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!

file_000-20

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.

file_000-21

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

file_000-10

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.

 

file_000-8

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.

 

file_000-11Wait, who’s that in the background next to the sickle? Enhance…

file_000-9That’s right, a statue of Ho Chi Minh in the conference room of the bank!

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!

Vietnam Part 2: A Little Local Color

Kit O’Connor ‘17

HANOI, VIETNAM – I’m writing this blog post from the ground in Hanoi near the end of our trip, but it will primarily concern our final visits with local companies in Saigon. However, before I get to the official Chazen visits, it’s worth mentioning one very local company in particular:

File_000 (6).jpeg

Vietnam is known for cheap labor and raw materials, so it’s no surprise that there’s also a strong market for customized clothing. One student on the trip decided that he wanted a customized suit, and network effects being what they are among MBAs, soon Phi Phi Tailor had orders for 15 suits, 25 shirts, and six pairs of pants. In a little over 48 hours, I had in hand both the cheapest and best-fitting jacket I had ever worn!

In the official company visits to Veeteq Farm, Tri Duc Foods, and Masan Group’s consumer division, we saw a similar dedication to price and quality. From the official banner welcoming the group to Veeteq Farm to the package of authentic Vietnamese coffee given to each of us as we left Masan Group, it was clear that each company took an enormous amount of pride in its ventures and was very excited to share its story with our group.

file_000-7

Tri Duc’s motto, “Hygienic foods for your health,” nicely encapsulated a common theme that we saw in our travels. As the Vietnamese middle class rapidly grows, consumers are demanding more stringent safety and quality standards for food, and companies go to great lengths to assure customers that its products are genuine in both quality and health. Vieteeq Farms, which sells only through direct channels and its own self-branded retail stores, actually has a live feed of its facilities to prove that its standards are being followed.

That’s all for now – next time I’ll describe some of the key differences between the north and south of the country. For the moment, I need to run to our recap meeting, which is being held in quite the interesting venue…

File_000 (5).jpeg

Vietnam Part 1: An Emerging City

Kit O’Connor ‘17

SAIGON, VIETNAM – That’s right, Saigon. One of the first things we learned on the ground here in Vietnam is that virtually all of the locals refer to the city by its pre-1975 name, before it fell to North Vietnam and was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the communist leader who conquered and re-united the country.

Our first true Vietnam experience was an unscheduled lunch a few blocks from the hotel. After leafing through a menu that can only be described as a complete dictionary of every type of food available on the Asian continent, my table ordered four appetizers, five main dishes, and, yes, mai tais. Total cost: VND 1,000,000; or about $9 a person. One could get used to these prices.

file_000-1

 

After the entire group arrived, we boarded a boat for a dinner cruise, where Professor Michel Tuan Pham welcomed the group to Vietnam and outlined the itinerary for the week while enjoying the sights of nighttime Saigon and enjoying a buffet of local delicacies.

file_000-2

Our first company visits focused on highlights and overviews of the country from two traditional business school industries: consulting and finance. In the first session, Chris Malone, the head of BCG’s Ho Chi Minh City office, outlined his view on Vietnam in a presentation that focused on Vietnam’s emerging consumer class, which he saw as having two main characteristics: optimistic positivity and and health-conscious tendency toward high-quality products. He also drew an interesting parallel between Germany and Vietnam: two countries of roughly the same geographic size and population, but one having eight times the GDP per capita of the other.

file_000-3

Next, we met with Andy Ho at VinaCapital, an investment and private equity fund focused on Vietnamese companies. Here, it was interesting to see what VinaCap’s primarily foreign investors looked for in investment strategies (political climate, macroeconomic factors such as inflation, and exit strategies) versus what VinaCap itself looked for when choosing a company to purchase: brand equity, distribution channels, and manufacturing scalability, all factors it saw as key to economics basics of Vietnam.

file_000-4

And finally, we ended the day with a Columbia University alumni event and reception, where Professor Pham gave an overview of both Columbia’s current activities and his own research. I’ll check back in later on the flight to Hanoi regarding the smaller companies and cultural sites we visited in Vietnam’s countryside – for now, I’ll join the group festivities on the rooftop pool, where the temperature is *ever so slightly* warmer than NYC’s current snowstorm!