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We're in Singapore right now and I have a lot to tell about here, but that will have to wait unitl next week's installment (which should also include Indonesia) - I find if I let things perculate for a few days I don't have add so much in the next post. Glad you guys/gals are taking care of the markets (though, to be honest, I'm barely paying any attention to them as I'm on vacation - and that includes spending a few hours a day peering at market squigles). Anyway, withut much fanfair:

Actually I shouldn’t have been so negative on Xiamen (our previous stop in China. The commercial street was lined with shops (many of which seemed chain stores). This means that the prices are fixed as the owners are not present and any shortfall would have to be made up for by the employees. There were some interest shoe styles on sale (close call, but no cigar) with women’s shoes selling for about $28US and sandals for about $13. I also got dragged into a designer boutique (by some women we were walking with – I still had RMB left and they had apparently squandered theirs – apparently I was the “House of Jeff Bank”.) and the prices seemed comparable with what they might have been at a Bloomingdales or Nordstrom’s. Sizes are a little different – a woman with us who is about a size 2 was a tight large and (when available – which is rare in China), my wife’s size 12 morphs into a 3XL. The gold shops were empty like in Shanghai (except for a couple or two buying diamond engagement rings – they have apparently diversified. My “in the head” calculation (by the weight of the 24K gold pieces) from RMB per gram to US dollars per ounce seemed to indicate a 15-17% profit margin (or tax) on the sale of gold (and presumably one on repurchase as well). My faithful gun bearer picked up a few more hair clips in the local 10 yuan store. We did make one extravagant purchase – a hair comb for the Boss at 180 RMB. It was a beautiful piece of work with a set of widely spaced teeth carved out of horn inset into a handle of some exotic wood or other. When she balked at the price (about $28US), I explained that she had spent umpti-ump bucks on this boat trip and had limited her souvenirs to a refrigerator magnet and a handful of hair clips and it was OK to splurge on something unique and utilitarian.

The sail-away through the harbor (accompanied by the expected pilot boat) was actually prettier than I expected as we passed the beaches and islands (and of course the expected row after row of 50+ story residential apartment houses).

The same guys/gals who invited me to go scuba diving in Fiji (one has a cave diving school somewhere in the Yucatan) have just invited me to come when we hit Exeter, Australia. Apparently there’s a reef there known for whale sharks, large manta rays, humpback whales, dolphins and so on, depending on season – I won’t bother looking this up and will take pot luck.

One might wonder what there is to do at night on a ship like the one we are on. Well, there’s of course a casino (I do my gambling at other tables/markets and have not done more than use the casino as a shortcut between areas of the ship. People seem to like Texas Hold’em, but while I like poker as much as the next guy, it seems like the house is likely to vacuum up all the money if you sit long enough at the table. Each to their own. There is a show in the theatre (twice a night – once for each dinner seating). There is a string quartet in one of the lounges, a dance quartet in another, a piano player in a third (playing requests and “name that tune” type of games) and a DJ in a bar/discotheque. This is a fairly standard mix among ships (with smaller ones being less ornate and larger ones having a larger selection (and the theatre show will be scaled up and down as well). This ship also has a movie theatre (doubles as the culinary theatre during the day for cooking demonstrations – PTZ camera, side monitors and all) and has 3-4 showings of a movie each day.

We are meandering to Hong Kong at about 6-8 knots. We’ve generally been doing 15-18 and these ships can easily do above 20 knots. I figure either the “extra day” (as we could make this leg in one day rather than two) is to have a “catch up” day in case of a delay along the way so that the schedule could be maintained, or else simply to save fuel (though the first thought is probably the reason).

Final impression of China: It is important to realize that, while because of its huge population and small ratio of wealthy to poor, there are huge numbers of poor living here. It is equally important to realize that they make the products we use every day and therefore those [products (or something similar) are pretty readily available and generally in-use by a portion of their population (sometimes as large as our own). Because of the way China handled the 2008/9 financial meltdown (by keeping their people working by funding infrastructure projects, they incurred significant inflation – one could imply that it was forced upon them by events which took place in the US. After a halt of a couple of years, they have continued to increase the value of the RMB against the US dollar. This trend, along with their inflation has caused prices, in terms of US dollars, to rise precipitously. OK – so all I bought was a couple of hair clips and a comb. More importantly, this cost increase (with cheer leading by numerous political and labor leaders) is reflecting itself as an increase in pricing in the US (and I suspect will accelerate) during a time when our economy continues to be mired with slow growth. China has significant domestic problems (there are few countries that don’t, but the sheer numbers involved in any discussion of the Chinese population is always unsettling to those of us in the US). I would be very surprised if, within a decade, China does not reflect an overall standard of living commensurate with that of some parts of Europe. As increasing the standard of living of an entire population (especially one the size of China’s) is expensive and comes at the expense of growth “somewhere” in the system, it is important to observe whether that cost is paid for by China or her trading partners. The US has taking advantage of this sort of cash flow for decades and what I think we are seeing is simply a shift to a competitor with a willing to continue to spend the effort to develop the “special sauce” rather than sit back in complacency. China is not alone, and Korea is a good example of a parallel, but China’s scale (and its ability to leverage that scale) IS unique and will continue to work to their benefit unless something (call it a Black Swan, though many scenarios could be postulated) disrupts it.

October 24-25 2011 – Hong Kong:
This is the fifth time we’ve visited Hong Kong over a period of close to four decades (pretty evenly spaced) and the contrasts are glaring. In the old days there was an odor common to many neighborhoods – a combination of old fish, discarded vegetables and fruits and cigarette smoke (which my wife refers to in some ethnic Chinese areas in the US and elsewhere as “Hong Kong smell”) which is not noticeable today. The city is far cleaner than I remember. In fact smoking seems to be far less prevalent in China and Hong Kong than it was in previous trips. Much of Hong Kong’s population speaks at least a smattering of English and with a bit of polite asking it is reasonably easy to find assistance (or to use passerby’s as translators to locals). The people are, in general, fairly polite (in a big city way – quick answers as everyone is busy). Hong Kong is possibly the only city in the world with more restaurants and shopping than NYC. While Singapore is in the same class, the Cantonese love of food, in my opinion wins this race. The city is open late as is NYC and it’s one of the few places that I can think of that I would feel comfortable using as a home base.

For those of you who have never been to Hong Kong, it’s a city worth visiting. It is the place where China has touched Europe most frequently for the longest period of time. It is no longer the cheap place it once was and is now known more for its cosmopolitan nature than for the very Chinese underbelly that Westerners generally don’t pay much attention to. Again, we will likely not be stopping at some of the “must see” spots (such as the Stanley Market, Repulse Bay, Victoria Peak in the morning to watch Tai Chi, etc.) as some require an investment in time that I’m unwilling to make during our short two day stop (considering that we have been here a number of times before and seen these places already).

The only item that we have decided to target a potential purchase is a pair of formal dancing shoes for my wife. Not that either of us has any notions of being world class dances, but the shoes worn by woman dancers seem to give very good support, look “formal” and apparently are bargains in Hong Kong – we’ll see. Notice that I have not elected to buy myself dancing shoes ?. I will also be haunting the gold markets for a souvenir 22-24K bangle to add to my wife’s collection. I may also upgrade my cell phone as the functions available in Asia are generally pretty cool when compared to those common in the US (like having two SIM chip sockets in a GSM phone as well as WiFi connectivity so that you can select what service suits you best at any particular time) and the phones tend to be a bit cheaper. About the only other type of thing I can see buying is Chinese handicrafts, but I suspect that the bargains of the past are probably not around anymore.

Most of the toilets in Hong Kong are Western style (not the “wall of shame” found in many men’s rooms in Asia or the hole in the deck paralleled by two foot pads found un lady’s rooms.

Hong Kong is not a shopping Mecca. It is more like an overload of every imaginable store (in multiple locations) that you have ever heard of in Europe, the US, Asia or wherever. It is story upon store in floor after floor for mile upon mile. Whether it is Tiffany or Toys ‘R Us, boutiques of the best China can offer, every electronic or optical gizmo known to man or imported dancing shoes from London, it is an overload of “stuff” not only as far as your eyes can see, but as far as you can travel in the SAR.

We started the day innocently enough with a walking tour of Hong Kong Island. The Star Ferry, from a site to the side of the tower which commemorated the end of the (now defunct) Canton Railroad now takes about 8 minutes (at a cost of about $2HK or $.15US) to get you from Kowloon on the mainland to Hong Kong. We walked past Statue park where the Pilipino amas, the maids all Westerners seem to employ, congregate on Sunday (their day off) for gossip and picnics and the adjacent building where Hong Kong’s legislature holds session. Next came the long elevator ride to the middle of the HSBC building (after the obligatory photos standing in front of the bronze lions guarding the entrance. Until 1950, HSBC’s 13 story building was the tallest in the colony. Their new building was the tallest for another decade or two, but is now eclipsed by some of the other local financial buildings. That said, once you enter the sanctum sanctorum reserved for HSBC’s premier clients, you are greeted by a team of waving uniformed young ladies yelling “welcome” and offered espresso, a lounge, wireless connectivity, etc. While this “private banking” experience is not a rarity around the world’s banks, it is rare at the benchmark level generally required by HSBC. While I have an innate distrust of banks in general and no love for HSBC in particular, I have to say that the services they provide worldwide are desirable enough (and available at a level far below other bank’s metrics) to force me to use them for many international functions. Incidentally, the banknotes in Hong Kong are emblazoned with the HSBC logo and the banner head “Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank Corporation” – the only case I’m aware of that a private bank still controls the currency of a nation (well, I guess the Fed may fit that bill under some interpretations). After leaving the bank headquarters, we went to a building of alleged factory outlets on Pedder Street, but didn’t find anything of interest (though I admit to buying a pair of eyeglass frames there – not cheap, but pretty cool looking and not crazy priced either). Then I made the mistake of dropping into Chow Tai Fook’s (a large chain of gold/jewelry stores in China and Hong Kong) to check the buy/sell spread. Well, let’s just say I’m not a shopping virgin any more on this trip and my wife has a new 24K gold bangle. The spread was about 8% and the “workmanship” cost was about $39HK, so I figured (assuming gold doesn’t plunge ?) there wasn’t a whole lot of risk involved. The gold is sold in Hong Kong dollars per teal (weight), but it’s the percentage spread that counts (and at least the bangle is very attractive – I guess that’s at least somewhat important when it comes to jewelry ?). We stopped for lunch at a dim sum restaurant (King’s Palace at 30 Queen’s Road, Central) on a recommendation from the gold merchant. I’ve eaten dim sum all my life, both in the US and in Hong Kong and I can honestly say that I have never tasted better (and that also goes for the slab of smoked duck we had alongside). The pricing was slightly higher than what we would expect in the US, but the way these were prepared seemed to provide a better outcome - rather than wheel the dumplings on carts, they were individually prepared to order – ordered from a menu and brought by a waitress. Since the restaurant fills two floors of an office building – seating hundreds, their kitchen must be something to behold. We took the subway to Causeway Bay to look for dancing shoes for the wife, but they were made in England and the prices were too high to be particularly interesting.

After some more sightseeing (frequently indistinguishable from shopping), we took the MTR subway back to the cruise terminal and the ship. The MTR system is new and offers a faster (slightly more expensive - distance based between $4-11HK) alternative to the ferry, buses and trams (both of which come in double-decker versions). The subways are similar to those found in Shanghai (I forgot to mention that the stations have glass walls separating passengers from moving trains with wide doors opening to allow entrance once the train has stopped – think Disneyland style). Also, the “ends” of the cars are missing so the trains join in a single long rectangular channel. One major difference between the configuration used in Hong Kong is that the center roof mounted hold rail is about 6 ½ foot high and in Shanghai it was below my height (though above that of almost all Chinese). Another is that some of the expected side benches are “missing” which allows more people to pack in standing up. There are LED displays of the line you are on (showing stations past and future), the lines that the train connects to, indications of the side of the car the doors will next open on, the name of the station you are approaching, etc. Everything is in Chinese and English. The system is fast, clean and nearly impossible to get lost on.

The cruise terminal itself is attached to “Harbor Center” shopping center – if not the largest mall in the world, certainly one with the highest end products represented. Acres of stores including (off the top of my head) Cartier’s, Tiffany, Fendi, Rolex, Baccarat, DeBeers …. Hundreds like that, electronics dealers covering city blocks, fancy cosmetics and perfumes as far as the eye can see (and free WiFi – useful to avoid the extortion rates of the ship and “boat people”, both passengers and crew, litter the place using their laptops. Because of the time difference – 12 hours from NYC time, midnight forays are par for the course).
After dinner we took the MRT subway to Jordan Road and walked to the area occupied during the day by the Jade Market. After 7PM, the market clears out and the booths are replaced by the Night Market. This is a hodgepodge of vendors selling all sorts of Chinese product, most is junk but there are the occasional finds. One of the ladies who were tagging along is into giving wine as gifts and found embroidered miniature Chinese costumes which fit as bottle covers (about $2.50US each, but seen in a retail shop today for 10X the price). My wife bought some gadgets which are handbag hooks designed to unroll (from disk form) and suspend a bag from a table edge (less than $2.00US, but we’ve previously bought them for over $20US in the US and Europe and given them as useful gifts). I was tempted by 15mw green lasers for about $12US, but passed.

The second day in Hong Kong again started with the Star Ferry and the long walk across the reclaimed financial district on the raised walkways back to the HSBC building to begin the next leg of our walk. This took up down Li Yuen Street East and back on Li Yuen West – more typical Chinese junk in a market setting. We passed the Tak Wing Pawn Shop on Des Voeux Road (it’s more like a bank as collateral objects are simply held in secure storage and then sold to second hand stores if not reclaimed. On the next block were the Central-Mid-Levels escalator. These are a half mile long series of elevators and moving walkways designed to bring commuters partway up Victoria Peak. They only run in one direction, so there are a parallel set of steps to walk down. Walking further down Queen’s Road Central (but veering to the right instead of following the street to the left) brought us to Man Wa Lane which is a street dedicated to the manufacture of chop stamps (how Chinese sign their documents). After a bit of negotiation a price was arrived at for these ($110HK each or about $15US). These are carved out of soapstone and the symbol of the year you were born is pre-carved on the top. Mine was a dragon which I figured was pretty cool and I had my name (Jeff) carved in the bottom in Chinese lettering. I found out afterwards that I could have had my entire name done as a much more elaborate stamp but ce la vie. Anyway, as the carving was going to take about 45 minutes we (at the suggestion of the people who were walking with us who didn’t feel like eating Chinese food, though I would have been happy to) ate at a nice Italian joint – the Gaia Restorante (181 Queen’s Road) in the Grand Millennium Plaza and ended up with the most expensive pizza (by far) that I have ever eaten. So much for peer pressure.

Note on peer pressure: While it is fun to travel with others, it can be frustrating if their interests are not exactly parallel to your own. You end up wasting time watching them shop, spend money eating where they claim to be comfortable, missing things you would like to see and so on. While this is not always the case, (and there are some people we have pleasantly traveled with over the years), be very careful about hitching up for long periods of time to people who are strangers as you may end up compromising on some aspects of your trip.

Afterwards we returned to pick up our chops (mine with the Chinese version of the “Jeff” brand) and continued down Bonham Strand and its traditional Chinese medicinal shops and the snake shop at 13 Heller Street. Some of these are poisonous and they are used as ingredients in soup. Their gallbladders are also “milked” and the liquid mixed with wine as an aphrodisiac.

At this point time was running out and we had to take the MRT back towards Kowloon (required one change along the way). We walked through the Peninsula Hotel’s lobby on the way back, watching people sitting at high tea. This is one of the posh hotels in the area (stayed there once a few years ago and was amused by some of the amenities – such as a box in the closet which you put your shoes in at night; these are removed through a hatch in the corridor and replaced fully shined before the sun rises) and the lobby is worth a peek. We then wandered into “Chinese Arts & Crafts” in the Star Building. This emporium of high end Chinese goods used to be a moderately priced place to find unique items. It is now a far fancier, far more expensive store with less unique items for sale (though some are still top notch). It is so expensive (from a value point of view) that it is off my list as a place to bother with in the future. I discovered upon returning to the ship that from the top deck I could access the free WiFi connection from the Marco Polo Hotel in the Harbor Center (that was OK until the ship sailed about ½ hour latter).

We loaded a couple of hundred Australians and have sailed towards our next stop which is in Vietnam. The wife is giving me a hard time about diving in Exeter Australia because there have just been a bunch of shark attacks there.

Another hour shot tonight and now we on Bangkok time as we head to Vietnam. As we are now 13 hours different than home (and across the International Date Line), time calculations seem to enter the twilight zone.
October 27, 2011: Nha Trang, Vietnam:
Nha Trang (local pronunciation is something hard to duplicate) is a beach resort. It has a market, a commercial area, a pagoda, a large figure of Buddha and a beach bordering the entire town. This is one of the few places in the world (ironically)that accepts US dollars with a smile (as well as local dong)and I didn’t bother to change any currency (other than to assure my supply of one’s and fives). Vietnam is known for lacquerware, lady’s beaded handbags, fresh water pearls and some up and coming artists (these were missing here). I have been cast, by the group I’m hooked up with as “The Closer”. The women bargain until they hit resistance and then call me in to squeeze the last bit of juice in the negotiation. While shopkeepers and “walk around” sales people were pretty aggressive in approaching you, they would allow you to walk away without pulling you back. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. After some minor procurements (mainly some strings of fresh water pearls in the $5-30 per string range (depending on size finish, color consistency and “roundness” – 12mm round whites at the top of that range, ovoid black 4-5mm at the low end), we went for a walk along the beach and ended up eating a seafood lunch at a government owned restaurant with the high falooting moniker of “The Four Seasons”. We drank Saigon “Special” beers (at less than a buck each – tasted like Heineken) and ate a variety of Vietnamese dishes (abalone in tamarind, shrimp in garlic, etc.). Total tab for the meals ran about $10 each.

Vietnam is still motorcycle based and small ones can be rented for about $4. Women still wear masks and long gloves to keep from exposing their skin to the sun (white skin is deemed beautiful). There are also plenty of pedicabs in use. Cars are pretty sparse (saw a lot of Toyotas and Kia’s), but many of the cabs were newish Toyota SUV’s which sat seven passengers plus the driver. Cabs are on the meter and rides were generally $2-3. Crossing the street requires great trust in the assumption that oncoming traffic will not turn you into road kill. I’m a true believer (having visited Vietnam before) but traveling companions needed a bit of convincing when I dragged them into traffic ?.

October 28, 2011 was a day at sea (and a formal night) with the distinction of moving the clock forward one hour at 2PM in the afternoon – causes the head to spin.

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