Adapting to Economic Environments: How Business in Vietnam Relates to Vietnamese-Americans in the US

May 15, 2005 – Atlanta, Georgia

“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.” Charles Darwin

Vietnam’s economy is growing and foreign investments are rebounding after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. In fact, its recent GDP has been climbing at an average rate of 7%, twice as much as the US at 3.5% a year.

But as a recent The Economist article points out, the progress within Vietnam has been very uneven.

For example in 2003, four southern provinces, which include Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), produced $785 of exports per person and had $570 of foreign direct investment per person, while seven northern provinces yielded a microscopic $50 of exports per person and had only $60 of foreign direct investment per person. The statistics came from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

What I thought was most interesting was the article concluded the attitudes and mindsets of local bureaucrats had the largest impact on why the two regions are economically different.

That is, southern economic development officials catered better to potential foreign investors. Many can speak English and their promotional materials are in both Vietnamese and English, ranging from glossy brochures to Powerpoint slides. They are also implementing an e-discussion board — also in English — in case investors have questions.

Compare this with one northern office that did not even have a computer in sight and its only hardcopy material was a poorly printed leaflet, in only Vietnamese. The shocking part was the economic development manager did not seem to care, saying the city relies mostly on state-run companies, the largest being a fertilizer factory. (Puns withheld.)

If you are an executive of a major corporation wanting to build a multi-million dollar manufacturing facility, which of the two would you feel comfortable investing your company’s money?

One might have thought the reason behind the difference is the north Vietnamese population in general has less of an entrepreneurial spirit than a commerce-minded population from major ports like Saigon. Intriguing as this statement may sound, the answer is likely more Darwinian: Southerners, at least for the time being, are better able to adapt to the current economic environment and therefore attract most of the massive inflow of foreign capital.

South Vietnamese have had ties to the western world for some time. They began with French colonialists, then Americans during the war, and finally with overseas Vietnamese (mainly Vietnamese-Americans, most of whom came from southern Vietnam). For them to cater to westerners’ needs and interests require fewer changes than their northern counterparts who are relatively getting their feet wet.

In business theory, when two leading companies are in a tough industry, the one who can effect change faster and readily adapt to the economic environment will clearly have the competitive advantage, and thus the larger portion of the market share. The same concept applies to Vietnamese-Americans who had to adapt to America and its vastly different culture and customs.

Vietnamese-Americans are the sort who took risks, prompted by political and economic changes, to travel to a distant and unknown country to find better opportunities for themselves and their children. Not very many people in Vietnam had the gumption to take that leap. Vietnamese-Americans were bred to adapt.

As of this writing, San Francisco is considering adopting a purely symbolic gesture to legally recognize the old Republic of Vietnam flag as the flag of Vietnamese-Americans. Many cities have adopted it. However, whether the flag issue is more tangible than other socio-economic issues within the Vietnamese-American community remains to be seen.

Perhaps the main question should be: Do our young people have the necessary tools to succeed in America? No doubt we have a fiduciary responsibility to help our children adjust to and succeed in America and American society — its customs, economics, politics, language, values, diversity — as I have seen Vietnamese-American parents have fortunately done in the last decade or so.

It seems the critical issue is not so much the loss of our Vietnamese identity but the adaptation of our identity to the socio-economic landscape.

When I interview a job candidate, I look to see whether he or she would fit in with the company and within the dynamics of the immediate team. If that candidate does not have the right perspective and personality, despite having the credentials, his or her resume is filed. Skills can easily be trained; attitudes and mindsets cannot.

Send your thoughts and comments to cuong@cuong.com

About the author:

Cuong Huynh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1973. In 1980, Cuong arrived in Washington State, where he received a business degree from the University of Washington. Two major corporations and several promotions later, Cuong graduated with an MBA from Vanderbilt University at the Owen Graduate School of Management. His interests include business theory, Chinese philosophy, Asian and American history, and Cuong.com (http://www.cuong.com/). He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.