Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Welcome to Hanoi!

The first thing that hits you in the morning is the heat. It’s a moist, dense heat that carries with it a mélange of odors from a market that wasn’t there the night before. This is also when you start to sweat, and efficiency of movement becomes the name of the game. One mistake as you navigate the maze – dropping your keys and the required effort of picking them up, for example – might send you irrecoverably into the throes of excessive perspiration. Plan in advance and glide smoothly and you might not need to towel off when you arrive at work.

Hanoi’s alleyways are a web of corridors that are in many ways the lifeblood of the city’s vibrant communities. They can be quite narrow in places and signage is intermittent. Overhead is an alarming mass of electrical wire. It actually looks as though rather than fix any interruption in power a new wire is simply run alongside the old one, and that this has been going on since the invention of electricity. The alleys are uniquely Hanoian, and getting lost in them is a means of discovery. To find your way out follow the jumble of wires; they lead to the main road.

At 8 AM, when I leave for work, these passages are teeming with activity. While in other major cities that I’ve visited alleys are decidedly ominous places, in Hanoi they are where life happens. A barber might be giving a man a morning shave adjacent to a cluster of plastic stools where people stop for morning pho. Children ride bicycles too big for them and the morning market is buzzing. Butcher tables display any cut of meat one can imagine is edible, open to the air and certainly not refrigerated. There are barrels of snakes, small crabs, snails, and other still-living delicacies. Fruit is fresh and skillfully cut at your request. The pineapple is tremendous.

Through all this weave motorbikes that negotiate tight spaces with reluctance to yield to anything. For my first few days here I walked my commute, but I was quickly forced to join the stream of motorists out of necessity. Despite my preventative strategies, it became a sweat issue - though there is a shower at my office it might seem strange to my coworkers if the new guy needed to use it every morning. Riding through the alleyways is harrowing, but with cautious confidence it isn’t too difficult to get a feel for the wild traffic. Helmets aren’t often worn, which is probably because it’s hard to find one as nifty as mine.

Go blue!
I emerge from the chaos at the Van Phuc Diplomatic Compound, where I park alongside the rows of other motorbikes and seek refuge in the air-conditioned VBCF office. VBCF stands for Vietnam Business Challenge Fund, my employer for the summer. Challenge funds are unique impact investment vehicles that seek to promote a specific business innovation – the “challenge”. Prospective companies submit applications for funding of business ideas that are in some way innovative, have profit potential, and are inclusive of the poor. Inclusive in this context means that the businesses engage the poor either as producers, consumers, employees, distributors, or owners. Sustainable social impact is the goal. As these business models are inherently risky, challenge funds exist to help shoulder the risk burden and provide financing that hopefully leads to follow-on private investment.

Through a meticulous selection process, the VBCF has built a portfolio of 23 companies with promising and innovative ideas to serve Vietnam’s poor populations. The fund is transitioning to its management phase in which it will provide guidance to its portfolio companies through the end of 2015. It’s an interesting time for the VBCF, and I’m lucky to be involved.

1 comment:

  1. I don't believe you're riding a bike!!! So cool. Be safe!