Despite having been a frequent visitor to China and Japan, I had never been to Vietnam until this week when I had an opportunity to come here to Hanoi. I wrote about the “Tico Tiger” after my first visit in 2008 to Costa Rica. Perhaps we could call Vietnam the “chồn con tiger” (pronunciation: “t-schon kon tiger”), playfully meaning “cub tiger” and vaguely sounding like “celtic tiger”.
Vietnam rose to the top of my agenda a few weeks ago when I had the honour of awarding Chartered membership of Engineers Ireland to Deputy Prime Minister Hai a few weeks ago in Dublin, posting about it here.
I came here to Hanoi with Hai’s encouragement and on the invitation of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Irish Aid, via my long-standing friend Michael Garvey of Enterprise Ireland, specifically to talk to a group of about fifty technology entrepreneurs about my IONA war-stories, as well as holding a series of one-one mentoring sessions with some of them. I also had an opportunity to meet young and energetic Mr Binh, co-founder and Chairman of FPT Software – Vietnam’s largest indigenous software company, with 2008 revenues of just over 1BUS$. Founded in 1988, it now has over 10,000 staff and also has its own bank and its own university! Mr Binh is also the organiser of the Vietnamese Software Association VINASA, which he started in 2002 and which now has 160 corporate members.
In assessing the Vietnamese software industry, I have the impression that main activities at this time are bespoke application development for the Vietnamese market, ERP (ie mostly SAP) configuration and tailoring, and outsourced software development, including localisation, for European and US firms. I chatted to the development manager of a French customer for FPT who told me of his global search and extensive criteria before finally choosing their Vietnamese partner. The main technologies used in commercial development in Vietnam, as far as I can see, are the Microsoft stack and also PHP. There is some interest in open source, but few see how they can make money with it.
There is some start up activity with young entrepreneurs, mainly in the mobile and online gaming (apparently particularly in Ho Chi Minh) spaces. There appears to be little venture capital nor angel funding, and start ups rely on family and friends and staying cash flow positive. The Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade gives limited grant aid to software development projects, but I understand these are only available for well-established companies. Anecdotally, I heard that such funding is sometimes diverted within the recipient companies away from the R&D projects for which the grants were intended.
The software engineers and entrepreneurs whom I met generally had excellent English. I was surprised to learn from Mr Binh why FPT has to have its own university – I expected that it was to provide further technology training to recent public university graduates, but he said on the contrary, it is to improve their English and Japanese language skills for working with FPT’s clients.
University attendance has an additional surprising benefit. Military service is compulsory, for two years, for young males – although apparently not for young females. However military service can be avoided by entering the fee-paying public university system – I understand that a four year engineering course costs about 15,000US$. The high school system is also fee-paying, but the junior school system is free.
The average age of the population is, incredibly, only 19! Vietnam has about 84M people in a land area about 4.5 times as big as the Republic of Ireland – so their population density is about four times ours — imagine 17M-18M people living in Ireland, and you have some idea. Vietnam has a two-child policy, with personal taxation penalties for further children and promotional consequences for public servants. Vietnam is one country, but shaped a little like a dumb-bell: two fatter ends connected by a thin middle! Hanoi in the north is 1,700km away from its southern sister Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi pretty much closes down at midnight: I’m told Ho Chi Minh is a 24 hour fun place. Travelling between them by train or by car takes you 2.5 days (!!!) and so the northerners and southerners have little to do with one another. There is talk of a high speed train link being constructed next year, which would bring the journey time down to ten hours. There are flights, but apparently not yet a regular low-cost airline connection.
The roads in Hanoi are chaotic, but in my experience no worse that some other Asian cities. There sometimes seem to be more Honda motorbikes than people, and many Toyota cars in the mix as well. You drive on the right hand side of the road, only many people don’t bother with such formalities! There are few traffic lights or roundabouts, and everyone approaches junctions at a fairly gentle pace, weaving around each other as they cross paths. Motorbike horns squeek constantly, car horns cough frequently, and heavy lorry horns occasionally snort. You have no choice but to walk across roads – including major avenues: there are no pedestrian bridges, tunnels or lights. You just keep walking – stopping or walking backwards can literally be lethal. If your progress is predictable, then the bikes, cars and lorries should miss you. However be wary of the bus drivers (and the emergency service vehicles of course too): they apparently always have right of way and cannot be disciplined for hitting a pedestrian – so do watch out for buses bearing down on you.
Personal injury cases are apparently very rare. I heard that if – as just happened to an Irish citizen who was in a motorbike crash with badly broken leg – an accident occurs, then the wealthier party (almost automatically) pays regardless of fault. The Irishman concerned was astonished when the Vietnamese driver with whom he had collided, apparently with little fault on the Vietnamese side, turned up at hospital and volunteered to pay in full for the 4,000US$ operation to attempt to repair his broken leg. I’m unsure whether this civic caring is a consequence of the socialist society, or more simply a pragmatic way of all parties concerned avoiding the expense and disruption of police intervention..
There are so far little high rise office blocks or apartment blocks in Hanoi, very unlike most other Asian cities which I have visited. Instead, most houses are attractively in the French colonial style, timber shuttered, typically 2-3 stories high, extremely narrow and disproportionately deep. I found it vaguely reminiscent of houses along the Amsterdam canals. I was told that they are proportioned this way consequential to development land being split between sons and daughters building their own homes adjacent to their parents, over the generations.
The most startling and highly dangerous things I saw were live heavy duty electricity cables, surrounded by lighter cables and telephone wires, draped from lamp post to lamp post to lamp post. Some lamp posts were festooned with circuit breakers, and some even with transformers. It is apparently quite common for do-it-yourself connections to the national grid. I learnt that last year not only had part of Hanoi lost power, but there had been a major fire when a car knocked over a lamp post, with the arcing cables rapidly causing ignition. Brown outs as well as complete black outs are common.
There is reasonable ADSL broadband at least in the city areas: most people access it via internet cafes. Mobile broadband has yet to be deployed by the operators, and is expected to start to start to become available next year.
Actually next year, specifically the 10th of October 10/10/2010, is being marked as the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi, so it could be a fun time to visit. I visited the Temple of Literature yesterday afternoon, which was the site of one of Asia’s (one of the world’s ?) oldest universities, founded almost 1,000 years ago, in 1037AD, and operating as a Confuscian institute until its closure 700 years later. Amazingly, the 2,000 or so top graduates over all those 700 years are individually recorded in substantial stelae (stone memorials). It is astonishing to read the names and accolades for the top students from all those hundreds of years ago.
I also visited the water puppet theatre (youtube video here). This was fun – an hour long performance, with live traditional Vietnamese music and singing, of puppets up to a metre long or so, moving on a large pool of water animated by poles controlled by human actors behind a curtain. Smoke and fire breathing dragons, large fish, ducks and cranes, boats, fishermen and women all portrayed a well known Vietnamese story. Do go and see it if you have a chance.
So my first visit, and I hope to go back next year, maybe to the more racy Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam is an emerging tiger economy. It was interesting to see and meet business people and delegations in my hotel from Finland, Poland, Singapore, Malaysia, Tanzania, Korea and Madagascar. It was however very humbling to read the national English-language newspaper this morning with stories and events from around the world, and find that the sole thing about Ireland was that some Irish bank partially owned by the Irish Government wants to pay some Irish bank manager some salary which maybe perhaps raises twitches in some Irish eyebrows, but is incomprehensibly astronomical to ordinary Vietnamese business people, and – as they noted – several times more than the American President who has been meeting the Chinese President this week.
Everyone now wants to do business with Vietnam. The economy is booming, there’s a young well-educated technology workforce and a government ambitious for foreign assistance and investment. But Vietnam is still a tiger cub, a chồn con tiger, most symbolised for me by seeing a beautiful young farmer herd her five gleaming buffalo confidently along the inner of the two lanes of the airport motorway, while the cars, taxis and freight vehicles hurried on by in the outer lane for their flight connections.