In which I minister to the ministry

December 12, 2023

The next few days were solidly dedicated to work: an 8.30-5PM seminar series delivered by myself and colleagues from the Center for AI and Digital Ethics (CAIDE)–led by the fearless Professor Jeannie Paterson.

Dr. Simon Coghlan discusses some of the philosophical issues raised by AI

One of the key goals was working with local contacts to up-skill government and local lawyers with the impending rise of AI and AI regulation.

My major role in our contingent was to explain the fundamentals of generative AI to provide a basis for a nuanced discussion of regulation. Outside of that, I provided perspectives on legal and regulatory developments in the USA and EU. Things move so quickly in the area that each day I needed to update my content!

We had an incredibly fulfilling time with strong engagement from our local partners–and learned a little about the operation of Vietnamese law in the process.

On Tuesday night, my last night in Vietnam, the gang (minus Jeannie) set out to visit the night market and tour a little of the French Quarter with Nhung. She made it incredibly apparent the extent to which visitors pay a ‘tourist tax’ with an egg Banh Mi running about $1 for her, or about $5 for tourists.

Nhung also helped buy me a new winter coat for my upcoming trip to the Baltics. It was lovely to be fussed over for a few minutes and have someone to help decide on the right coat (spoiler: the elastics on it fell apart pretty fast!)

While everyone else wanted an early night, as I was leaving the next day I wanted to make the most of my time.

In particular, I wanted to practice as much Vietnamese as I could. So I took my camera and looked for opportunities to take portraits in return for a few short conversations.

Walking the old quarter as a tourist, one is constantly solicited by restaurants, bars, massage parlours, and market stalls. With a few friendly words of Vietnamese, I was immediately treated differently, and in a much more genuinely warm-seeming way. Specifically, I attempted to learn some of the complex systems used for terms of address, according to which terms varied by age and relative social standing. Just saying hello with the right sentence suffix garnered many smiles!

In which I visit the capital, old.

December 10, 2023

Sunday’s activities included a trip out of the city, to Nimh Binh, a city in the red river delta, and also to Hue, the old capital from the mid 1700s to 1945. 

This was a chance to see some of Vietnam’s natural beauty before being remanded to the hotel for a few days of talks.

This time I was not alone! I was joined by Susie (PhD Candidate), Simon (Senior Lecturer), Abi (centre administrator), and Nhung (local guide and colleague extraordinaire).

I particularly valued the time with Nhung as she patiently spent time helping me learning some rudimentary Vietnamese. 

River Ride

The trip began with a car journey of a few hours, after which we stopped by a river to visit a cave system through which it flowed.

Simon and I were together on a boat along with a local who rowed the boat, both with hands, and feet! Other than an attempt at high-pressure sales of tourist trinkets, the ride was a beautiful chance to get some fresh air and see something of nature.

Joy of joys, on the side of the river I did manage to spot banana tress! I somehow always manage to fit at least a little banana tourism into every trip…

Hang Mua Peak

Returning from the river, the team enjoyed a spot of lunch before continuing on for some light mountain climbing.

500 steps to the top of Hang Mua Peak! 

Rushing a little too fast and overestimating my fitness (degraded since a foot injury), I found myself light-headed and gasping for air near the stop. Slow and steady wins the race?

The views, while picturesque, to me, were secondary to the enjoyable experience of the climb up. This was despite the 30 degree heat and intense humidity.

The day was already drawing fast to a close, so we raced off to visit the old palace in Hue. With expansive landscaping, curated courtyards, and a small but cozy temple at the end, we all enjoyed our small adventure.

After a few hours back, we were all pretty exhausted, so had a quick dinner, and only I went off back into the city for a walk.

In which I vist the capital, new.

December 6, 2023

Now off to Hanoi!

Over the weekend I enjoyed some free time. Shabbat (and part of Sunday) was spent walking around Hanoi, which though a few degrees cooler than Ho Chi Minh, was still plenty sweaty.

The two areas of Hanoi that appeal most to tourists are the Old Quarter, and the French Quarter.

The Old Quarter is characterized by narrow streets, a lot of shops, and people sitting on very short stools eating beside street food vendors. Unusually for a climate so hot, many shops were selling wintery christmas decorations. Shops also sold heavy coats, presumably to capitalize on tourism. Unlike in Ho Chi Minh, not as many of the goods were clear counterfeits.

The tourist tax in Hanoi is very real. An egg Banh Mi purchased from a vendor by a local in Vietnamese was less than one dollar (10,000 VND). The same Banh Mi to a tourist, $3 (or 45,000 VND)—still a bargain! The Old Quarter is now thoroughly touristed, with many vendors advertising in english, restaurants serving food of questionable national origin, and massage parlours clearly catering to visitors.

At this point in the trip, I was now finally on my own for a little, which meant a chance to practice some language skills. Starting with xin chào (hello), which is an overly formal form but manageable as a start, along with cảm ơn (thank you). As I would learn later from Nhung–a local colleague who helped organize the trip–vietnamese people typically add a subject to sentences that varies by the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the addressee. One of my points of pride during the trip was gaining some competence in this system. So soon “xin chào” became “chào em”, where em here denotes that the addressee is younger than myself, as was common for many of the hospitality staff with whom I was speaking.

Using the correct terms of address on the street meant I was privy to plenty of smiles, attempts to speak a little more vietnamese, and in the rare case, a cheaper price. It was also lots of fun! I would continue learning more vietnamese as the trip went on.

The French Quarter is characterized by wide boulevards, French colonial architecture, upscale eateries, and a beautiful lake around which people walk. I spent an evening wandering the boulevard and offering to take photos of people in return for learning a little more vietnamese.

While on the boulevard, I also experienced a moment of mild celebrity. I stopped to watch a game of jump-rope where young locals would do their best as two guys spun a rope faster and faster. After a minute or two, a young man (see below) next to me spoke up and asked “are you Dr. Shaanan Cohney?”. I was floored! The student had seen my videos online and had recognized me. It was a very cool moment.

I walked around a little more and learned another key phrase: “Kem” (ice-cream) and “Kem Xôi” (stick rice with ice-cream). I highly suggest the latter, it’s delicious! Stores selling ice-cream were everywhere and there were a plethora of varieties to try.

Among the tourist sites and sights I caught:

  • The North Korean Embassy (complete with photos of Kim Jong Un)
  • The military museum
  • Public parks full of gamblers playing cards and other games
  • A square in the French Quarter where a troupe of vision impaired children were excellently performing Christmas music
  • Public exercises

You can see a few of them for yourself too in my Hanoi highlight reel below.

© 2012-2024 Shaanan Cohney