HO CHI MINH CITY AND HANOI, VIETNAM — When Nguyen Van Hieu was eight years old, his family fled a crumbling South Vietnam, just before the fall of Saigon. Some 20 years later, just as Vietnam began to open its doors again, Mr. Hieu came back - mostly out of curiosity - to do some charity work before moving on to a promising high-tech career.
But, with his impeccable engineering credentials, it wasn't long before a US company anxious to invest in Asia's newest emerging market scooped up Hieu, a member of the Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese.
Now, as this country's sales director of Oracle, the California-based software- maker, the Australian-educated Hieu has the challenging job of trying to do business as both native and foreigner in the Communist country his family fled.
"I wish business here were a little better," he says outside a Hanoi luncheon to celebrate new US-Vietnam trade ties, a Who's Who of industry and political leaders accompanying President Clinton on his historic visit here and to Ho Chi Minh City, which ended yesterday. "People here are still in the process of trying to understand the role of technology," says Mr. Hieu.
Vietnam's leaders profess a keen desire to wire up this nation of 77 million people for the next century. But Oracle, like so many American companies here, has yet to turn a profit in Vietnam. Frustrated investors complain that the country is still so laden with bureaucracy - and still so lacking in laws to govern business ventures - that many of those who were so anxious to open up shop in Vietnam a few years ago have since waxed shy.
In 1997, two years after the US opened diplomatic relations with Hanoi, Vietnam enjoyed $2 billion of direct foreign investment. But that has tapered off so much that the number for the three years since has still not reached that figure.
In a speech Sunday in Ho Chi Minh City, President Clinton acknowledged Vietnam's remarkable progress since it began an economic renewal program over a decade ago - increasing exports sixfold and raising per person income by 70 percent. But he suggested that the country still had far to go. Clinton also lauded Vietnam's literacy rate, the highest in Southeast Asia.
One of the things that most weighs down the pace of progress is simply the cost of getting customers hooked up to the Internet. "My biggest barrier is telecommunication costs: They're too high, and it makes a lot of business impractical," says Hieu, a soft-spoken 30something with a Sydney accent. Where the average annual national income is between $300 and $400 - although it's closer to $1,000 in larger cities - White House officials say it costs $3 an hour to use the Internet, and an average week's salary is just $6. So far, that leaves the Internet as the reserve of the very few: less than 0.1 percent of people have some kind of access.
The way to bring down the costs, critics say, is by allowing competition, and that is not an idea that the Vietnamese government seems to be sold on yet. It's showcase company is FPT - which stands for financing and promoting technology - with nearly all of its funding coming from the Telecommunications Ministry.
Part of the delegation here from the US included high-tech execs of Vietnamese descent who are trying to bring funds and expertise to the country they left 25 years ago. But many are grinding their teeth about the hurdles and misunderstandings they have with officials here: "They tell us, yes, we have two companies," grumbled one gray-haired Vietnamese-American from Silicon Valley, "But how can you compete if both companies are owned by the same owner, namely the government?"
Investors like him always come first to Hanoi, the seat of national government. But they then quickly rush off to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, where the atmosphere for everything once discouraged by the Vietnamese Communist Party - from capitalism to religion to politics - is said to be freer. It is the seat of a newly opened stock exchange - on which four companies currently trade - as well as the bulk of foreign business ventures.
But Hieu's clients are mostly in Hanoi: Oracle specializes in software that manages information - and most of that is controlled by the government. Though respected by the countrymen he left behind, working here was a difficult job - linguistically and otherwise.
"When I first came to Vietnam, I could barely speak ... the business language," he says. He knew more about many customs - and the war itself - from reading books than from personal experience.
Culturally however, he's started to settle in more. He fell in love and married a native of Hanoi. Back in the US, his three brothers "think it's cool" that he's living here, but they probably won't follow in his footsteps, nor is Hieu so sure he himself is here to stay. But he'll remain as long as he feels he can help open the economy - and Vietnam itself - a little bit more. "I think that the winds of change are here, and there's no holding that back."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society