Reflections on Vietnam

Vietnam is an amazing country. I never really knew this as an American/Canadian until I spent a good amount of time here. When you’re raised in the western world, you generally don’t hear much about Vietnam unless it’s regarding the war –¬†and that story is a little biased, to be honest. ūüôā

Now that I’m wrapping up a ~7-month stint here, it’s time for some reflections. I’ll do it by describing the people of Vietnam, as they represent the values and character of the country well. They also form the vast majority of my fond memories here.¬†These may seem like generalizations (and they are), but obviously the people are incredibly diverse as well – personalities, style, and quirks vary just as much as they do in any other country. I’m just using these as a proxy for takeaways about my experience as a whole.

So without further ado, I’m reporting that the Vietnamese are…


From what I could tell, the number¬†of people in Vietnam with their own individual businesses was quite high. Whether it was a tech startup, a restaurant operated out of their own home, or a simple street cart full of fruit, the Vietnamese seemed to have that spirit of doing whatever it took to build their own financial independence. And of course, they love selling to expats…

Targeted #advertising

A photo posted by Simon Tan (@simtanx) on


It is one of the best kept secrets of Southeast Asia –¬†Vietnam has some of the most diverse, creative, and flavorful cuisines around. And with the fierce competition that comes with a country of 90+¬†million people, locals and expats alike are spoiled for choice. But you don’t have to ask me or check out my Foursquare list of favorites in Saigon. You can also watch¬†Anthony Bourdain¬†describe it.

Food of Vietnam


From¬†cooking chickens in soda cans to fitting a mattress on a motorbike, you can count on the Vietnamese to come up with creative solutions to life’s problems.¬†And to¬†have a bit of fun as well ūüôā


It’s kind of stunning when you realize it, but there is an absolutely huge number of young people here – probably more than any other country I’ve been to. Almost 70% of the population is working age, and the government likes to point out that it’s the backbone of their robust economy. In addition to making malls and nightclubs extremely lively (read: crowded), it also means you see lots of beer everywhere. ūüôā

"MŠĽôt hai ba… yo!" Also known as #cheers or #ganbei – learn something new every day ūüôā

A photo posted by Simon Tan (@simtanx) on


Vietnam is a fiercely independent country. They have fought to win their country back time after time – from the Chinese, French, Americans… Their spirit is really quite remarkable, and it carries into how they live their lives day-to-day as well. The culture of motorbikes and entrepreneurship are quite possibly a natural effect of this as well.

Suffice it to say that I’ve had an amazing time in Vietnam. I’ve met people I’ll never forget, I’ve had food that I will miss for the rest of my life, and I’ve experienced so many new things¬†that I could just die now and feel satisfied knowing I’ve really¬†lived, if you know what I mean.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time here and it is time for me to head back to (relatively boring :P) North America. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Vietnam, but I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t thought of it as a destination before. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m eternally thankful to everyone who played a part in it.

C√°m ∆°n mŠĽći ng∆įŠĽĚi!

Addressing Income Inequality

Given the recent interest in income inequality around the web, I thought I would string together a few articles and research I’ve encountered to come up with¬†my own little theory. Note that you may reach different conclusion(s) from the ideas or from your own findings – and I would love to hear them! Let’s keep this conversation going.

First, I’ll try to summarize a few relevant articles:

  1. Paul Graham’s essay¬†Economic Inequality – The shot heard around the world. Posits that economic inequality partially¬†stems from variations in productivity between people. The theory here is that many people are motivated by money, and there is a lot of money to be made in creating new wealth through startups. (Particularly true with technology startups.) Hence, we shouldn’t discourage economic inequality because that would be discouraging startups – which is tantamount to preventing technological progress.
  2. Give Some to Get Some – an episode of the excellent Exponent podcast where Ben Thompson and James Allworth react to Paul Graham’s article – noting that there are truths in it but also some obvious oversights and leaps of logic. The nugget here is that creating new wealth happens in two phases. First, technological progress (perhaps via startups) creates wealth for a few while they create efficiencies in how the world works – simplifying transportation, reducing the need for manual labor, etc. Then, the rest of the people in the world need to take advantage of those efficiencies to do more with their own lives – E.g. the hour that used to be spent washing clothes by hand is now spent developing a new drug that cures cancer, etc. The “pie” grows only when the impact of the original technological progress improves the lives of all people.
  3. Why Generation Y is unhappy – A great illustrated guide to what true happiness is based on. The formula is simple: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. If you have simple needs and don’t think you need to be exceptional at everything all the time, you will be happier.
  4. Income Inequality Makes Whole Countries Less Happy – an HBR article with¬†data that shows that as more income is concentrated in the hands of a few, the more likely people report lower levels of life satisfaction. One theory here is that the bigger the range of incomes in a society, the more that people feel it’s impossible to “succeed” by getting into that coveted 1% bracket.

There are so many more articles and research written up about this topic (just doing a search for “income inequality” will show you it’s a global concern) but I feel there is a simple lesson with just the ones mentioned above.

Here it goes:

  • Humans are predisposed to making technological progress. It’s how we evolved, after all.
  • Technological progress benefits¬†few people at first. As in the case of startups, it propels some into the class of the nouveau riche.
  • Economic inequality spikes. On the one hand, this is not a bad thing, as the new¬†technology often enriches people’s lives and (more importantly) leads to¬†efficiencies in the world that enable others to increase their own productivity and hence¬†grow the whole pie. This is why¬†overall GDP of nations increase as they modernize.
  • Unfortunately, the rate at which those get fabulously wealthy from new technology is much faster than the rate at which the rest of the population can take advantage of the new efficiencies to increase their own personal wealth. Thus, the inequality tends to grow larger over time.
  • As the inequality grows, its¬†negative effects start to show. People (especially “Generation Y”, or those with similar culture) see those at the top of the distribution and wonder why their own situations are not developing as quickly. This leads to unmet expectations and ultimately¬†lower life satisfaction measured in countries with this phenomenon – in other words, where there is fast technological progress that triggers this whole cycle.

In summary: As long as people develop technology to improve people’s lives, overall lives will get worse by default. Said another way by my colleague @JK: “Life is hard; suck it up.”

That’s not to say we can’t improve this situation. Looking at the chain of events in the cycle, we could put measures in place to:

  • Stop or discourage technological progress
  • Add handicaps to people so they cannot accumulate wealth so quickly
  • Accelerate the adoption of technology so everyone can realize the improved efficiencies faster
  • Discourage the setting of unrealistic expectations so people become happier with their realities

Those are not necessarily all good ideas… So I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine what they would want to do about this (if anything).

One solution – we could all become Buddhist monks. By living outside of traditional societies, none of these issues affect them. And the ones over in Chiang Mai seem pretty happy all the time. ūüėČ

Charms in Chiang Mai

I was fortunate to have had the chance to stop by Chiang Mai over the New Year’s holiday (because everything is so close together in Southeast Asia!) and thought I would count it as a continuation of a trip I took in 2012 that included stops in Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. In the same style as those previous write-ups, here I present some of the best memories in the form of superlatives.

Best night bazaar: Anusarn Market – not too crowded and a huge variety of goods to haggle over

Most crowded night market: The Saturday night market on Wua Lai

Best local dish: Khao soi, best had at Sila-Aat

Best vantage point for a sunset: Doi Suthep, on the marble lookout deck

Best temple for a nighttime meditation with monks: Wat Srisuphan

Funniest temple story: The story of Tan Pra Maha Kajjana


Most impressive gardens: Royal Park Rajapruek

Most disgusting yet environmentally responsible showcase: Elephant Poopoopaper Park – it’s exactly what you think it is!

Most surprisingly majestic animals: Elephants, raised humanely at Baanchang Elephant Park

Chiang Mai is no doubt the cultural capital of Thailand, just as Bangkok is its economic capital and Phuket is its resort capital. There are temples on almost every block and the locals are clearly very proud of their traditions and heritage. (You can see it with every interaction Рfor example, most people will always pass money or goods with two hands and a bow.)

The city is small enough to cross on foot, but big enough that there are still traffic jams at rush hours. The atmosphere and the attention to detail in so many public areas make you feel like the citizens really take care of the place. The only major flaw is the transportation system, where you need to basically haggle for every ride you take in a songthaew or tuk-tuk and there are no public buses or trains. Fortunately, costs are still low and you can get a ride pretty much anywhere for less than US$4.

It all makes for a great holiday, but it seems that several thousand expats felt so comfortable here that they decided to stay here long-term. It was honestly quite surprising to see so many of them hanging around restaurants and coffee shops Рbut after a few days, I understood the draw and why Chiang Mai ranks so highly for digital nomads. I highly recommend working remotely there!