Vietnam: Tastes Like China Lite

Vietnam international lawyers

My mother, bless her heart, ALWAYS orders chicken whenever she eats dinner out. Those few times I’ve convinced her to order something else, she ends up saying it “tastes like chicken” anyway.  I mention this because I worry I am doing the same thing with Vietnam in comparing it to China.

But I cannot help it.

I recently spent ten whirlwind weeks in Saigon (a/k/a Ho Chi Minh City or HCM) and, based on that, I am willing to venture forth with my impressions.  While in HCM, I met with countless lawyers and foreign businesspeople and I talked endlessly with every cab driver, concierge, waiter, etc., I encountered. I also read a score of local magazines and newspapers. Interestingly, I have gotten more e-mails from more readers asking me to write on Vietnam than on any other issue since starting this blog.  Worth Magazine link no longer exits] even interviewed me on my trip. There is obviously huge interest in Vietnam out there, so here goes.

1.  Great place. The first thing I always notice when I go to Saigon are the motorbikes. They are everywhere, and in huge quantities. I am proud to say that by the time I left town this time, streets that initially took me five minutes to get up the courage to cross took me only two. I cannot compare my crossing speed with the locals because they seem to get around on motorbikes, not by walking.  Every foreigner and every native with whom I spoke said they loved Saigon.

2.  The food is incredible. Incredible. And cheap. Really cheap.

Excellent Pho at Pho24. It’s part of a chain owned by Nam An Group, which owns and operates a number of other Vietnamese restaurants.  Pho24 has countless locations in Hanoi and Saigon and one in the Philippines as well. Seems it would do well in the United States too. I got the meal-sized vegetarian Pho (is it really Pho without meat?) for $1.50. That’s right, $1.50. It was excellent.

I had lunch one day at Maxim’s on Dong Khoi Street. Dong Khoi is Saigon’s main shopping street and Frommer’s review of Maxim’s is right on the money:

Enjoy Vietnamese cuisine in this luxurious setting right in the heart of the city on Dong Khoi (the restaurant is just next to the entrance of the Majestic Hotel where Dong Khoi meets the Saigon River). The open-air lobby leads to an inner sanctum with a large dining area flanked by a cool, contemporary Mandarin-style bar and murals of an oversize lily pond, complete with Japanese koi. Dark wood booths are draped in faux mosquito nets on one side, while private rooms on the other side are heavy with Chinese-style carved cornices, furnishings, and Day-Glo artwork. Popular for power lunches. Entrees are pricey, but portions are large and everything is delicious. The menu’s heavy on seafood — including baked or steamed lobster and shrimp, as well as whole fish done in ginger or soy. The large seafood hot pots are impressive. Starters such as spring rolls, fried tofu, or grilled pork are good to share, and stylish Maxim’s is a great air-conditioned break from shopping on Dong Khoi.

3.  The Park Hyatt Saigon is incredible. Incredible. Maybe even too incredible.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I stayed at the Park Hyatt. Though not terribly expensive by American standards ($200 a night, including breakfast and internet), I am certain I could have done just fine at many other hotels and paid only half as much. The service there was some of the best I have ever experienced at any hotel. Starting with the assumption (valid I think) that Asia hotels have the best service, this hotel tops anything I have ever experienced in Japan, Korea, or China. The Park Hyatt in Hong Kong comes close, but falls short. The Park Hyatt in Tokyo (the hotel in the movie, Lost in Translation) comes close, but even it too falls short.

The reality is that the Saigon Park Hyatt can do what it does because labor costs in Vietnam are so low. Anyway, I was picked up at the airport in a brand new Mercedes Benz E class. It had water and towels and I was given a music playlist. I chose Vietnamese songs figuring when in Vietnam …. Yes, I fully realize that riding around in a chauffeur driven Mercedes isn’t exactly “Vietnam.” It cost $28.
I arrive at the hotel and as I walk in, at least five people greet me by saying “hello Mr. Harris.” A hostess takes me to my room, checks me in, and introduces me to my Butler who asks if I have any clothes needing pressing. The room was not huge, but very tasteful, with great photographs of old Vietnam. The floor in the room entrance was a beautiful hardwood and the bathroom was nearly all marble. The internet was plenty fast. I grabbed a quick lunch at the terribly chic Square One Vietnamese restaurant in the hotel. I order a a four course fish curry lunch, including great French bread and an excellent chocolate cake and I pay $12. I had dinner there the next day and it too was superb.

4.  Art. Saigon has beautiful art. There are stores selling beautiful paintings, beautiful silk, beautiful jewelry, and beautiful vases and bowls, all at about a third of the U.S. cost. I have been going to Asia 5-10 times a year for more than a decade and I think this is the first time I had to buy more luggage with which to carry back my purchases.

But let’s talk about Vietnam business and law.

My sense — both from my own dealings with Vietnam and from my conversations over the years and on this trip with people there or doing extensive business there — is that it is about where China was maybe 10 or 15 years ago. Some of the Western or westernized businesspeople and lawyers there told me this and even gave examples. The English language press would sometimes hint at this and, at other times, pretty much flat out admit it. There is no doubt Vietnam looks to China in determining how to chart its own economic miracle with Communist characteristics. But it is not there yet.

It strikes me that corruption is a bigger problem for foreign businesses in Vietnam then it is in China. People love to portray China as incredibly corrupt, but, it really is not. The corruption surveys I have seen put China about in the middle worldwide for corruption, with Vietnam always listed as considerably more corrupt. On top of this, China has made a concerted effort to prevent its government officials from soliciting bribes from foreign enterprises and that effort has generally been pretty effective.

Vietnam is trying to do the same thing, but I heard too many stories of foreign businesses leaving because of corruption to believe they have succeeded yet. “Getting better,” is what most told me on this score.

Vietnam’s consumer market is much smaller than China’s, both in absolute numbers and even in percentage of the total populace.  Salaries even in big city Saigon are generally not high enough to support massive consumer spending, but the city is not lacking in cell phones and I even came across a Vertu store (Nokia’s luxury phone line). I am of the view that most consumer products and retail businesses should focus on China first, and then Vietnam.

Vietnam, however, is indisputably a rising center for manufacturing and agriculture and I see it growing fast in these two areas over the next few years. Low end manufacturing costs are rising in China and I can see more of that business moving to Vietnam. There will eventually be an end of cheap China. There has to be.

Vietnam is also seeking to position itself as a software center and my conversations with those involved in this industry in Vietnam make me think this may eventually be realized.

22 responses to “Vietnam: Tastes Like China Lite”

  1. Very interesting commentary, excellent post and brief insight into Vietnam. I am going to Vietnam in November for the first time, also on business, and my agent in Vietnam also has me booked at the Park Hyatt, so I was very interested in what you had to say about it. My agent claimed it was the best hotel in Asia – from your commentary, perhaps he is right!
    I will only have about 1/2 day of free time while I am there, any suggestions on “must see” items of interest, preferably within close proximity to the hotel?

  2. nice observations. I remember sitting in the Foreign Correspondents Club which looks out over the Tonle Sap in Pnomh Penh in 2002 listening to an aid worker saying that while Cambodia was still on its knees, Vietnam was beginning to stand up.
    A year later I spent a month traveling the breadth of the country: from Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa in the north; down through Hue, Nhatrang, Dalat, culiminating in Saigon.
    I loved the country, but from what I saw and from what I heard both during and after visiting, is that Vietnam is incredibly corrupt. I witnessed this on a small-time level (from trying to buy stall-food and being charged more than natives) to hotels, etc… Apparently, Vietname-Americans returning to their home country are both derided and subject to shake downs.
    Nevertheless, while Vietnam is still truly behind China in terms of development, it is growing and according to one poll, people are more optimistic there than anywhere else. It is now the biggest exporter of coffee in Asia (and perhaps in the world) and one of the biggest exporters of rice. What will determine Vietnam’s fate is how willing the north is to open up its markets, which, up until now it has been doing in fits and starts.
    ps: I enjoyed Hanoi far more than Saigon.

  3. Dan, I am sorry I missed you when you called during your trip to HCMC. It turned out that week was a pivotal week for our development business here (not all good, but we are recovering).
    I think you have Vietnam pegged pretty well. The biggest business issue for us here in HCMC is cronyism that requires a multitude of connections to government officials.
    I wonder, though, how you might compare living here with living in most Chinese cities, considering traffic, pollution, quality of life including food, drink, shopping, etc.? I realize you don’t stay in any of these cities for long periods of time.
    I will send an email to swizstick with a suggestion for his 1/2 day of free time.
    — Mel

  4. The link for swizstick in his comment above leads to his website without an email address, so I will take up space here if China Law Blog doesn’t mind: The prime sights for Saigon in my opinion are the people and the food. Therefore the best way to discover these things is take a half-day walk around downtown, starting with a visit to the Ben Thanh market hall about five blocks south on Le Loi Street from the Park Hyatt. Be sure to go all the way in to the center of the market, even though it might seem intimidating in its tight spaces. After spending time there, walk a few blocks west and south, cross the parks through the sculpture garden on Truong Dinh Street to Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street and walk north to Nam Ky Khoi Street and turn east to the front of the Reunification Palace. From there, walk towards the landmark Notre Dame cathedral. Walking east down Dong Khoi Street will take you full-circle back to the Park Hyatt. Have a good time.
    — Mel in HCMC

  5. Swizstick (3plwire) —
    Thanks for checking in. You will not be dissappointed by the Park Hyatt, I assure you. As for your half day, I agree with layered’s thoughtful itinerary, but I would walk fast and be sure to keep walking on Dong Khoi street because there are a number of craft shops and art galleries on that road that are not to be missed.

  6. Doug —
    Thanks for checking in. Saigon vs. Hanoi will always come up, but I find that if I press people, the overwhelming consensus is that Saigon is for business and action, while Hanoi is more beautiful. Those who want to be where things are happening prefer Saigon, those who want beauty and greater tranquility prefer Hanoi. Right?

  7. Layered —
    Thanks for checking in. I too am sorry I missed you. I think you were in Hanoi most (or all) of my time there. No worries. Next time.
    Dan, I am sorry I missed you when you called during your trip to HCMC. It turned out that week was a pivotal week for our development business here (not all good, but we are recovering).
    I asked a lot of questions about living in Saigon and even went to a couple of grocery stores, including the one at the top of the new high end department store there. I love going to grocery stores as I feel that is one of the best ways to know a city.
    Despite this, I have a hard time comparing Saigon to Chinese cities because I have never lived in any Chinese cities. Also, each Chinese city can be so different. I have spent considerable time in Qingdao (where my firm has an apartment), Shanghai (where my firm has an apartment), and a decent amount of time in Beijing, Dalian, and Yantai.
    Of these cities, Beijing seems to me to have the worst pollution and traffic. Shanghai strikes me as having two cities, the Western lifestyle, with super expensive apartments and restaurants, or the more Shanghai one, which can really be quite nice and relatively affordable. Qingdao is a great place. Not polluted, great water views. Easy to get around. Perfect size. Yantai is charming, like a mini-Qingdao. Everyone seems to like Dalian, and I generally like it too, but I do not find it as pretty as Qingdao. There is great food to be found in all of these cities and certainly much to do in the bigger ones.
    My sense of Saigon is that it can be a great place to live. Great food. Great shopping. Great nightlife. Relatively compact and easy to get around in.
    But, you tell me!

  8. Hi Mel, thanks for the detailed walking tour around Park Hyatt, I really appreciate it. Am really looking forward to my trip to Vietnam.

  9. Point of information. Vietnam is now the #2 coffee producer in the world, and has been since about 1995 (?) when it passed up Colombia. According to an issue of Barrista magazine I picked up in Taiwan in 2003, Vietnam was then losing 40 cents on the U.S. dollar invested in coffee, due to overproduction. Barrista recommended that Vietnam tear up a lot of its low-grade Robusta coffee and improve the quality. Robusta is a coffee that grows at lower elevations and does well in open sunlight, as opposed to the more preferred Arabica coffee. Ban Me Thuot (1968 spelling) is the capital of Vietnam’s coffee industry. The former capital of the Rhade tribe is now an ethnic Vietnamese city, and most of the forests and rubber plantations that surrounded the town are now coffee (and dragon fruit) fields. The Rhade are now a minority in BMT.
    Vietnam’s coffee situation will shift for the better if the emerging Chinese middle class takes to coffee in the same way as the Korean middle class has. Should they do so, Vietnam will earn a lot more from coffee, so they have a future if they go to quality.
    For those visiting South and Central Vietnam, do not miss the coffee. The Vietnamese prefer it milky and sweet thanks to a generous helping of condensed milk. (North Vietnamese coffee is less than stellar, probably because tea is the traditional drink of Hanoi) Two terms you should learn are: Ca Phe Sua (which comes hot), and Ca Phe Sua Da (Iced Coffee). Many coffee shops also serve a pot of jasmine tea which is used to chase the coffee and clear the palate. For those who do not like coffee, try the Vietnamese jasmine tea in both its hot and iced varieties. Some shops serve a very strong iced jasmine tea similar to “Thai Iced Tea”. For tea afficionados, there are a large variety of Vietnamese green teas, but of course those who live and travel in China will find them a notch below similarly priced Chinese teas.
    As a final note: Those travelling to Taiwan should try the specialty Taiwanese tea shops. The Taiwanese tea producers set out to counteract the growing popularity of coffee by developing speciality teas and tea shops. They are served in very small tea pots, generally enough to fill a single cup.

  10. Lirelou —
    Thanks for checking in, and thanks for the great education on tea and coffee in Vietnam. I must confess that even though I was an early buyer of Starbucks stock, I have had only around 30 cups of coffee and 100 cups of tea in my entire life; I get the double chocolate frappicino at Starbucks. So while I can write about chocolate, I know nothing about either coffee or tea, both of which are, of course, hugely important to so many countries, both from an economic and a cultural perspective.
    Just as I usually meet clients outside my Seattle office at a Starbucks, I do the same thing in China so I have been to many a Starbucks throughout China and based on that obviously unscientific sampling, I am relatively confident China will more and more become a coffee (and wine) culture and so that ought to bode well for Vietnam.

  11. You’re not a bad travel writer. I now want to stay and eat at the places you mention though I have to say I’d be a bit embarassed spending that much money on a room in Vietnam!

  12. Mr. Smith (ProHipHop) —
    Thanks for checking in. Have you been to Vietnam? What’s the hip-hop scene there, do you know? It certainly seems popular among Seattle’s Vietnamese youth and I actually recall reading (maybe it was on your site) about a very popular Vietnamese American hip-hopper.

  13. Nice post, Dan. For only a couple days you seem to have gotten a good grasp on the country.
    Let me know the next time you’re in town!

  14. China Products: Ya Want Quality? I Got Quality.
    Not sure if this is truth or urban legend, but word is that if someone requests a lean pastrami sandwich at New York’s famous Carnegie Deli, the waiters will reply, “Lean? Ya Want Lean? Ya want lean, I’ll bring you a turkey sandwich.” Not entirely sure…

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