Reflecting on the Vietnamese experience

A couple of weeks ago I was writing the first post for the GIP Vietnam, without knowing exactly what I could expect from my first Asian experience ever. In the meantime, I spent a great week with my CBS mates visiting both Vietnamese companies and historic places. Thus, coming back to the “normal” life, I reflected upon this unparalleled experience and I realized what impressed me the most.

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Vietnam is a fast growing country, with an annual 7% GDP growth, and you could easily understand everywhere the desire of the population to grow even more and to become a richer country. In particular, two aspects have caught my attention: the entrepreneurial spirit and the women workforce. Talking about entrepreneurship, Vietnamese are recognized as a very entrepreneurial population and this is clear driving on the roads. Almost every garage is a shop and Vietnamese try to find their own way of living, from selling street food to adjusting motorbikes. Women workforce is another great peculiarity of the country. Coming from Italy, where women employment is less than 50%, even if it is a developed country, women employment in Vietnam is very high, around 75%. Moreover, women are often employed in managerial positions and they are very successful.

Considering all these aspects, I personally believe that Vietnam has all the ingredients to continue its run towards prosperity. The challenge for the future will be to be able to put in place a sustainable growth, driven not only by labor force and foreign investments, but also by an increase in productivity.

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I think that this first travel in Asia will be followed by a long list of other trips to Asian countries, but I am very happy to have started with Vietnam, a beautiful country with a bright future ahead!

Elena Richermo ‘18

Goodbye Vietnam

Today is the last day of the GIP Vietnam and we will end tonight with the Farewell Dinner at a typical Vietnamese restaurant. The last two days in Hanoi have been amazing. We have had the opportunity not only to visit local companies, but also to meet the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and to see the most important historic places of the city.

Yesterday we started our Hanoi trip with the visit to Metlife, the insurance company, where the local CEO explained us the challenges and the potential of a country where the life insurance penetration is very low, but it is expected to rapidly grow in the next few years.

Then, we made a very interesting historic tour. We started visiting the Hoa Lo Prison, originally built by the French and then used during the war against the Americans. After that, we visited the Temple of Literature and the buildings around the Presidential Palace and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

We ended the day meeting the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to speak about international trade and relations, especially with China and US. It has been an honor and a privilege to meet one of the main politicians of the country, who is a Columbia SIPA Alumnus.

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Today we visited Vietcombank, one of the top three Vietnamese banks, and we appreciated the huge untapped potential that the banking system represents in Vietnam.

Then we moved to the US Embassy where we met in small groups local entrepreneurs and students that wanted to ask us advice for their businesses and future careers. During this talk, I have personally felt the great privilege for being part of the MBA program and I have seen this opportunity as a “give back” experience. Talking with the students I understood how much was important for them to learn good English and to study in the US to enrich their background, a privilege that I am experiencing myself as an international student in New York.

Concluding this Vietnamese experience, the first one for me in Asia, I personally believe that each of us will bring back great learning and memories from the trip. Goodbye Vietnam!

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Elena Richermo ’18

Ho Chi Minh City: the financial capital

Company visits in Ho Chi Minh City have been simply great. We met both international companies and local ones and we were all extremely impressed by the professionalism and the enthusiasm that each company put in presenting their business.

We started on Monday with JLL, the real estate international company that provides services worldwide. Real estate is for sure one of the most attractive sectors in Vietnam, not only for residential, but also for office, retail and industrial. According to their perspective, one of the main challenge will be the balance between affordability and good living conditions for residential properties.

After that, we visited Masan Group, one of the top three private Vietnamese companies, specialized in food and beverage. We had the possibility to discuss the importance of human capital and to discover the main consumer trends that will shape Vietnamese environment in the next few years.

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We ended the day visiting Vina Capital, a Private Equity firm that invests in Vietnamese companies. It was a great opportunity to better understand the local economy, with a special focus on the foreign investments.

On Tuesday, we visited the Vietnamese subsidiary of Friesland Campina (The Dutch Lady) and we met the local CEO. The support to local farmers and the involvement of the workers are key elements of their business. We visited also the production plant: a great experience especially for the ones of us that had never visited a dairy plant!

The day continued with a cultural visit to the Chu Chi Tunnels. They were built during the French control and the Viet Cong used them during the war against the Americans. This historical visit gave us the possibility to reflect upon one of the most important events of the 20th Century.

Today we visited other two companies in Ho Chi Minh City. The day started with a BCG presentation. Talking with the local consultants, we understood the advantages of doing consulting in an emerging country, where there is the possibility to see immediately the impact of your work, even in junior positions.

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After that, we visited iCare, a social impact start-up that provides benefits to the employees of the big companies. The high concentration of workers in specific areas of the country allows the company to be profitable, leaving at the same time a positive impact to the community.

We left then for Hanoi, where tomorrow we will start company visits and cultural tours. Goodbye Ho Chi Minh City! It has been a pleasure to meet you!

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Elena Richermo ’18

First Vietnamese Impressions

GIP Vietnam has officially started and the first two days have already been full of amazing activities. On Saturday, participants arrived from all over the world and, trying to win the jet lag, some of us had the possibility to have a first look at Ho Chi Minh City. The Presidential Palace, the War Museum and the Notre Dame Cathedral are only some of the most important monuments in the city. At night, we had a very special Welcome Dinner Cruise on the Saigon River. In a magic atmosphere with local food, dances and songs, we began to become familiar with each other and we ended the night making the first picture with the Columbia Business School’s flag.

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Instead, on Sunday we had the opportunity to see a “different” Vietnam, not the one of the cities, but the one of the countryside. We did an entire day trip exploring the Mekong River Delta southern of Ho Chi Minh City. The trip started sailing on the Mekong River by a wooden boat and then we visited some local businesses: a brick producer, a small producer of coconut pastries and a manufacturer of reed mattresses. The reality is much different from the one that we met in the city with its lights and skyscrapers. For this reason, it has been a unique experience to see directly how the majority of Vietnamese family businesses work.

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Come back to the city, the night continued with great local food and the best craft beer in town. Tomorrow we will start our company visits meeting a real estate developer, a private equity fund and one of the top three largest private sector Vietnamese companies. It will be a busy day, but we still have in mind the beautiful green landscapes that we have seen today.

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Elena Richermo ’18

Preparing for Vietnam

GIP Vietnam is approaching and in a few days, we will finally start our adventure in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. For some of us, it will be the first time ever in Asia and it will be an extraordinary opportunity to meet a great culture, like the Vietnamese one. The preparation for the trip has been extensive and we have had the opportunity to meet great speakers and improve our knowledge of the country and its culture, thanks to Professor Tuan Pham’s inspiring classes.

We started our preparation learning more about the long and complicated Vietnamese history with Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen. We switched then to Vietnamese economy, focusing our attention on the great potential of a country that is experiencing a huge growth. At the same time, Vietnam is facing some challenges and the potential future prosperity is strictly linked to its ability to put in place the right reforms for the country and the population, such as the health reform and the pension system reform. We had the opportunity to understand better this topic when we met Mr. Tien Le, Chief Economic Officer of the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in Washington D.C. The discussion focused mainly on the future reforms and the current trade relations of Vietnam with the other countries, in particular with China and United States.

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After that, we met Mr. Mike Le, who had experience in setting up a business in Vietnam. This class was particularly interesting for the ones of us that have an entrepreneurial mind and are potentially interested in either expanding their existing business to Vietnam or in opening a new one. Finally, we ended our preparation talking about the Vietnamese society and culture and learning how to behave in a proper way when we will be in the country.

This extensive preparation has been very important for all of us and now we are excited to experiment directly what we learned in class. The trip will be a great chance to visit both emerging and established companies in Vietnam and to spend time with our CBS mates in a different environment. Be prepared and see you in Ho Chi Minh City!

Elena Richermo ’18

Vietnam Part 4: Back in New York

Kit O’Connor ’17

NEW YORK – Back home, I think I finally know what time it is after nearly six days in the US – when people say that the jet lag is significantly worse west to east, they’re not kidding. It’s strange to think that four weeks ago, I was just getting ready to leave for Hong Kong en route to Vietnam, but now I can say that I definitely have an appreciation for and basic understanding for both the country of Vietnam and the economic environment therein. And, of course, a newfound appetite for $2 banh mi sandwiches.

To structure the overall lessons of the course, I’m going to break this into three main takeaways, two that I’ve previously discussed (but are critically important) and one other key aspect of life and business in Vietnam.

Takeaway 1: The emerging consumer economy will be the driving force of Vietnamese growth in the near term.

It’s quite easy to assume, as, frankly, I did, that Vietnam would be composed primarily of manual laborers who worked for subsistence while manufacturing the gadgets and clothes that are immediately shipped to richer countries. While Vietnam certainly has a thriving manufacturing industry, domestic firms work hard to serve a populace that is increasingly focused on health and quality. One theme that was hit several times was a focus on proof of quality: Vietnamese consumers vastly prefer food that can be proved to be produced in a safe manner. Just take a look at the outfits that we wore while visiting Veeteq, a farm focused on healthy produce!

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Takeaway 2: The communist government operates in an opaque and glacially slow fashion, unless it sees politically relevant reasons to expedite processes.

While the general populace seems mostly unaffected by the government (one tour guide had no idea Vietnam was a communist country and income tax payers are estimated to be south of 10%), many foreign nationals can quickly become frustrated by the inability to proceed without a local fixer, who generally has to grease the right hands. Building a business without a strong consumer presence can be dangerous, as it could easily be suddenly ruled illegal – B2C firms, however, could be slightly better off, due to the active and relatively free press. One story in particular that seemed to demonstrate the government’s motivations: after Rex Tillerson was nominated to Secretary of State, ExxonMobil was suddenly granted permission to drill in an offshore oilfield after years of negotiations.

Takeaway 3: Vietnam has developed transportation solutions that uniquely suit both the needs of the individual cities and the overall country.

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A constant presence in Vietnam is motorbikes. Roads: motorbikes. Sidewalks: motorbikes. Most shops: motorbikes. Factories at closing time: veritable seas of motorbikes flowing out. An especially poignant question was asked during the meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi: what technological progress will have a similar effect on Vietnam as the motorbike? After thinking for about a minute, the chairman of the committee couldn’t come up with a single advancement that would have anywhere near the impact of the motorbike, which had opened up opportunities and connections so widely.

A similar issue existed in the trek from Saigon to Hanoi. At first, many of my classmates wondered why we were taking a 1.5 hour flight rather than what we suspected would be a quick bus ride. Turns out that the bus would have been nearly 25 hours due to poor roads and rough terrain. Once again, technology came to the rescue: every hour on the hour, multiple airlines are flying large planes (747s, A380s) back and forth from Vietnam’s two main cities. Both these solutions prove that the Vietnamese are practical above all and perfectly willing to find the best (if not the most traditional!) method to move both the society and economy forward.

Well, that’s a wrap for me! Time to start preparing for my next Global Immersion class: Family Business in Nordic Europe. Cam on (thanks) for following along!

Vietnam Part 3: A Tale of Two Cities

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Kit O’Connor ‘17

HA LONG BAY & HANOI, VIETNAM – Remember in the first blog about Vietnam when I said that CBS students rarely have just one adventure at a time? Well, a group of students from Vietnam, your correspondent among them, jetted (well, vanned and hydrofoiled) off to Ha Long Bay where we spent 24 hours sailing and kayaking amongst the thousand plus islands that make up “Descending Dragon Bay”. Our guide, Chan, regaled us with the legend of thousands of dragons dropping from the sky and each forming an island over ten thousand years ago. Incidentally, Chan was the tallest Vietnamese person we met and had gotten offers to play in the professional basketball league of Hanoi, but turned them down for the more lucrative and self-fulfilling field of tourism. Yet another difference from life in the States.

 

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But I’m skipping a key part of the trip! The title of this post refers not to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, but Hanoi and Saigon. Hanoi and Saigon are about as different as any two cities in a single country can be: Saigon is the gregarious, free-wheeling, entrepreneurial hub, while Hanoi is the buttoned-up political center with constant reminders of the government around every corner. Our company visits, to Vietcombank, GE, and General Motors, were dominated by talks of how the companies were backed by (or cooperated with) the government in order to conduct business properly in Vietnam. One particularly instructive moment occurred when a student asked about a curious projected 2017 reversal of a falling inflation rate. The answer, courtesy of Vietcombank, which is majority-owned by the government of Vietnam: the set price for basic services is going to be increased.

 

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These visits stood in stark contrast to the meetings with the American Chamber of Commerce and US Embassy in Hanoi. The Americans (and a Brit and Canadian) stressed the unpredictability of the government moves and expressed frustration that the deck often seemed to be stacked in favors of locals with connections. However, both consistently praised the young and educated population and seemed to truly believe that the best years of Vietnam are on the near horizon. I certainly came away with the impression that Vietnam has a host of fantastic investments for both the local populace and foreign capital!

That just about wraps up the in-country portion of this blog for me. I’ll be back in a week or so to give a proper summary of the trip, but I now must continue the rest of my personal adventure. On to the land down under!