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David Lamb: A Reporter Returns | The Next Generation | Doing Business in Vietnam
The Music Scene | Travel and Tourism | Landmines: War's Lingering Menace

FedEx Employee

Business in Vietnam

Binh Nguyen, the boy befriended by the Marines during the war and profiled in “Vietnam Passage” is all grown up. Now a highly placed executive with FedEx Express, a subsidiary of the $20 billion dollar FedEx Corporation, he serves as the Senior Manager Indochina and Chief Vietnam Representative.

Binh fled his homeland on an evacuation flight in 1975 with others frantic to escape advancing North Vietnamese troops. He settled in the United States with his wife Khoa and took a job as a clerk with Federal Express. With his strong determination and natural business acumen, Binh moved up the corporate ladder. But even as he built a successful career and family life in America, he felt the persistent tug of his homeland. “Since I joined FedEx in 1976, I’ve always wanted to return to Vietnam and represent an American company,” Binh says.

Binh first returned to visit Vietnam in 1989. The trip made him more determined than ever to see his dream to fruition. In 1992, he went back to Vietnam, this time with a proposal in hand, and met with Vietnamese officials. Even though long-standing trade embargoes between the U.S. and Vietnam blocked U.S. investment in Vietnam, Binh never lost hope.

But even with his intimate knowledge of Vietnam and Asian culture, Binh encountered obstacles to setting up shop in Vietnam. “The negotiations were not easy because, the Vietnamese did not have a good grasp of what international agreements looked like,” Binh explains, “[The FedEx] contract was very thick and it took a long time for them to digest it. We spent a lot of meetings exchanging viewpoints. But we found them to be very cooperative and also very eager to do business with us, and as far as I know with other American companies as well. I’m glad that I played a small part in that.”

When the U.S. and Vietnam finally normalized trade relations, FedEx was one of the first corporations on the scene to take advantage of the new markets. “I was keeping a close watch on what was happening with the embargo. It was lifted on February 3rd, 1994 at 17:05 p.m. And on April 1st we opened our office in Vietnam.”

The first year that the U.S. re-established diplomatic relations with Vietnam more than $400 million poured in from America. The country seemed poised to garner a competive edge in world markets, and many saw Vietnam as the next “Asian Tiger.” But delays in making needed changes in Vietnamese government procedures and adjusting to the fast-moving pace of international businesses, caused some investors to give up and go home. Then the bottom fell out of the Asian economy in 1997, and by 1999, U.S. investment in Vietnam dropped to $119 million.

Even in light of such setbacks, Binh and others stay focused on the big picture. “Many [U.S.] companies have made significant investments in Vietnam over the past six years to improve their products and services in order to further contribute to the economic development of Vietnam’” he says. And as Binh points out, the country is making a renewed effort to turn things around: “The government of Vietnam is taking steps to make this land more positive for foreign investors.”

In a speech to the U.S.-Vietnam Business Forum, Binh emphasized the need for improved Internet access and more efficient customs clearance procedures to create better access to world markets and facilitate trade between Vietnam and the world. He echoed the sentiments of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, citing Vietnam’s need to develop strategies and specific options to combine production with markets, to become more competitive and not rely on protective tariff barriers.”

Progress came in 2001 in the form of a Bilateral Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam. After years of negotiations back and forth, the two nations finally signed the document, granting reciprocal Most Favored Nation (MFN) status. The agreement also promises to make Vietnam fully competitive in the global economy by opening more and more markets to eager investors.

While Vietnam may have some work to do on its infrastructure, the country is fertile ground for foreign investors – if they do their homework. “I think Vietnam offers opportunities for American businesses to operate in Vietnam and make a profit. I think at the same time there are risks involved in having a business in Vietnam,” Binh cautions. “One may want to look at the cost structure very carefully before one operates here. A company may want to have the right person representing that company in Vietnam - one who can learn the legal framework and knows how to relate to business leaders in Vietnam as well as government leaders. The company has to have the commitment to want to do well in Vietnam.”

The bottom-line to a healthy bottom-line? According to Binh, it’s stamina. “You can’t make a business go overnight here in Vietnam. You’ve got to plan ahead and have a commitment to stay.”

For More on doing business in Vietnam, check out:
The U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council