So, you want to do business in Vietnam, now that the United States has officially recognized Hanoi's existence and you will be able to cudgel an invite to play golf on the diplomatic links?

Well, forget it, unless you already are doing business somewhere in Southeast Asia. And even then, don't count on being able to apply your experience from elsewhere in the region because, though just as inscrutable as the rest of the Orient, Vietnam is different.That's according to Irwin Jay Robinson, a New York attorney who was the founding father of the Vietnam-American Chamber of Commerce and its first president.

Mr. Robinson has distilled the mistakes U.S. companies have made trying to do business in Vietnam into 78 easy steps that, if followed, will help you avoid mistakes and lead you to prosperity. Provided, of course, you have first thought of the right product to sell or buy or the winning way to invest.

"I have seen lots of false starts and a lot of people spending loads of money on fruitless projects," Mr. Robinson said in explanation of why he decided to sit down and pen his list.


The biggest difference between Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, according to Mr. Robinson, is that the Vietnamese do not have a cadre of West- educated executives or government officials.

Rather, they have learned to do business in Moscow, Sofia or Bratislava, hardly the Meccas of capitalism. As a consequence, "they are having to learn quite a bit more than others" in Southeast Asia, he said. The learning process is also likely to be slower than, say, in Thailand where many executives have Western education and know Western concepts.

More than 20 years on, the war in Vietnam still rankles. Memories of the war continue to stir feelings of guilt among the half a million soldiers who fought there, and, just as ever, politicians in Washington are keeping

Vietnam-related issues alive to serve their own purposes.

Mr. Robinson said that, because of that, hardly any U.S. company, big or small, was willing to take the lead in creating the business council, and the business community is keeping a low profile in pushing the U.S. authorities toward normalization of relations with Hanoi.

He concedes that much of the advice contained in his "Checklist of 78 Practical Guidelines," would apply anywhere in the developing world where the business system is in its infancy, laws are ambiguous, government officials corrupt, infrastructure rickety and banks nonexistent.

For example, his admonition to "learn in advance how to deal" with corrupt officials and "how to avoid getting caught in the cross-fire of competing demands," would be true as much in Hanoi as it is in Kuala Lumpur.


Mr. Robinson's first advice is, "do not spend time or money on seeking to do business in Vietnam unless you are experienced in doing business in one or more other Southeast Asian countries" or have a partner who is. Even then, don't "assume that doing business in Vietnam is like doing business in any other Southeast Asian nation."

True to his legal profession, he says just about anything you do should first be put in writing. For example, terms of employment should be spelled out before anyone does anything for you. "Trust me" are not words to be taken seriously in Hanoi, Mr. Robinson says, adding all facilities and equipment should be guarded "24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Payment should reward performance, not a promise. Even inconsequential violation of law could lead to severe penalties, despite the fact that the rules themselves are "ambiguous and subject to different conflicting

interpretations" even within the government. Approvals and licenses should be obtained in advance.

Much of Mr. Robinson's advice has to do with the legal side of doing business in Vietnam, but he offers a few practical tips as well. For example, he says, never enter into a 50-50 joint venture, because it invites ''disastrous deadlock." Or, if you intend to manufacture for export, locate your plant in a self-sufficient processing zone. Never exchange more

dollars than you have to and don't lend money to anyone. Even the Vietnamese don't trust their own banks, he says.

"Doing business in Vietnam is so complicated that the 'educational' experience can be costly. It is not a place for beginners or weaklings," he says. But he is quick to discount this statement by adding, "I am very bullish on Vietnam and on the opportunities for foreigners to do business there."

The outlook for diplomatic golf, incidentally, does not look that bright, considering that Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., keeping an unerring finger on the political pulse of the nation, is threatening to hold up appropriation for the U.S. embassy as long as the issue of the missing in action yields presidential votes.