The following essay appeared in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the largest newspaper serving readers in Wisconsin USA:
Vietnam’s Golden Opportunity
A ready move from collectivism to capitalism
I got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hands, sent me off to Vietnam, to go and kill the yellow man. —American singer Bruce Springsteen
You think yellow, I say gold; it’s the color of my real skin. –-Vietnamese singer Pham Quyen Anh
By Jeff Browne
When President Barack Obama took a moment in his first inaugural address to honor our war veterans, he cited four battles – Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.
Khe Sanh? That’s a village in central Vietnam where the Marines repelled a furious assault early in 1968. The victory cost thousands of lives and obliterated the countryside. You might say we Americans won the battle there but lost the war.
Or did we? If our purpose was to stop communism, you have to wonder.
In Khe Sanh, coffee plants have risen from the ashes. And today, amazingly, Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee, thanks to hundreds of thousands of determined farmers.
Thirty years ago Vietnam was starving. Today it is feeding the world – as a leading exporter of cashews, whitefish, tapioca, pepper, fruit and rice.
Vietnam makes shoes for Nike, chips for Intel, cameras for Cannon, motorcycles for Honda, and smart phones for Samsung. Vietnamese are customers of Briggs & Stratton motors, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Manpower staffing services, General Electric medical devices, and Kohler sinks.
Vietnamese consumers shop at Gap, Banana Republic, and Coach. They drink Pepsi, Coke, Miller beer, and Starbucks coffee — and within a month after McDonald’s opened this spring, the Vietnamese had ordered 61,980 Big Macs.
McDonald’s is an emblem of the triumph of capitalism over communism. The franchise owner is a Vietnamese American named Henry Nguyen, of Chicago. He is married to the CEO of an investment bank, and the daughter of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who oversees the Communist Party’s determined, and sometimes crude, efforts to stay in control. Vietnam’s pre-eminent corporate power couple and its communist government are family.
In some ways, Vietnam’s youthful, ingenious entrepreneurs overshadow corporate royalty. Consider Flappy Bird. A few months ago this maddening game was the most downloaded smart phone game worldwide, the creation of a software engineer named Dong Nguyen who lives with his parents in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
Flappy Bird was bringing in $50,000 a day in ad revenue, but Dong withdrew it from the market because he had grown weary of the notoriety. Dong wanted to get his life back.
Vietnam is full of Dong Nguyens — hundreds of thousands of modest, brainy entrepreneurs transforming their country.
That’s what Google software engineer Neil Fraser discovered on a recent visit. He found Vietnamese 11th graders could pass Google’s notoriously difficult interview test –and 3rd graders knew how to use Microsoft Word — in English. Over the next generation, these kids will showcase their potential.
A recent report noted Vietnam’s transition from collectivism to capitalism produced 170 people worth more than $30 million. What’s interesting is who reported it: the official newspaper of the Communist Party, which apparently deems capitalism as important as ideology in a country with bold global aspirations.
Vietnam is an entrepreneurial frontier. It’s the 13th most populous nation – larger than every country in Europe except Russia. Theoretically, Vietnam has the potential to be the Japan of the 21st Century, which would make an investment in Vietnam grow 10,000%. So far this year, Vietnam’s stock market is up about 20%.
Even so, while global investors see gold, many Americans still see yellow — the color of peril, caution, cowardice. In Vietnam culture, yellow and gold are the same, the color of power, prosperity, success.
Vietnam is a golden opportunity. The promise arises from a confident, forward-looking and optimistic culture — a curious blend of Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, and communist values. That cultural complexity is embodied in a young man named Huan.
I encountered Huan one afternoon in Hanoi. As I was sitting on a park bench, he approached me to practice his English. I invited him to sit down, and we talked.
His story was familiar. Huan grew up on a rice farm in the rural north of Vietnam, and he studied hard to earn admission to a university in Hanoi. Sometimes he walked to the old quarter to get an odd job at a shop or a restaurant to earn money for food and incidentals.
As we were talking, a frail, elderly woman limped up to us and held out her hand. I barely noticed her, but Huan gave her his complete attention. He asked a question in Vietnamese, and then pulled out his wallet and gave the woman its contents, a single note of Vietnamese currency worth about a dollar.
As she moved on, I asked him why he gave her his only money, and he said: “Because she needs it more than I do.”
He realized I was puzzled, and added: “In Vietnam, we have great respect for old people, poor people, the less fortunate.”
A few minutes later, as we parted ways, I handed Huan about $3 for dinner.
He seemed confused, and he said: “I cannot accept that.”
I said, “Why not? You need it more than I do.”
He replied, “My father taught me never to accept money that I did not earn.”
Then Huan walked into the streets of Hanoi with attributes many Vietnamese possess in abundance: pride, confidence and an empty wallet.
Culturally, Vietnamese also seem to have a short memory. Not long ago, I joined an educator from Ho Chi Minh City on a tour of Wisconsin’s Capitol building. After visiting the legislature, we walked outside on the deck at the top of the rotunda.
There, we faced three flags blowing in the wind: American, Wisconsin and POW/MIA flags. He had never seen the black flag, so I explained it was a reminder that some Americans who fought in Vietnam are still missing.
“In Vietnam,” he said, “we do not dwell on the past.”
And he added, wryly: “I just learned the Wisconsin motto.”
Jeff Browne is president of Vietnomics LLC, an investment consultancy, and co-founder of templehillsonline.com, a social enterprise helping Vietnamese farmers develop specialty coffee.
The premier of A Bridge to Vietnam, a documentary featuring the Wisconsin-Vietnam connection, will be broadcast at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 3, on MPTV Channel 10.1
Here is the article as it appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014