Category Archives: US-Vietnam relations

Vietnam’s Hard Line on Soft Drinks

Vietnam isn’t being very hospitable to two of its most prominent American multi-nationals.  Starting next July, the finance ministry wants to impose a 10%  tax on carbonated soft drinks — which is to say Coke and Pepsi.

The rationale is these beverages are harmful to public health, just like other products consumers want — but which health officials don’t want them to have — like  cigarettes and alcohol.

The new tax is getting criticism from foreigners who are thinking more about profits than health.  A consultancy that focuses on global interests in Vietnam says the tax will hurt consumers and the local sugar industry, retail distribution system and retailers.

The American Chamber of Commerce, whose members include Coke, Pepsi, Miller beer, Philip Morris tobacco, Dow chemical and other companies that give Vietnamese health officials pause, calls the proposed tax unfair to consumers.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese officials aren’t in agreement with each other.  The Viet Nam Tax Consultancy Association favors the tax, but the Central Institute for Economic Management suggests it would be counterproductive — bringing in $8.4 million tax revenue but costing the beverage industry $41 million and Vietnam’s economy $12 million because demand for soft drinks would decline 28%.

The proposed tax is testing Vietnam’s Communist Party ideal of creating an enduring socially responsible free enterprise economy.  That won’t be easy to do as the country opens its door ever wider to the global marketplace.


Vietnam’s Most Treasured Import: Cash

More than five million Vietnamese people do not live in Vietnam.  They migrated to 100 nations around the globe, and include 500,000 Vietnamese guest workers in other countries.  Together, at year’s end, they will have sent $11 billion in cash back to relatives in their native country.  That includes nearly $5 billion sent to Ho Chi Minh City alone.

Most of the money comes from the West — especially Europe and the US, top_site_international_businesshome to 1.5 million Vietnamese Americans, many of whom are affluent.  The cash is transferred through banks, such as Dong A Money Transfer (that received $1.5 billion in 2013) and Sacomrex, which expects the total to be $1.7 billion, (15% more than it had expected).

World Bank says Vietnam is one of the top ten countries receiving remittances from overseas.  Others include India ($71 billion), China ($60 billion), and the Philippines ($26 billion).

The cash remittances are a cultural statement about the intensity of Vietnamese family connections.  The money significantly raises the standard of living of relatives in Vietnam.  And it helps build Vietnam’s social infrastructure — such as access to education and health — family by family.

The $11 billion inflow represents nearly 8% of Vietnam’s GDP.  It strengthens and widens the bridge between Vietnam and the US.  It helps explain the warm reception that often surprises first-time American visitors to Vietnam.

The New American Invasion Into Vietnam

Twenty Thirteen is shaping up to be the year the USA overwhelms Vietnamese culture as McDonalds, Starbucks, and (probably) Harley Davidson join already established soft drink, pizza, and fried chicken conglomerates in an onslaught of American consumerism.

The invasion is just beginning.  Vietnamese consumers are wholeheartedly embracing US products, but this isn’t welcome news to those who think about the well-being of Vietnam’s environment and its nearly 100 million people.

Before Starbucks opened its first outlet in Saigon this spring, the makers of Coke, Pizza Hut, and Pepsi announced major expansion plans.  This summer McDonalds joined the crowd after years of speculation that its entry into Vietnam was not a matter of if but rather when and where; resentful speculation included the rumor that Hanoi’s immensely popular Bobby Chinn restaurant had to move and ultimately close because McDonald’s muscled the owner out of his prime real estate.

This fall US-based Harley Davidson is said to be recruiting staff for its first official showroom in Ho Chi Minh City after “unofficial’ dealers have been importing and selling the motorcycles for up to $40,000 apiece (including 100% import tax) for years.

Starbucks plans hundreds of cafes.  McDonalds can have as many as it wants because the company selected the prime minister’s son-in-law to run its Vietnam operations.  Harley Davidson is already popular in one of the world’s biggest two-wheel cultures even though the company doesn’t officially operate there.

The American companies are latecomers to the Vietnam market, and they will find enormous success there, as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Coca Cola have before them.

But skeptics will raise the question of just how good (or bad) the news is for Vietnam and its consumers.  Vietnamese health researchers already have linked the country’s rising incidence of childhood obesity to American soft drinks.  How good can American fast food be for a population accustomed to fresh produce, seafood and chicken soup made from chickens that were alive yesterday morning?  And what will be the impact of ear-shattering, bulky, macho, born-to-be-wild American motorcycles on a quiet culture that thrives on bicycles and modest motorbikes?

The last American invasion of the Vietnam countryside escalated exactly 50 years ago and did a lot of damage.  Will history judge the 2013 invasion as harshly?




Bribing a Quiet American in Vietnam

News organizations in Southeast Asia have been reporting this week that a senior officer at the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City has been accused of selling non-resident visas (green cards) for up to $70,000 apiece and laundering the bribes to buy real estate in Thailand and elsewhere.

Although McClatchy News Service reported about this a week ago, the case hasn’t gotten very much attention in the American media — which tend to focus their reporting about Vietnam on events that happened more than 40 years ago, or memories about them.

That may help explain why Americans tend to have a self-righteous attitude about corruption in Vietnam:  Are Americans better than the Vietnamese at keeping such embarrassments quiet?

The Bangkok Post and several Vietnamese newspapers named the alleged offender as Michael Sestak and said he has been held without bail for more than a week facing charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery.  The media quoted a US government affidavit that alleges he received several million dollars in bribes from Vietnamese and laundered the money through banks in China and Thailand to buy real estate.

American businesses considering investment in Vietnam often express concern about corruption there — as well they should in light of Vietnam’s perennial poor showing in global corruption rankings.  But corruption is not just a Vietnam phenomenon.  It frustrates law-abiding Vietnamese citizens just as much as it frustrates Americans.

The lesson for foreign investors:  They should express their reservations about Vietnam with the humility and understanding that comes with the awareness that graft knows no national boundaries.

Vietnam’s Tired Anti-American Propaganda

CBS started a controversy last weekend when it sent Amazing Race contestants to the B-52 wreckage in Hanoi that celebrates Vietnam’s triumph over US imperialism 40 years ago.  The American Legion said the episode promoted communist propaganda and disrespected Vietnam veterans, especially the men who were shot down in the aircraft decades ago.

But there’s an irony here.  Even as the wreckage memorializes the defeat of the USA, history shows the Americans achieved their central goal there: economic freedom.

CBS showcased one of Vietnam's ugliest sights
CBS showcased one of Vietnam’s ugliest sights

Vietnam is governed by a Communist Party that doesn’t tolerate much criticism, but free enterprise, more than communism, rules the economy.  And the cold-warriors that aimed to stop the spread of communism at the China border prevailed in the end.

Today, Western tourists who visit Vietnam’s many war memorials and museums subject themselves to intense propaganda.  These sites and the high school history books demonize Americans and glorify the Communist victors.  But the message is as obsolete as the wrecked aircraft that serves as its emblem.

In fact, Vietnamese people for the most part worship American culture and technology.  As a whole, they crave the fruits of free enterprize.  Diplomatic, and even military, relations between Vietnam and the US are warm and getting warmer.

I hope Vietnam’s leaders consider getting rid of — or at least toning down — the tired, hostile propaganda the permeates their otherwise spectacularly promising country.  What purpose does it serve to provide CBS with war wreckage as a backdrop when the network should be showcasing world-class art, wildlife, cuisine, temples, commerce, and beaches?

As for CBS, here are places the network could visit to showcase the Vietnam of today — Vietnam slide show — and if the network insists on the war theme, the site pictured below would be more appropriate.  It’s one of scores of cemeteries for Vietnamese war veterans, this one in the central highlands city of Buon Me Thuot.

Powershot 1360


Does Mice-Eating Kill Vietnamese Rhinos?

Controversy over a newspaper columnist’s comments about Vietnam doesn’t seem to be going away.  As if to prove Joel Brinkley’s assertion that meat-eating makes Vietnamese people aggressive, Vietnamese people worldwide are calling for the Stanford professor’s head.

Obscured in the controversy is the central point of the article published two weeks ago:  Vietnam has a bad record of protecting tigers, elephants and rhinos from poachers.  That’s partly because Vietnam’s forests had so many wild animals in the first place, but even so:  The World Wildlife Federation’s crime scoreboard lists Vietnam and China as the worst offenders.

Meanwhile, the culture clash over the newspaper column in a strange way seems like a replay of the Vietnam War:  The American blinded by arrogance and pride; the Vietnamese adversary tenacious and unyielding (attributes that aren’t synonyms for aggressive).

Professor Brinkley’s column, like the American involvement in the Vietnam War, was about a lot of things — including American centrism.  US leaders expected their moral and technological superiority to prevail; the newspaper columnist seems to have thought his wisdom would inform.  Neither intended to offend anyone, but some Vietnamese were offended anyway when the American military killed millions of civilians and when the professor insulted their culture.

Now hundreds of people have signed a petition asking for the professor to step down from his position at Stanford University.  And he seems intent on digging a deeper hole, defending indefensible generalities.  The Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre says this was his response to its question about whether he still thinks Vietnamese people are aggressive:  “I would call the Vietnamese more robust than their neighbors, most of whom eat rice and not much else.  They ingest little protein.  In the  many months I  spent in Cambodia writing my book on that state, I found passiveness and  lassitude among so many people.  A common phrase I heard in Vietnam was this: ‘Vietnamese grow rice. Laotians watch the rice grow. Cambodians listen to it grow.'”

Whatever happens next, the controversy is instructive.  Anybody who wants to build a bridge between the US and Vietnam can learn from it.  Things worth learning:

  • Sometimes It’s not a good idea to generalize.  Some Vietnamese are aggressive.  Some are passive.  Some are assertive.  Some eat mice.  Some eat hot dogs.  Some people who do not eat birds but do eat field mice and an occasional dog are aggressive sometimes, and some are not.
  • Leave causal relationships to scientists.  Does meat-eating cause aggression?  Does rodent-eating cause rhino extinction?  Does rice cause not-so-smartness in Cambodians?  Does winning a Pulitzer Prize make your head grow bigger?  Maybe.  Maybe not.
  • Humility goes a long way.   Cultural misunderstandings are human and common.  Regardless of how smart a professor, decorated a general or successful an investor you are, you’re going to make embarrassing mistakes.  Learn from them.  Acknowledge them. Apologize for them with humility and sincerity, and then forgive yourself.
  • The world doesn’t revolve around the USA.  This is Asia’s century.  You won’t win friends if you don’t get Asian cultures, and you don’t want to take a course from a professor who doesn’t get Asian cultures.

For anybody who missed the column that offended some of the world’s Vietnamese people, you can find it here.

A Prized Professor’s Ignorance About Vietnam

Anybody who plans to do business in Vietnam should read Joel Brinkley’s  column (below) that appeared last week in the Chicago Tribune.  The Stanford journalism professor published a textbook example of Western centrism, arrogance, and hypocrisy that insults an entire culture.

People who want to invest in Vietnam would be advised to learn from the ugly top_site_international_businessAmericanism expressed by Professor Brinkley, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting about Cambodia — but made the rookie mistake of generalizing about Vietnam  based on a brief tour there over the winter holidays.  That isn’t unusual for some Americans, many of whom still have archaic notions about Vietnam left over from the 1970s.

The most absurd and pathetic of Brinkley’s assertions is that “Vietnam has always been an aggressive country” because its people eat meat.  Actually,  Vietnam’s history is mostly about defending itself from the aggression of China and others, including Americans.

As penance for his mis-characterized aggression, the professor should be required to read every page of the new book: “Kill Anything That Moves,” which documents America’s systemic culture of war crime during the Vietnam War.

Brinkley also links Vietnamese consumption of birds, rodents, and canines to the demise of tigers, rhinos and elephants in their country.  It’s true Vietnamese eat birds (so do Americans) and rodents, but rice-eating Vietnamese mice in the field are not quite the same as rats in San Francisco’s sewers.  And, yes, dogs can be food as well as pets in Vietnam, but that is about cultural differences, not environmental conservation.

The column contains elements of truth, and even worthwhile information:  Protection of wildlife IS an important issue in Vietnam; perhaps Vietnamese DO tend to consume more protein than many of their Cambodian neighbors (which may imply more about the nutritional values of the workforces than anybody’s propensity for aggression).

But not much in the column rings true to me after my travels in Vietnam over the years.  An award-winning journalist and professor should know that a few days on a tour aren’t enough to generalize about a people. especially a people that was systematically dehumanized by the professor’s “people” not long ago.  And the idea that Vietnamese are aggressive, written from the perspective of an American, is just silly.

Unfortunately, the columnist exacerbated his cultural ignorance by responding to criticism of his column by insisting that meat makes people aggressive and, in the process, insulting Cambodians and Laotians.  He wrote: “Eating a diet rich in protein will make you more robust than others, in Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian states who eat rice and very little else. After all half of Laotian children grow up stunted, even today. In Cambodia the rate is 40 percent. That means they grow up short and not so smart. Would it also follow that they would be less aggressive than Vietnamese? I think so.”

For investors interested in avoiding the mistakes of a Pulitzer Prize winner who needs an editor, here is the column from the web site of the Chicago Tribune, which to its credit issued an apology for publishing it:

You don’t have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where’d they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten.

Of course, as with most states in the region, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other big animals are trafficked to China. At this, of course, Vietnam is hardly alone — though the World Wildlife Fund describes the state as the world’s greatest wildlife malefactor.

Various reports show that Vietnamese kill more rhinos for their horns than any other nation. Chinese value those horns for their mythical medical qualities — like so many exotic-animal body parts.

Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there. In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale — their fur removed but otherwise intact — ready to cook.

Last spring, Conservation International reported that several varieties of Vietnamese gibbon, part of the ape family, “are perilously close to extinction” — all but a few of them already eaten.

All of this raises an interesting question. Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — have largely left their wildlife alone.

In each of these other countries you see flocks of birds that are absent in Vietnam along with numerous pet dogs and cats. There, people eat rice, primarily, and for many people in most of those states their diet includes little more than that.

Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.

Many anthropologists and historians attribute the difference to the state’s origins. Vietnam was born of China, while India heavily influenced the other countries — two nations with drastically different personalities, even today.

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state’s aggressive tendencies — and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It’s considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats. For Vietnamese, tradition has it that whenever you have bad luck you should eat dog meat to change your fate. But you shouldn’t eat it at the start of the lunar month, or the reverse will happen. You’ll actually bring on bad luck.

The Chicago Tribune’s apology:

“Tribune Media Services (TMS) recently moved an opinion column by Joel Brinkley about his observations from a trip to Vietnam that did not meet our journalistic standards. The column has provoked a highly critical response from readers since its release.

“TMS has a rigorous editing process for its content, and in the case of Brinkley’s column that moved Jan. 29, all the required steps did not occur. We regret that this happened, and we will be vigilant in ensuring that our editing process works in the future.”