Jun 22, 2019

Travelogue - Ho Chi Minh City

Never before have I been in a country where people from two cities spoke so different politically over their country. Ho Chi Minh City, erstwhile Saigon, showcased as the ultimate triumph of will of people over the sinister American imperialism has a subtle reticence in anything and everything. There is a defiance against American atrocities & chemical weapons usage, there is a murmur against the rich ruling class that has emerged just like China inspite of communism, there is an undercurrent anger in the generation that was made to live outside of Vietnam for their parents being sympathetic to the old South Vietnam regime.

The famous Napalm girl photo in Original
Anybody who gets a chance to be in Ho Chi Minh city (HCMC) should see the war remnants museum. Infact, the three places in the world where are the extremist and war mongering people should be sent, even for a paid holiday are - Berlin, Hiroshima and Ho Chi Minh city . Just like Hiroshima, agent orange after effects are beyond words. Generations that were born after the war still suffer the after effects of this poisonous chemical that was indiscriminately used during the Vietnam war.

Cu chi tunnels that tell the story of how Viet-Cong rebels fought and won against an overwhelmingly superior opposition is a tale not to be missed. Just like pyramids are a testament to human endurance during Pharaoh's rules, Cu chi tunnels show us how much a determined group of people can fight on with limited means.
Agent Orange Horrors - War Remnants Museum

Vietnamese food has a healthy mix of rice, fish and vegetable. HCMC being a commercial hub, has a variety of modern food joints from McDonalds to traditional varieties. The puppet shows in HCMC are a great cultural mix of their Buddhist and Hindu origins .
With Viet Cong Guerilla Models

Present day HCMC is a thriving metropolis. More than 8.5 million motor bikes keep the city of almost the same population chugging on. Recent China - America trade spat has resulted in an economic boom for Vietnam. Scores of Chinese businesses now export their wares to the west registered as Vietnamese businesses. Indeed, this economic prosperity has resulted in accusations against Vietnam that they are artificially keeping the currency undervalued.

HCMC will leave you with an uneasiness. A tinge in your memories that will make you remember them whenever you hear about a war in any part of the world. They are not very different from an average Indian in terms of their daily struggles to live. Yet they smile at you, host you very well and would make you feel that you were a part of them.

Travelogue - Barcelona

"Allow me to state here how much I love Barcelona , an admirable city, a city full of life, intense, a port open to the past and future"   -- Le Corbusier

Barcelona Port Area
The port cities that I have visited, always has a charm. Hanseatic City of Hamburg, The Dutch megapolis of Amsterdam, Istanbul - the cocktail of East and West,  Alexandria - the yesteryear's gateway to the world - All these have a distinct culture which has been morphed by the sailors and traders who frequented to these ports for years. Barcelona is no different. Although the trading centric maritime traffic seems to be giving way to cruise liners and luxury yachts bringing more and more people to the town. 

I was here for Mobile World Congress - events like this represent the equivalence of yesteryear's maritime traffic, bringing people and companies from across the world to Catalunya.  The week of MWC represents a time of the year when Barcelona is at its Zenith - perhaps only rivalled when a champions league final happens at Camp Nou with their arch-rivals Real Madrid.  

Realtime 3D Avatar rendering @ MWC

From Chinese companies trying to battle the perception (reality ?) of IP theft to Moroccan IoT startups that crossed the Mediterranean in search of a wider market, Automotive majors exhibiting how the car has become a computing device to management consulting companies that have invested in technology startups like never before, the scope and breadth up on show at MWC is really unparalleled.  In that essence, the diverse mix of technologies and ethnicities would have closely mirrored the entropy of Barcelona caused in historical times due to maritime traffic. 

The signature dishes of Sangria and Paella gives you a sense of its entropy. The cuisines up for grabs in Barcelona restaurants are just awesome in its taste and variety. Unlike typical European food, Spanish cuisine has a decent dose of spices as well as olive oil. The liberal use of Olive oil, vegetables and fish as well as the physically active lifestyle is paying good health benefits for the city. Spain is supposed to knock of Japan from the top position of Life expectancy by 2040

Paella - The signature Catalunya dish
My earliest memories of Barcelona is of the first Olympics that I followed in TV in 1992. It is said that the tourist inflows started in a major way from that point. The historical quarter of the city is so much full of tourists that it gave rise to the anti-tourist movements, perhaps the first city that saw such a movement   Barcelona made news couple of years back by fining Airbnb as well for this tourist inflow. The city has tremendous infrastructure for supporting the tourism sector though. An extensive subway network and public buses makes commuting pretty smooth. The airport is pretty large and impressive. Most shop keepers know English as well. And I didn't come across any visible symbol of Catalonia Independence movement as well.

The city's future lies in technology and tourism though. Catalan companies were quite active in scouring startups across the world present in MWC and embracing innovative solutions from them.  MWC was a trademark show to any event organising cities as well. Score of volunteers at every entry point like airport & major metro stations helping the visitors, signboards at strategically important points. Indeed the organising efficiency of the city seems to have been a major factor in MWC sticking to this city for sometime. 

So, till I get a chance to visit this city next time,  hopefully to see as a tourist, "hasta luego"

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Aug 24, 2018

Travelogue - Silicon Valley

"This company has the best shot at getting a $10 billion valuation in 3 years .. Thats why I moved over there.. I want to retire when I'm 30 man..".. Remarked a 20 something year old guy, who was walking behind me with a group of friends during a a windy & chilly night in Silicon Valley.

That was a prelude to what I was to hear and experience in the next six days in a place which is the epicentre of technology revolution thats sweeping the world. From health care startups working in cutting edge molecular & genetic level analysis to IoT companies working in precision irrigation based on atmospheric parameters, this visit to Silicon Valley really broadened my horizons.

Clusters of companies doing advanced work in many fields,  sky-high salaries and stock options, real estate & apartment prices that most people cannot afford,  the way this place has metamorphosed over the last 30 years or so means that chasing wealth is not an optionality but rather a compulsion and necessity for most people who want to live here.  Indeed from an economic perspective, it feels like all the financial returns from different parts of the world owing to technological advances are aggregated here. And that manifests in many different forms - be it PE funds, angel investors, corporations promoting startup clusters with huge investments  - and that works as a self reinforcing model for pulling in more talent and new innovations

I had a stereotypical image of  Silicon Valley -  or the area between downtown San Francisco in North to San Jose & Santa Clara in south  - as an urban jungle. However , it is a vast expanse of land with enough greenery and is dotted with clusters of companies in different parts. Made me think geographically what competitive advantage this place has.. The geography is arid and dry in most places. If not for this eco system of companies, I don't think people would have preferred to live here.  The expanse of the place is such that I really had to assess the commute distances from multiple offices in detail before committing times for different meetings. There are indeed only two things that I felt is unique to this place - access to talent & access to risk capital  - and both of them have evolved over a period of time such that it functions as a competitive advantage which keeps on reinforcing itself.  Indeed, it is  just like that famous sketch of Uber model with talent, capital , companies - all building up on itself

It actually dawned on me as to why Uber originated here , rather than in a city like NY, Boston , London or any other European city.

The access to capital drives an efficiency culture here. And given this expanse of land and clusters of companies in different parts, metro systems are not really scalable here ( I met many people who has rarely taken Caltrain / BART even after living here for quite sometime ) . So, the only way in which you can navigate to different parts of the Bay Area is by a solution like Uber that values people's time brings in efficiency and is scalable.  Having said that, being a metro enthusiast , I found BART and Caltrain to be extremely useful provided you plan your meetings considering the train timings etc.

This way of ruthless focus on maximising returns have a negative consequence as well. Many firms prefer youngsters who cal clock 16 hours a day at work. The economic value of someone who is married and have kids is in general lower than someone who is single and can slog. And thats one reason which many people remarked because of which people have moved into other emerging tech-hubs like Seattle , Boston & Austin - where family life is much more valued.

I stop here to make two bets

-  Human life span will greatly increase in the next 50 years or so. Given the advent of computing power and the kind of precision treatment technologies that are evolving, a lot of diseases that were incurable before is treatable now

- IoT revolution is going to disrupt a lot of traditional companies in the next 10 years . There is going to be IoT devices in all places where there is a scope of increasing efficiency. And that attracts hot VC money . Companies that don't get on to this movement are going to be left behind

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