The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has become an entrepreneur's paradise. For Americans, doing business there now would violate the Trading with the Enemy Act; but that may well change after the presidential election.
What can American companies expect to find in the new Vietnam? For one thing, a welcoming attitude. My recent travels there lead me to believe that many Vietnamese view economic relations with the United States as essential to improving their standard of living.There also is a great deal of awareness of things American. Even without official trade relations, American products are to be found everywhere in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Strollers are continuosly offered a "special price" on anything from T-shirts inscribed with "Apocalypse Now" logos to imitation Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Evidence of growing entrepreneurship abounds. New shops sell a wide range of goods and services. Advertising is prolific and consumerism is spreading.
The Vietnamese have a word for it: "Doi Moi," which refers to a liberal economic restructuring. It means a shift in the values, attitudes, and behaviors associated with traditional Vietnamese culture.
Many changes accompany "Doi Moi": A proliferation of products and advertisements, the beginnings of class stratification and a certain degree of conspicuous consumption.
These changes create potential opportunities for companies - assuming, of course, the current U.S. sanctions against Vietnam eventually are lifted. Although poverty is pervasive in Vietnam, items such as basic clothing, shoes and food still find markets.
There also are longer-term opportunities, for example in tourism. Vietnam's unspoiled coastline and clean water create opportunities for hotels and resorts.
Companies looking to serve current markets and develop new ones should observe several guidelines. Most important is a sense of direction. Politically, Vietnam is one country but for investment purposes it is clearly two: north and south. Each region presents different opportunities.
From a marketing perspective, the Socialist Republic continues to be divided. With no marketing tradition, the north does not have the infrastructure or acumen to meet consumer needs.
This presents opportunities for business advisers as well as marketers. The north needs help in all areas of marketing, especially distribution. Its businesses also lack expertise in pricing products, developing new products, communicating with customers and serving markets.
In the south, by contrast, visitors will encounter more business know-how and greater ingenuity. Consumers there are more sophisticated, and so are the people who operate businesses. Entrepreneurs still must contend with a stifling bureaucracy, but that situation is expected to improve as the regime makes room for market forces to work.
Surprisingly, considering the U.S. sanctions, the dollar is king in Vietnam - and openly so, even in transactions involving the government. Long-term
investments that include Vietnamese partners are likeliest to win support in both the government and private sectors.
Vietnam will need expertise, products and capital from abroad. But the population, increasingly enamored of western popular culture, also is a target for product imitators and brand pirates. That presents problems for western companies - as does the country's cumbersome bureaucracy and its rudimentary infrastructure.
The progress that Vietnam has made is fragile: Some reformists contend the government sees "Doi Moi" as an expedient but temporary policy, not a long- term goal. That creates an element of risk for foreign investors.
But the Vietnamese people are consummate survivors: Fifty years of colonial intervention and nearly uninterrupted war have not dampened their resolve to be a sovereign nation.
In spite of the legacy of the war, it is entirely possible for American businesses to make a mark in Vietnam if and when the sanctions are lifted. The Vietnamese are eager to do business with Americans, and not just because the United States holds the key to their country's acceptance in the community of nations.