[Are you an investor interested in investing in Vietnam, especially in startups? This blog post comes from conversations with visiting investors from other countries and answering a lot of questions they had in common.]
For years, tech startups in Vietnam operated in a sort of vacuum, with no local ecosystem to help them.
Of course, this didn't stop them. Maybe there were even benefits with less scene distractions.
Now there is something we can call a scene, like a subculture of startup. There are wannabe entrepreneurs (wantrepreneurs), kids who dream of startups or want to experience working for one. There are serial events (Startup Weekend Ho Chi Minh City, the Start Me Up series, even Barcamp Saigon which I'm most personally attached to) as well as larger traditional conferences with international involvement. There are hackathons. There are training programs. There are incubators. There are angels and venture capitalists, although so few that finding appropriate investment among them is challenging for many reasons. There are online forums (in Vietnamese) and there is now coverage of the country in the three largest regional tech news journals out of Singapore (e27, SGE, TechInAsia) as well as local PR mouthpiece Action.vn.
And there are even some startups within Vietnam's startup scene!
(Though there is confusion about what is or isn't a startup)
What kind of startups you'll find in VietnamRead the rest of this article...
Boulder's big VC investor dude Brad Feld has a house in Kansas City now. He doesn't live there, even for just part of the year, but he owns it. He's letting YOU live there. For free. FREE!!! But should you live in Kansas City (a mid-sized town in the American southwest midwestern state of Missouri) to bootstrap your startup? If the rent is free?
Awhile back I talked about bootstrapping your startup in Ho Chi Minh City on the cheap. And what's better than cheap besides free?Read the rest of this article...
A Quiet American in a Quiet Vietnam
About two weeks after I first arrived in Saigon, it began: Tet. What a horrible mistake, being in Vietnam right at that time! Tet, being the single Vietnamese holiday that is equivalent to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year in one long week that often stretches to a month for many students as well as laborours. While pre-Tet is a time of high commercial activity, it all comes to a full stop at midnight of the Lunar New Year. Vietnamese people go home. And for Saigon's 10 million or so population, this mostly means going back to places far from metropolitan Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese cities are full of economic migrants, young people coming as students or looking for jobs so they can earn money to send home. And Tet is the time of the year, for most economic migrants it's the one and only time of the year, when they return home to their families.
As a company or factory, you don't expect anyone to work during the days of Tet. It doesn't matter if you're a foreign company with orders from foreign countries that need to be filled, by customers that neither know nor care that a "Tet" is happening. If you're lucky, your employees will come back to work after a week, after you've paid them a "13th month" Tet bonus, often equivalent to one month's salary.Read the rest of this article...
Any important city on the planet exists either because it was a port on the sea or was at a strategic point on a river. Few historic cities exist in the middle of deserts or forests not near any major water sources. Saigon is a river town not a seaside town. It lies near the mouth of the mighty Mekong River, but still some distance from the ocean. But for most of history, being on a strategic trade route was more important to a city's growth than being by a nice beach. Most cities worldwide therefore aren't built around beach resorts nor was being a scenic beach a big economic draw until recent decades.
And so, from time to time, when the residents of Ho Chi Minh City want to get away to the beach the closest option for them would be Vung Tau, a small seaside town that was also a popular R&R destination for American troops stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam War. It has changed a lot since then.
Getting from Saigon to Vung Tau
From downtown Saigon, one can take a water taxi/hydrofoil to central Vung Tau City in just 90 minutes or less.Read the rest of this article...
Viettel, Vietnam's military-owned telecom, has opened up direct Facebook integration via sms to Viettel mobile phone subscribers. This is an officially supported way for Vietnamese people to access Facebook on the go without a computer or smartphone. This is targeting Vietnamese people who mainly access the internet at internet cafes and so using this they won't need to hang around at cafes where they're charged hourly while they wait for someone to comment or like their status updates. This applies to a lot of Vietnamese folks and could lead to even faster adoption of Vietnam's #1 social network. What does that imply about any official government ban on Facebook?Read the rest of this article...
From the October 31st to November 11th I attended a Vipassana meditation course/retreat on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.
On the fourth day, we got to eat: yogurt. I was so happy that day.
Five Precepts: No killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no drinking alcoholRead the rest of this article...
As a tourist or expat living in Vietnam you'll get used to hearing "xe om" (motorbike taxi) guys call for you - by yelling "You!" - at every street corner offering to take you places you probably don't want to go and otherwise offering you drugs and/or prostitutes. And if you're here alone while in Vietnam then it will often make sense (financially) for you to take a xe om instead of a regular tax. If you're with at least two other friends then it makes sense to take a regular taxi instead.
Most people in Vietnam nowadays have their own motorbike so they don't need to take a taxi, whether two- or four-wheeled, but when they do they - even they! - have to haggle with the xe om driver over the price.
How to get a sense of how much it costs to ride a xe om / motorbike taxi?
When trying to figure out a price for a motorbike taxi, keep in mind at least two things. The first is that it should cost about half as much as a regular taxi. The motorbike is not air conditioned and you don't have comfortable seats even though a xe om can slip through traffic quicker (OTOH a taxi will go faster on a clear straightaway). If a regular taxi cost around 12,000 VND/km then a motorbike taxi should be about half that or around 5000 or 6000 VND per kilometer. The glaring difference of course is that a taxi has a meter (if it doesn't, get out immediately!) so you know exactly how far you're traveling whereas the motor bike taxi does not have a meter so you have to kind of gas how far you're traveling and so does he.
Next, to know how much half of the taxi fare is, take a taxi first! You can take the same route by regular taxi once so you know how much that would cost and the halve it. Amazing.
Another thing to keep in mind is if you're a fat Westerner then you probably weigh three times as much as a normal Vietnamese person and even though xe oms don't charge by weight don't be surprised if they take this into account when calculating a price for your journey.
- Make sure the price is clearly agreed upon before you get on the bike. Otherwise there will be an argument when you reach the destination.
- Befriend a local driver near your house and get his mobile phone number (because they all have cell phones). And then anytime you need a trusty driver you can call him up and he will take you home. If you're too drunk to find your way home this can be helpful.
- Another thing to know ahead of time is that often people in Vietnam don't use maps. Instead they will ask around to get the general direction and then when they get closer they will ask again and eventually they will find the place. But they may get lost a few times on the way and hopefully it's not further than they thought in which case they'll bug you for more money. Not that it's your fault.
- Have Google Maps on your smartphone and show them exactly where you want to go because they won't understand your Vietnamese pronunciation of street names. They are much more likely to recognize the street name by seeing it written down rather than hearing you try to pronounce it. This applies to regular taxis as well though. One day we'll all have Androids and this will no longer be an issue.
- If you don't have a map you can also try writing down the name even without the accent marks (called diacritics). It's not your fault that Vietnamese is hard to pronounce at first. P.S. Learning Vietnamese, while difficult compared to learning Spanish, is definitely possible.
- As always when haggling on prices, be prepared to refuse and walk away. This means you should keep in mind the locations of a few other motor bike taxi drivers in case this one says no. So you might walk past the first one you see and not start bartering until the next one you see. Often times they won't agree to take your price until you turn your back to them. Practice showing people your back side a few times.
At the end of the day, though, a lot of xe om drivers outside the touristy areas are trying to earn a meek living and aren't just scheming to rip you off. Know what the approximate going rate is, be prepared to pay it, and don't get upset if he (and sometimes, though very rarely, she) tries to charge a 20% premium for having to make sense of the noises coming out of your mouth or to carry your bonus hundred pounds of weight. Just so long as you're not paying what it would cost to take a taxi.
And there's always the bus. For only 4000 VND you can cross the city in style.
Medical tourism to and from Vietnam: Which hospitals should an expat in Vietnam go to for treatment?
A hospice is where you go to die. Too often, a hospital is the same thing. And it's by design! Where else do you see concentrated so many germ-infested people with weakened immune systems concentrate in one place coughing all over each other? I heard once that half of hospital deaths, probably moreso in developing countries, could be attributed to unclean water and subsequent diarrheal disease. One of the most effective things a doctor can do is wash his hands. But a number of doctors and other hospital staff can't even be bothered to use soap. Beyond that, what else sets one hospital apart from another?
One thing foreigners in Vietnam worry about is quality healthcare, especially if they are retirees or have families with children. The quality of hospitals in Vietnam is increasing as the country has been developing over the past two decades but it's far from the standards of developed countries, including Asian neighbors who were once provincial backwaters compared to Saigon. The Vietnamese and foreign doctors working in Vietnam are surely capable of most quotidian treatments and non-complex surgeries but for more serious treatment many expats opt to fly out of Vietnam. Bumangrad Hospital in Bangkok is the hospital of choice for many expats in Vietnam and they're used to accepting medical tourists. One day, the Vietnamese tourism industry will figure out that people, without wasting further money on marketing, will come back to your country if you provide them good service the first time.
The question is:
Where are the region's best hospitals?
And the follow-up question: How do you determine how good a hospital is?
|Country||Best||Average top 10||Average top 5|
Countries are sorted by the average score of their top 10 hospitals. A hospital's score is based on how much research they do. I guess research hospitals are good hospitals and unfortunately Vietnam does poorly when it comes to doing and encouraging scientific research. [Vietnam fails to pay salaries to professors based on academic output and Vietnamese students aren't taught by the researchers either. Vietnam fails to convince many researchers who go abroad to come back, partly to the poor environment for scientific research.] A good research hospital will have the state-of-the-art when it comes to diseases they specialize in. Sometimes they may be the only place in the world with knowledge and treatment for rare diseases, and sometimes that could all be in the hands and head of one doctor.
Surprisingly, Taiwan beats Japan. And Thailand beats Singapore.
So the Philippines has a good (low) score for their top hospital although a very poor score for their top 10 average. The Philippines seems attractive due to its best hospital being an eye hospital which probably conducts medical research on illnesses of the eye that has been published. Except for eye surgery, expats there might generally still fly abroad for significant medical treatment, Hong Kong or Bangkok.
This type of anomoly also affects Hong Kong.
Cambodia only has two listed hospitals so it's not possible to calculate an average top 5 or 10. From the rankings one could predict the inflow of many Cambodians traveling to Vietnam for medical treatment, or flying to Thailand. This appears to be the situation. FV Hospital in District 7 has staff that can speak Khmer in order to service Cambodian medical tourists. The order of magnitude difference between Singapore and Vietnam is akin to that between Vietnam and Cambodia.
The one hospital in Myanmar is one of the worst in the world. Remember, there were only 17000 hospitals listed. One can only hope with the recent opening up of Myanmar that we'll see some hospital services to support an increasingly demanding expat population.
The following is a Wikipedia list of wiki pages for hospitals all over Vietnam. It's not a complete listing, but it may be useful especially if you are traveling to smaller towns. List_of_hospitals_in_Vietnam
Recently, I discovered first hand what a Vietnamese emergency room is like.
As I was standing at the building's entrance between two never-closing sliding doors while trying to catch a breeze at midnight on a weekday, a Honda SH (a ludicrously expensive motorbike) pulled up right next to me - actually pulling right into the hospital's ER waiting room. Held up between the motorbike's driver and a passenger was an overweight, unconscious middle-aged Vietnamese man. He had drunk too much and was now too much drunk.
The first rule of the ER at a Vietnamese hospital was that if you couldn't get the patient onto a hospital bed yourself, the hospital staff would just watch, or not, and wait until you did. I suppose it's not in anyone's job description. Corollary: they don't really care if you drive your scooter into the hospital's waiting room.
The second rule I learned is that once you fill out the paperwork for admission (you could be convulsing/dying - you'll still have to fill out all the forms before you can see anyone), there is no triage system. I watched a women pull herself into the treatment area, sit herself down on a hospital bed, and wait an hour before asking the head doctor when someone would attend to her. Hospital staff were only loosely aware of who was there, a system also known as "the squeaky wheel gets the oil" to see the patients who complained the most first. There's no formal triage, quick initial examinations to give priority to "time-sensitive" patients, something that would not only waste less time but perhaps save lives.
Third Observation: The emergency room is open all night. They expect you to go and buy your own drugs at their 24-hour pharmacy. Which is fine but at 3AM the sole pharmacist is busy getting her beauty sleep on while laid under covers (because her tiny office is the only place there with A/C and she has it on arctic blast) on a little folding cot and she will be really upset (directed at you) when you wake her up to fill your prescription. I'm not sure what else could be in her job description besides staying awake and filling prescriptions.
Result : Waiting around for 4 hours to get two shots and a prescription for various pills (which you should still Google and Wikipedia when you get home to see what they are and decide if they're necessary or even helpful). Not convinced that the treatment caused any more improvement than just laying around for a couple of hours.
I may be guilty of painting a less than spectacular picture of hospitals in Vietnam and even going so far as to suggesting that there may be room for improvement. But even Vietnamese people are voting with their dollars. They think that rhino horns and other horny appendages are a better cure for their illnesses than going to the hospital, at least a local Vietnamese hospital. But surely the newer hospitals, the international hospitals, are better, aren't they? What about the newish French Viet hospital in Phu My Hung? Next I'll talk about how the best Vietnamese hospitals stack up against hospitals around the region.
Hackation. That's what people are calling hackathons (sponsored hackathons!) away from home. It could be in NYC, Bali, Berlin. But a lot of people are moving to the Bay Area or quitting their good-paying jobs in the Bay Area and sticking around and building their startup product from there. There are a lot of good reasons to be near Silicon Valley when you're a tech startup. Access to capital, a local consumer market who's up for and used to using experimental products.
But not every product needs to be developed in Silicon Valley. Not everybody needs to submit themselves to the pumped up rental prices there right now. Not every product person needs to be in the echo chamber of tech startup talk. Not everyone needs to live in a van just so they can afford to bootstrap in the Bay.
Haters gonna hate. Hackers need to hack.
Vietnam? Isn't there like a war going on there? Answer: No. But due to nearly two decades of disastrous economic mismanagement by the government the country, and its remaining people (those that didn't risk their lives to escape on boats), remained in a post-war stupor until the turn of the millenium when things really started turning around economically due to open market reforms culminating in entrance to the WTO. Today, Vietnam's economic capital Ho Chi Minh City (which you may call Saigon) has a sheen of modernity to it. Western fast food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut abound. Downtown Saigon is full of new shopping malls and department stores - great for window-shopping. Young people increasingly choose between carrying iPhones or Samsungs, although Nokia still dominates. Traffic, once dominated by bicycles and rickshaws, is now completely gas-powered - but mostly scooters, not cars. Wifi is freely available and 3G internet can be had for $2/month. Of course, underneath it all is a missing public transit network, lack of public safety controls, regular brownouts, streets that flood due to poor urban planning and rapid development, an Internet that is reliant on a handful of undersea cables, and a currency that is subject to periodic devaluations. For the Vietnamese citizenry all is not rose-colored.
Low cost == Longer runway.
For foreigners though, late economic development, a huge population of underemployed people, cooling foreign direct investment sentiment, and a perenially weak currency means cheap guesthouses vie for customers, beers cost from 1 to 4 bottles per dollar, and a hacker can hack it in this country for $10-$20 a day. Are you consisting on ramen? Living in your car? Or otherwise roughing it to save money for your startup? Maybe I can convince you to reweigh your options.
Incubators, events, community
Vietnam is not particularly good at a lot of things. It's also not an Asian Silicon Valley - that's a title Singapore is trying way too hard to earn. There's no Y Combinator (okay, there was a V Combinator....) and no Google or Facebook. But we do have a scrappy and growing community of tech entrepreneurs. We have programs like Topica Founders Institute, shared work spaces like the Start Network, incubators like Officience, mLabs in the Saigon High Tech Park, annual events like Startup Weekend Ho Chi Minh and BarCamp Saigon, and smaller events like Start Me Up and Mobile Mondays.
It's not a lot but it may give you just enough sense of community to concentrate on building your own damn product. You won't overhear product pitches at every cafe (of which there's an order of magnitude way more of in Saigon than anywhere in the States).
But once you do need to hire help you will be able to do it affordably, whether for software development, testing, usability, marketing, research... While you're here, take advantage of the fact you don't have to pay Silicon Valley salaries.
Link to Silicon Valley
With all that said, there are a lot of reverse refugees from the Bay Area now living in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War (referred to here as the American War) ended and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, especially the educated and merchant classes, fled the new government, many of them wound up living in San Francisco and then San Jose. Others ended up in Orange County, Dallas, Houston, and other parts of the world. But today, a huge population of Vietnamese-Americans lives and works in Silicon Valley. Now that business opportunities are better in Vietnam, many experienced technology workers have returned to their birthplace to start companies. And so, thanks to their experience, today a large software industry exists in Vietnam. And many non-Vietnamese have come to join them. Maybe you'd like to be one of them?
Anyways, it may seem like a crazy idea at first. Moving to a foreign country and all. But if you're young, single, a bit adventurous, and determined to strike out on your own - or already have and are now ramen-profitable - then consider the costs: $1200 for cheap-ish rent in the Bay Area, buys you a round trip ticket from SFO to SGN. And every month of rent thereafter buys you two whole months of living nicely (all expenses) in Saigon. If you have a couple thousand bucks in the bank you can easily triple or quadruple the length of your runway by spending the time in Vietnam.
Who the heck would retire in the Bay Area? Retire to Vietnam instead.