On Easter Sunday, 15 International Business students hurriedly consumed their freshly delivered chocolate and embarked on a whirlwind four-day adventure together in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam. Each day we met with different business people, or business support groups to help us gain an understanding of what it’s like to do business in Vietnam.
We met, firstly, with Matthew Lourey of Domicile Corporate Services who has been living and working in Vietnam for 14 years. Matt gave us some insights into what it is really like to set up a business there, including how to maintain your standards of practice in a country where corruption and “under the table dealing” are such common practices.
We then went to Portugal for a quick lunchtime meeting! (Well, sort of). The Portuguese Consulate in Vietnam is built into an old french-inspired house, whose owner still lives there. If it weren’t for the small Portuguese coat of arms to the left of the gate, it would have been impossible to know it was a small slice of an entirely different country. Here, we met with the Consulate and two of his staff who gave us a bit of information about what to be conscious of, culturally, when doing business in Vietnam.
The Consulate showed us a video of a Vietnamese traffic jam and explained to us that if you’d like to find out about how a country operates you need only to look at the way that country’s traffic works. In the video, there were six lanes of traffic in each direction, and then an additional four lanes who were trying to turn across oncoming traffic, surprisingly successfully. We were told to compare this to other countries, such as Australia, where without traffic signals and green turning arrows our roads would come to a standstill. The same is true of the business environment in each respective country, in Vietnam it is all about building relationships, whereas Australian businesses are often more focused on the outcome.
We then finished our day visiting Deloitte, who gave us some insight into their consulting groups before we headed back to the hotel to make the most of the two for $8 cocktail happy hour by the pool (study tours are always hard work).
On Day Two, after finding the most incredible down-an-alley-way-and-up-some-scary-stairs coffee shop in an unsuccessful pursuit for almond milk (do let me know if you need the name – trust me, it’s good), we began with a meeting with Shane Dillon, an Australian living and working in Vietnam and the the co-founder of Cturtle and Talk Study, start-ups in the international student employability space, focusing on Asian students returning home after studying overseas. He gave us valuable insights into what it’s like to begin work overseas, or get a job overseas in the first place. He said that it’s all about taking the opportunities that are presented to you – you’ll never know if it’s a good choice or not unless you take it. Shane’s work experience is many and varied, having studied in the maths field and worked in a number of teaching and curriculum development roles before moving into international consulting roles and beginning his own startups.
We then took a bus trip to the waterfront to meet with Phil Johns and Tim Cutajar from Triad Composites who gave us our first look into manufacturing in Vietnam. They told us about the business’s decision to move to Vietnam to take advantage of low costs of production and how they’ve been able to conduct their business and the benefits they’ve been exposed to since moving. We took advantage of their willingness to answer our questions, gaining information on everything from contract drafting to employment. We were taken on a tour of their manufacturing facility and shown the logistics behind their work. We also decided that Vietnam might, in fact, be the place for us when we discovered that lunchtime naps are all part of the routine.
We closed our day at the University of Economics, Ho Chi Min meeting with students from the English Group who told us about student life in Vietnam. They accompanied us to dinner that night and we were very grateful for their intricate knowledge of what’s good in Vietnamese cuisine after we sampled eight of the best dishes from their favourite restaurant.
Day Three began with a look into the food and beverage industry in Vietnam in our meeting with Francisco Romo who talked about his experience as a consultant to help companies who are looking to expand into the Vietnamese market. Francisco specialises in wines and told us that, interestingly, the market of wine drinkers in Vietnam is largely ex-pats and that entry into the Vietnamese wine market was very difficult. He also has been involved in the establishment of restaurants in Ho Chi Min City and told us how much easier doing business became once he made local connections.
Our second meeting of Day Three was the absolute highlight of the trip for me, meeting with Huong Dang, the Marketing and Partnerships Engagement Manager of KOTO (please do bear with me – I tend to go on a bit when talking about this!). KOTO -“Know One, Teach One” – was founded by Australian-Vietnamese man Jimmy Pham who was troubled by the number of “street kids” he saw when returning to Vietnam. In 1999, Jimmy set up the first KOTO space, a sandwich shop to offer employment to nine street kids. Now, each year, 200 at-risk and disadvantaged youths are offered a place in a two-year KOTO program for training in the hospitality industry. This involves a scholarship for the two years of training, accommodation, food, health care and assistance in finding employment and housing upon graduation.
We were shown a video of a few of the students who told their stories. Many of them were already responsible, at a young age, for caring for children or elderly or ill family members or earning an income for their families. Others had been subjected to unthinkable violence or had been abandoned by many of their family members. The tissues had to be passed around at the end after we began to understand just how much of an important opportunity KOTO is for each of these children. Happily, the program has a 98% success rate, with many of their graduates finding employment in 5-star international hotels or beginning their own highly successful restaurants.
As a social enterprise business, the scholarships are funded entirely on donations and profits made from KOTO restaurants, which are staffed by the KOTO students and used as part of their training. We were fortunate to dine at one of these restaurants and can all personally attest to the quality of the food and service we were given. *Side note – If you, or anyone you know, are travelling to Vietnam I could not recommend dining at KOTO restaurant highly enough. It is definitely a “feel-good” meal.*
Still on a high from our meeting with KOTO, we then headed for a cafe meeting with Austrade who explained the services available to Australian businesses hoping to enter Vietnam. Three start-up founders and told us about their failures and triumphs in the start-up space, and gave their advice about being successful in business in Vietnam.
And just like that, the trip was over and I flew out the next morning. We cannot say enough thanks to the businesses and people who gave up their time to meet with us during our trip. Also a big thank you to the amazing group of students and our fearless leader Rui. Without good people, a trip is never as enjoyable, no matter what you’re doing – but we were very fortunate to be surrounded by the best on this trip!