Entrepreneurs looking east will see an emerging marketplace on the horizon. Much as the fall of the Berlin Wall unleashed capitalism in Eastern Europe, the lifting last February of the 18-year trade embargo against Vietnam has resulted in a rash of entrepreneurs looking at this former war zone as a land of opportunity. Since the lifting of the embargo, U.S. investment in Vietnam has jumped from $3.2 million (in March) to $157 million (as of mid-August), according to Hank Poli, director of the Indochina Project, in Washington, D.C.
Vietnam is very much an emerging marketplace, still hindered by a poor physical, legal, and financial infrastructure, as well as by the bureaucratic mentality of a command economy. Nevertheless, the first wave of start-ups, mostly information providers, are finding it a fertile field.* * *
Rialto Ventures InternationalDoing Business as Vietnam Market Watch
"I was always keeping an eye on Vietnam, looking for the possibility of things opening up," notes Khuong Ho, publisher of Vietnam Market Watch, a monthly newsletter launched last year. In 1992 Ho returned to Vietnam for the first time since he had fled the country as a 12-year-old with his family, three days before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Conversations with Vietnam business associations, Fortune 500 companies, and law and accounting firms convinced Ho that there was a "dearth of reliable information for companies wishing to do business in Vietnam." He joined forces with a college classmate, Samuel Haviland, and assembled a network of contacts that provide business and economic information for their newsletter. When the embargo was lifted, in February 1994, the Market Watch's subscriber base ballooned from a few dozen to 500 in a matter of weeks. Subscribers, who pay $295 a year for the newsletter, include major corporations, financiers, investors, and solo entrepreneurs investigating opportunities in Vietnam. Ho projects his company's revenues will reach $3.2 million in five years.
"We see ourselves as the link between the old society and the new," says 29-year-old Luu Hue-Chan, a Vietnamese American who emigrated to the United States when she was nine years old. "We don't have as much baggage or as many bad memories as our elders. We can move forward more easily." It was the idea of being a link that inspired Hue-Chan and six partners to launch VietLink two years ago. The privately funded start-up specializes in cross-cultural training and human-resources issues to help bridge the gap between the U.S. and Vietnamese business communities. Hue-Chan likens Vietnamese businesspeople today to "kids in a candy store: they're getting so much attention that issues like status, titles, and how you greet people and position yourself are very important." VietLink has served as an intermediary for a variety of U.S. concerns, ranging from educational consortiums to construction firms to tele- communications companies, preparing them to do business in Vietnam. Hue-Chan expects VietLink to turn a profit and post revenues of $250,000 in 1995.
Lisa Spivey and Albert Wen credit the launch of their company to a chance encounter in Ho Chi Minh City with the managing editor of Vietnam Today, a business magazine published in Singapore. Over after-dinner drinks they negotiated a distribution deal for the United States and Canada, and in July 1993 they launched Global Directions as the distributor. They were more successful than they had envisioned and soon decided to launch their own publication. Destination: Vietnam, financed with $50,000, is a bimonthly magazine that addresses travel issues as well as thornier cultural ones like navigating the Vietnamese phone book. "So many people know the word Vietnam, but they may not understand the culture behind it," notes Spivey, who spent five years in the early 1980s living and working in Asia. The first issue of Destination: Vietnam was released in September to a list of 15,000 targeted individuals that Spivey and Wen developed over the past three years. They keep costs low with desktop production and intend to keep the publication free for subscribers. All revenues, projected to be $240,000 for the first year, will be generated through advertising.
-- Alessandra Bianchi