’s policies toward Vietnam (and China). The opening of Vietnam to South Korean investment came as Korean companies, faced with rising labor costs at home as the Korean tiger developed from a Third World to a First World country, were looking for nearby countries with cheaper labor to move their factories and sweatshops. Wages for comparably skilled labor were (and still are) significantly lower in Vietnam than in China.

Like Vietnam, Korea has a history of struggle against Chinese and Japanese regional hegemony. Despite wariness about the potential loss of economic autonomy implicit in any foreign investment, many Vietnamese officials saw foreign investment as necessary for development. Many Vietnamese economic planners also saw South Korean investment as entailing less risk of neocolonialism than investment from the countries that had previously conquered or tried to conquer Vietnam: China, France, Japan, and the USA.

As a result, since the normalization of trade relations in 1992, South Korea has become the largest source of foreign investment in Vietnam. Korean-owned companies and joint ventures dominate export-oriented agriculture, food processing, garment sweatshops, and assembly plants.

Over time, Seoul has become a significant external air gateway to both China and Korea, as it was already to Japan. Travel between Vietnam and Korea increased more slowly than trade, however. Few Vietnamese could afford to travel to increasingly wealthy and expensive South Korea. Airline routes follow trade routes, but Korean-owned sweatshops and factories in Vietnam generally bring in as few (expensive) expatriate Korean managers as they can get away with.

Despite the influence of state economic planners and managers of state-owned enterprises based in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, the commercial center and most of the Korean (and other foreign) investment remained in and around Ho Chi Minh City. Foreign airlines, including Korean airlines, saw flights to HCMC as much more likely to be profitable than flights to Hanoi.

Until 2001, HCMC also had a better airport than Hanoi, though that isn’t saying much. When I first visited Vietnam in 1995, the airports I passed through in Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City were all former military airfields. None of them had seen any significant upgrades to civilian passenger facilities since the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. But North Vietnam’s air force and aviation infrastructure was never remotely comparable to the combined scope of US and US-financed South Vietnamese air operations. Until the new civilian Hanoi airport at Noi Bai opened in late 2001, the facilities in HCMC at the former US airbase (Tan Son Nhat Airport, still the main airport for HCMC today after several upgrades) were far more spacious and comfortable than those in Hanoi at Gia Lam Airbase/Airport.

empty concourse, Hanoi airport

[The international terminal at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi opened for business in October 2001. As of January 2002 it was still eerily deserted.]

When the first season of The Amazing Race was filmed in early 2001, Korean Airlines already had a daily flight to Ho Chi Minh City but had no flights yet to Hanoi. KAL started twice-weekly flights to Hanoi in December 2001, two months after the new airport at Noi Bai opened and just in time for the Christmas travel peak of overseas Vietnamese returning to visit friends and family.

I was on the second or third of those Seoul-Hanoi flights, taking advantage of an unnecessarily low introductory sale fare to celebrate my 20th anniversary with my partner at the Hanoi Hilton (the hotel, not the prison). Patterns of week-in, week-out demand bear little relationship to holiday visiting-friends-and-relatives (“VFR”) travel. At Christmas and Tet, the flight would have been full at twice the price.

The flight was full but comfortable. KAL doesn’t have the best reputation for service of East Asian airlines (not that airline reputations necessarily have much to do with reality), but it’s still far superior to any U.S.-based airline. We did, however, get caught up in some of the downside of a new airport and new airline route.

Our flight from San Francisco to Seoul was severely overbooked and departed late, in part because of delays in deciding which confirmed passengers would be left behind and not get to spend the holidays with their families. (We were the last passengers allowed to board, but that’s another story.) We ran through the airport in Seoul and made our connecting flight to Hanoi, but my partner’s checked bag didn’t get transferred in time and got left behind in Seoul.

As I’ve noted before, most “lost” luggage isn’t really lost but misdirected. “Lost” bags typically turn up and are delivered to you at your destination within a couple of days.

Our bag wasn’t lost, but it took longer than usual to get to us.

Ours was the first “lost” bag on KAL’s new route to Hanoi, so the baggage handlers in Seoul had no experience with how best to route a stray bag to Hanoi. The next of KAL’s twice-weekly flights to Hanoi wasn’t for three or four days, so they figured that it would get to us more quickly if they put it on the next day’s flight to Ho Chi Minh City. From there, they assumed, it could somehow be delivered to us.

This was all well-intentioned, no doubt. But it’s a long way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Mionh City — much too far for us to want to go to retrieve a piece of luggage. And what the KAL staff didn’t yet know in Seoul, because this was the first such incident, was that the customs authorities in HCMC wouldn’t allow an unaccompanied item through customs.

The baggage handlers in HCMC were stuck with an unaccompanied bag that they couldn’t transfer to a domestic flight to Hanoi without first clearing it through customs. Not to be stymied, and determined to get the bag to Hanoi where we could claim it and clear it through customs ourselves, they sent it from HCMC to Bangkok where it could be transferred to a Bangkok-Hanoi flight while remaining in international transit, and not have to be cleared through customs until it got to Hanoi.

Meanwhile, in Hanoi, my partner had to make do for four or five days with what she had in her handbag, what she could borrow from me, and what she could buy locally - which wasn’t much, since few Vietnamese people are her size. Let that be a lesson in what you should be prepared for.

We hadn’t planned to stay in Hanoi that long, but we couldn’t leave as long as we might have to go back to the airport once our bag showed up to get it through customs, as we eventually did.

It wasn’t easy for us or for the airline to find out what had happened to our missing bag or when to expect it to turn up.

With only two flights a week, it wouldn’t have made any sense for KAL to have its own passenger, cargo, or baggage handling staff at the Hanoi airport, even if that had been allowed. All of those airport operations were handled by a ground services contractor. But since this was only KAL’s third flight and first “lost” bag, the contractor didn’t yet have any procedures for dealing with KAL or even know how to contact KAL’s downtown office.

We found the KAL office by accident while we were walking near our hotel. The staff consisted of one middle-aged Korean man, who had just arrived to manage the new station, and three or four locally-hired young Vietnamese women. The Korean station manager knew no Vietnamese. His Vietnamese employees knew no Korean. They were communicating in their only mutual language, pidgin English.

It could take months to get a landline assigned and installed in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, KAL’s new office didn’t yet have any office phones or connectivity to KAL’s computerized reservation system. The manager was relying on his employees’ unreliable cellphones. Even if or when our bag turned up at the airport, it wasn’t clear that anyone at the airport would know how to contact the KAL office to let us know.

We dropped by the KAL office each day to check for news of our bag. We weren’t trying to humiliate the manager or his staff, but there was no other way for us to find out what was happening. They were embarrassed not to know where our bag was or when it would turn up, even if that was none of their fault. To try to make up for their loss of face, they kept giving us gifts from their supply of promotional swag for the new station. The day before our bag turned up, they gave me this dual-time-zone KAL watch that I still use.

KAL wristwatch

The bag did turn up, none the worse for its journey from San Francisco to Seoul to HCMC to Bangkok to Hanoi. We went out to the airport to claim it at customs, then headed out to explore more of northern Vietnam, including Haiphong, Cat Ba Island, and Ninh Binh.

A couple of weeks later, when we got to the airport in Hanoi to check in for our flights back to San Francisco via Seoul, we were surprised to be told that our boarding passes weren’t ready. “I can’t check you in yet. Please sit over there and wait.” Was this flight also overbooked, as the one from San Francisco had been?

We worried even more when all the other passengers were called to board the flight, leaving us sitting waiting.

Just when we were ready to panic, or despair, the station manager appeared in front of us, bowed, and presented us with boarding passes. In a final effort to redeem his hopeless loss of face for the inexplicably wayward detour our luggage had taken, he personally escorted us onto the plane, showed us to our upgraded first-class seats, and then backed off the plane, bowing repeatedly.

The doors closed, the ground staff lined up facing the passenger windows and bowed to us in unison (standard practice for Korean and Japanese airlines, even at foreign airports and when the staff are contractors), and we headed back to Seoul and thence to home.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 25 May 2017, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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