Sent to Peace and Freedom by Mike Benge
Written by John Boudreau
August 6, 2007
SAN JOSE, Calif. — It’s the kind of tech gathering that’s as common to Silicon Valley as traffic — hundreds of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and technologists clogging hotel halls to talk up cross-Pacific business plans.
But the PowerPoint presentations last week didn’t point to China, India or Taiwan. The focus was Vietnam, Asia’s new roaring tiger. The first-of-its-kind conference in Palo Alto, Calif., drew an array of participants, from Google representatives to Ho Chi Minh City startup executives. Officials from Vietnam’s communist government even flew in to pitch their country — and throw a few elbows at their big next-door rival, China.
The nation of 84 million people has the second-fastest-growing economy in Asia, behind China. The government expects economic growth to jump from 8.2 percent last year to 9 percent in 2007.
Reconnecting with roots
“People need to understand there is an investment alternative in Asia, and it’s Vietnam,” said Huy Do, chairman and president of the relatively new Vietnamese Strategic Ventures Network, which organized the conference.
Like any valley event of the tech-minded, there was plenty of time for global networking. Hana Dang, chairwomen and chief executive of Golden Communication Group, a Vietnam-based advertising company, was a panelist. She also took advantage of the conference to do a little business, as well: She scouted the bilingual crowd for potential hires.
The conference, which is expected to be an annual event, underscored the growing reconnection between the valley’s Vietnamese community and the communist country — a relationship that has been strained for decades.
Much of the Bay Area’s Vietnamese community fled the Southeast Asian country after the fall of Saigon to communist forces in 1975. Now younger Vietnamese-Americans are hoping to cash in on the new Vietnam the way Indians, Chinese and Taiwanese have done in their respective homelands, said valley entrepreneur Quinn Tran, founder of startup GoQTT.com, which will specialize in travel to and in Vietnam.
They also see themselves as bridges between the valley with the emerging nation and hope to help its development, she added.
There was a time not long ago when Vietnamese-Americans who wanted to do business in their homeland had to tiptoe back. They worried about offending members of the Vietnamese community in the United States, while facing suspicious government leaders in Vietnam.
Now there are so many Vietnamese-Americans and others heading to Vietnam, “it almost feels like a gold rush,” said Ross Meador, a Berkeley, Calif.-based attorney who specializes in international law and Vietnam.
Nonetheless, feelings in the local Vietnamese community about working with the communist government remain mixed, entrepreneur Tran said. “There are those who, no matter what, say, ‘I left Vietnam in such a bad situation. I still have bad memories and I don’t want to have anything to do with it,’ ” she said.
Thinh Nguyen, founder of valley-based Pyramid Software Development, was something of a pioneer when he set up his office in Ho Chi Minh City in 2001. It wasn’t long ago he experienced social backlash in the Bay Area Vietnamese community.
“There still are people who don’t like it,” he said. “But now people understand you have a right to do business wherever you want. The community is getting more mature.”
At the conference, startup executives such as Thinh Nguyen were peppered with questions about how overseas Vietnamese, or Viet Kieu, are treated in Vietnam.
It has not always been easy to figure out how to operate in the ever-changing business environment in Vietnam, observed Thinh Tran, co-founder and chief executive of Milpitas, Calif.-based Sigma Designs. His semiconductor design company has had to grapple with endless red tape since opening up an office in Ho Chi Minh City eight years ago.
Now it’s much easier, Thinh Tran added. The workers are smart, hard-working and loyal, he said. “We were surprised at how fast our young engineers learn. We don’t have to throw books at them.”
Nguyen Van Lang, Vietnam’s vice minister of science and technology, said the country’s leaders want to copy countries such as China, which has benefited greatly from Silicon Valley Chinese-Americans returning to start businesses.
Wounds from both sides of the Vietnam War are healing, he said.
“More than 30 years have passed” since the war’s end, Nguyen Van Lang said. “The younger generation has new thoughts about this. Vietnam is being integrated into the world. Our policy is to close the past and look toward the future.”
Model of stability
The vice minister presented his country, which has a median age of 25, as a model of stability, as opposed to his country’s communist big brother, China, which has 800 million poor. “It may create social and political problems,” he said.
In the past year, two events put the economic spotlight on Vietnam. Intel announced it was tripling its investment in Vietnam to $1 billion. And Vietnam became the 150th member of the World Trade Organization. The momentum continued this year when Taiwan’s Hon Hai group, one of the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturers, announced plans to invest $5 billion in the developing country.
“A lot of people, when they talk about Asia, they talk about China,” Vietnamese advertising entrepreneur Dang said. “But now everybody is talking about Vietnam. Vietnam is very hot.”