Vietnam’s Focus on Information and Communications Technology

When you live in California, it is easy to be a bigot when it comes to technology. Even within the United States the Silicon Valley attracts venture capital at a multiple of any other location within the country. It is easy to ignore the efforts of companies in Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, or even Boston when looking at the rate of investment going into the ‘valley.

Here in Hanoi, the English newspaper “Viet Nam News” provides not only a mini-International Herald Tribune view of international news, but also a well-written review of primarily economic news within Viet Nam. Looking at the topics in this week’s papers you see a high number of articles related to both high tech investments in Viet Nam, as well as reviews on the status of technology infrastructure projects.

  • “Intellectual Property will be Protected, says VN President”
  • Articles on energy conservation and “green” strategies
  • The national telecom company (Viet Nam Post and Telecommunications/VNPT) subscriber growth
  • eCommerce and eBusiness strategies and support
  • Cooperation with other nations such as Israel, India, Japan, and the US
  • Regulating the internet “café” and kiosk industries
  • A critical article on the low rate of 31% for companies supporting web presence for their organization or business

It is all very exciting. It is exciting to know ICT infrastructure is getting a very high priority by the government, in addition to education. The marriage of ICT and education will continue to provide the country with an educated workforce, who will no doubt find their way into the international university system, and ultimately find their way home to Viet Nam.

An Internet Cafe in HanoiIt is easy to observe children going to school early in the day, and staying until their evening classes are completed. School children explain they are focusing their academic efforts on mathematics, physics, and language. Contrast this to the “soft” education our children are receiving in American schools, with a high percentage of children in cities such as Los Angeles never graduating, and you can see that countries like Viet Nam, with an emphasis on delivering ICT infrastructure and education will eventually have a major impact on the US’s ability to remain competitive with our own citizens.

In the US we fight over who has the right of way to build infrastructure though a public location, or which carrier has the monopoly to deliver services within a community. We worry about Network Neutrality and the control of content delivered over the network.

In Hanoi the government is funding, with the help of international donors and lenders, ICT infrastructure that equals or exceeds standards in many US cities – without the drama. You cannot walk a sidewalk in Hanoi without seeing major development projects, and huge bundles of conduit being buried beneath the sidewalks and streets.

Back to Education and ICT

At what point does Stanford and MIT determine they cannot meet their academic standards with American students, and have to come to countries like Viet Nam to recruit qualified freshman? At what point do the Vietnamese students return home, and begin to develop industries with funding from countries happy to encroach on the Silicon Valley’s dominance in technology and investment?

Years ago I would be offended by the high number of immigrants in cities such as Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Milpitas. Now I realize we, as Americans, need the immigrants to continue providing highly educated and qualified people to drive our high tech industries. Rather than push these innovative and educated immigrants away, we need to embrace them and hope they will stay and become Americans as well. (author)

When I review newspapers in Los Angeles, Long Beach, or the San Fernando Valley, I cannot find the level of energy related to ICT found in the Viet Nam News/VNN. Counting on my fingers, the VNN has about three times the number of articles related to technology that AI would find in the LA Times. It is exciting to see the publisher, even if it is the government (with a bit of planned media influence), evangelizing the topic. The exception may be the San Jose Mercury News, which is by default focused on the activities in the Silicon Valley.

If it was only hype, I would probably ignore the news and go on about my business in Viet Nam. But you cannot walk the streets without absorbing the reality of ICT infrastructure construction. Telecom and telecom transmission, Internet, electricity, data centers, education – it is all visible.

Viet Nam is on the right track for their country’s development. Nothing is perfect, and there is always a “B” side to every story. However to the critical observer the direction of ICT in Viet Nam is strong.


Business and Social Frog Soup – are we ready for the next decade?

Over the past couple years I have written several stories with “frog soup” as a main theme. The idea of being in cold water, and not recognizing the degree by degree Frog soup concerns for the American economyincrease of heat in the water, till at some point we are cooked, is the danger of being a cold-blooded animal. Business may follow a similar course.

In business we can follow the route of “this is the way we’ve always done it, and it works, so there is no reason to change our processes or strategies.” Innovations like virtualization or cloud computing hit the headlines, and many say “it is a cool idea, but we want the security and hands-on confidence of running our own servers and applications.”

In the United States many telecom companies continue to build business cases based on “milking” telephone settlement minutes, bilateral relationships, and controlling telecom “pipes.” Internet service providers (ISPs) continue holding on to traditional peering relationships, holding out for “paid peering,” doing everything possible to attain market advantage based on traffic ratios.

Nothing new, same ideas, different decade.

It is international frog soup.

In Vietnam the government is currently planning to build an entirely new information infrastructure, from the ground up, based on the most cutting edge telecom and data/content infrastructure. Children in Hanoi go to school at 7 a.m., take a quick lunch break, hit the books till around 5 p.m., take another break, and finish their day at study sessions till around 9 p.m.

Concentration – mathematics, physics, and language.

The children are being exposed to Internet-based technologies, combining their tacit experience and knowledge of global interconnected people with a high degree of academic sophistication.

In the United States children go to school for, at most, 6 hours a day, graduating with (on average) little capabilities in math or language – although we do have deep knowledge of metal detectors and how to smoke cigarettes in the restrooms without being caught. In Los Angeles, some locations cannot even hit a 50% graduation rate among high school students.

And oddly enough, we appear to be comfortable with that statistic.

Perhaps our approach to business is following a similar pattern. We become used to approaching our industry, jobs, and relationships on a level of survival, rather than innovation. We may not in some cases even have the intellectual tools to apply existing technology to the potential of functioning in a global economy. Then we are surprised when an immigrant takes our job or business.

Some universities, such as Stanford, aggressively recruit students from foreign countries, as they cannot attract enough qualified student s from the United States to meet their desired academic threshold. And once they graduate from Stanford, they find their way into Silicon Valley startups, with an entrepreneurial spirit that is beyond the scope of many American graduates.

Those startups have the intellectual and entrepreneurial tools to compete in a global economy, using innovative thinking, unbound by traditional processes and relationships, and are driving the center of what used to be America’s center of the global innovation world. Except that it is only based in Silicon Valley, and now represents the center of a global innovative community. Possibly due to the availability of increasingly cheaper American labor?

Frog Soup

Us Americans – we are getting lazy. Innovation to us may mean how we manipulate paper, and has nothing to do with manufacturing and business innovation. We are starting to miss the value of new products, new concepts, and execution of business plans which end up in production of goods for export and domestic use. We believe concentration on services industries will drive our economy into the future, based on products and other commercial goods imported into our country.

Except for the painful fact and reality we do not have a young generation with the intellectual tools to compete with kids in Hanoi who are on a near religious quest to learn.

The temperature is rising, and we as a country and economic factor in the global community is being diluted every day.

Time to put away the video games and get back to work. No more “time outs,” only time to roll up our sleeves and learn, innovate, learn, innovate, and innovate some more. Forget comfort, we are nearly soup.

Copenhagen Climate Summit Stimulates Aggressive Debate

Do you believe in global warming? Do you believe the cost of capping production of carbon dioxide is too high for our industrialized world to support? Do you believe if we do not aggressively act to stop global warming that Miami will be gone within 25 years?

It is confusing to the average American, as even our news media falls on the side of whichever political party or side of the debate is being funded by their sponsors. How do we find out the facts?

7 December 2009. Listening to Fox news, including both the O’Reilly factor and Sean Hannity’s program, the guests (Brit Hume – himself a journalist, Bernie Goldberg, Dick Morris) all openly mocked the efforts of both Americans and the global community gathering in Copenhagen for the 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP15).

Brit Hume frequently referred the “dogma” of global warming. He strongly emphasized that cleaning the environment is not worth the potential cost forcing changes in our “way of life.”

The segment was immediately followed by a commercial urging viewers to vote “NO” on cap and trade legislation.

Bernie Goldberg believes the “liberal” media has no stomach to “debunk” global warming.

Sean Hannity believes that global warming is “fraud.”

Dick Morris, while quick to jump on the anti-global warming bandwagon, actually had one compelling statement – if true. He mentioned that the US actually made substantial progress towards meeting Kyoto protocol targets, without resorting to government regulation. Of course it is probably not the anti-global warming crowd who forced that progress, however at least he did recognize efforts are being made to reduce carbon emissions.

Forget the Politics for a Moment

Hanoi motor scooters are primarily 2 stroke engines inefficient transportationHaving recently returned from Hanoi, where thousands of 2-stroke motor scooters pump extremely visible amounts of pollution into the air, it is hard to justify not at least considering the impact fossil fuel usage is having on the world’s environmental health.

Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi, India, said at a 2004 conference in India that “inexpensive two-wheelers form a staggering 75–80% of the traffic in most Asian cities.” Because two-stroke engines burn an oil–gasoline mixture, they emit more smoke, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter than the gas-only four-stroke engines found in newer motorcycles.

The result is that in Asian cities with high numbers of scooters, lung and respiratory diseases are prevalent at rates more than twice as high as in areas without the volume of 2 strike engine traffic.

Two-stroke engines produce a lot of pollution, primarily because the engine mixes lubrication oil with gasoline for combustion. This requires combustion of the oil during engine operation. The oil makes all two-stroke engines smoky, however an old, poorly maintained, or simply worn out engines and mufflers allow huge clouds of oily smoke into the air.

This is not just developing countries. In the US/Canada snow mobiles/machines, outboard motors, weed whackers – anything running a two stroke engine will produce pollution far exceeding the more efficient 4 stroke engine. The actual differences between engine designs are not that difficult to understand, and are clearly presented in web articles such as Wikipedia.

Coal Used for Heating in the Developing World

If you have ever been to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, during January you will have no question in your mind of the dangers human being face when living in an area with high concentrations of raw coal.

Very dense haze over Ulaanbaatar“Particulate Matter (PM), in Ulaanbaatar is estimated to be between 2 times higher in summer and 12 times higher in winter than minimum accepted standards.” (Mr. Ganbaatar B. Director, Dept of Fuel Policy and Regulation, Ministry of Fuel and Energy, Mongolia)

The main issue is the use of low grade compressed scrap coal commonly used for both heating and cooking in the “ger,” or tent communities of Ulaanbaatar. Burning the coal puts sulfer dioxide and carbon particulate matter into the air, which in Ulaanbaatar exceeds 300g2, in comparison with Oslo where the highest concentration of particulate matter is around 14g2 (Source:

Clearly, this is not a healthy environment for either human beings, or the plants and animals sharing our land. The amount of sulfur dioxide hitting the ground where we plant food, water that we ultimately drink, and air that we breathe is staggering. Author’s note: This is also from my own experience living in Mongolia.

So Make Your Own Decision

Take a walk in Los Angeles on a hot, muggy summer day. Take a look at Denver from a distance of about 100 miles. Fly over Dallas at 30,000 feet. Then consider that the brown blanket lying over each of those cities is pollution. A toxic mixture of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

Coal sold at roadside in Ulaanbaatar MongoliaBrit Hume may think cleaning this mess up is going to harm his opulent way of life, however as the world’s largest source of CO2, even exceeding the lands of 2 stroke motor scooters, we owe it to ourselves to carefully consider each argument prior to voting. Consider it while standing in line at the drug store buying your child’s asthma inhaler, or when your school cancels outdoor sporting events due to the poor air quality index.

I am not convinced Cap and Trade is the best approach, however I am convinced if we do not all turn into “born again green freaks,” the next generation may be living on ocean front property in Atlanta, using an oxygen inhaler, and zipping ourselves into an environmentally sealed bubble.

There is nothing evil in diligently working towards renewable energy, clean energy, water conservation, and cleaning up our use of the environment. If the private equity companies lose a bit of profit this year because they need to re-engineer their factories or data centers – so be it. They can start off by painting their buildings white!

John Savageau, Long Beach

Citizen Journalism in Hanoi

For many Americans, the idea of traveling to Hanoi brings a certain level of mystique. Our media exposure to Hanoi has been primarily press corps following politicians such as John McCain, or via the occasional human interest story that pops through via an international cable channel such as Current TV. But for most Americans our memories and images of Hanoi are from the war, whether it is a photo of Jane Fonda gracing an anti-aircraft weapon, or the prisoners of war being released from custody.

Or maybe Vietnam has simply fallen off the charts as an area of interest, while the world focuses on other areas considered more important such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Citizen journalists may serve an important function in locations such as Hanoi. With an estimated population of nearly 6.3 million, Hanoi is far from a small town, and estimates are the city is growing at about 3.5% a year. The potential of Hanoi, and all other areas within Vietnam as an economic factor within the next decade is daunting, as the government aggressively tries to bring Vietnam into the modern global community.

A street scene from old town HanoiNo Visible Restrictions on Recording Life in Hanoi

Having completed a series of meeting in Hanoi, I had a day and a half of free time to look around and experience the city. During this time I probably took 2000 photos, interviewed a handful of Vietnamese and foreign expatriates, and walked freely through city streets. Not once was I questioned, cautioned, or otherwise threatened in either an official capacity, or unofficially by residents of the city.

Along with me were large gaggles of European tourists, mainly of the backpacker and “walk-about” variety. Most were frantically snapping away with their cameras in the Hanoi “Old Town,” and like me appeared to be traveling freely, without any level of distraction.

In short, the government made no attempt at preventing anybody in my limited experience from recording any level of reality within the streets of Hanoi. Hardly the restrictive government some media outlets would lead you to believe. Or maybe that is American media outlets.

Why it is Important to record Life in Hanoi, and Other Emerging Cities

In the 1970s while stationed on Okinawa in the US Air Force I met a former Marine who was returning to Okinawa to renew his karate certifications. The Marine was always carrying a camera, snapping photos of everything. Literally everything. Amused, I asked him why he found it so important to take pictures of everything he encountered, and the answer was simple. “You never know what is important, not important, or just interesting. However you should never let the moment go unrecorded, as the value may only be known long after the event has passed.” (Ihor Rymaruk – 1981)

Thus, while walking around Hanoi, talking with people and indulging in moments of sensory absorption, Hanoi is in a period of rapid reconstruction. The horrifying examples of aerial electrical and telecom cabling currently hanging in the streets are being replaced with buried cable. Superhighways are being constructed, and Internet diffusion into the education system is a very high priority with the government.

In 20 years much of old Hanoi will be replaced with a modern city, much as Beijing has gone from a city of Hutong (old-style brick structures), horses, bicycles, and scooters to a modern city of high-rises, Audis, and Starbucks – Hanoi will go through a similar modernization and conversion. The levels of CO2 spewing from legions of scooters will be replaced with modern transportation, and the city will be unrecognizable from the Hanoi of today.

The history of Hanoi, from the Mongols, to the French, to the Japanese, to the Vietnam of 2009 will also fade with globalization and the facelift of modernization.

Citizen Journalists Have a Story

There is an argument that says “on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog.” This roughly means that in the digital age, deception be3comes even easier than ever before in history. The ease of misrepresenting facts, issues, or history is as easy as typing in your desired format, Photo-shopping a picture, and recording your “facts.”

Thus the world in general has had some misgivings on the value or integrity of citizen journalism, or when amateurs become reporters.

The other argument is that citizen journalists only record facts, and others may interpret those facts based on their in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, or the spin which will further reinforce their objectives.

In reality, experience is beginning to show that for a majority of “amateur” journalists the intrinsic reward of presenting a story or record of events in its purest form is far more fulfilling than using their effort for purposes of propaganda or an intentional misrepresentation of events. Thus the raw footage of riots and emotion in the streets of Tehran following the recent elections – those recording the events did not analyze, they simply transmitted events to the world as quickly as possible to ensure the history was not lost.

Too Close to See Reality

The final factor is that in a city like Hanoi, people concentrate on their daily lives, with little regard to something as small as the power company digging up a sidewalk to bury high voltage power cabling. When you are concerned about your children getting to school on time, you do not concern yourself with mobile phone transmission towers being placed on a nearby building. Highway construction is more of an annoyance than a historical event.

Thus, the outsider brings value to the preservation of history. When we as senior citizens want to remind the youth of our struggles during war, poverty, or explain the days when we actually chopped our own wood for cooking fuel, without a record of that history a child who lives within a future generation of the iPhone will have difficulty understanding how their life evolved into an environment where any child in Hanoi is a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the global community.

Putting the Past Aside

CNN or Fox News cannot provide the bandwidth needed to bring both fact and analysis. Americans should have the opportunity to see the real Hanoi, not the Hanoi brought to us in novels or drama dwelling on the pain and history of war. The Vietnamese know there was a war, Americans know there was a war, and of course we cannot afford to let history slip past.

But we also cannot hold a 12 year old student accountable for the human tragedy experienced in previous 500 years of history – we can only welcome the student into the global community of 12 year old students who will lead the world in a few short years. Without citizen journalists presenting communities like Hanoi to the rest of the world, the youth of Hanoi may carry an unreasonable burden to “prove” themselves.

In Hanoi, the government has offered no restrictions on recording the Hanoi of today, and hopefully a corps of citizen journalists will ensure events are recorded through interviews, impressions, visuals (photos, video, sound), and not lost to the dark age of history. And with luck we will have a similar article in the near future talking about Palestine, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iraq.

John Savageau, Inchon International Airport, South Korea

Mentoring in Vietnam with Ian Bromage

I first met Ian Bromage while he was doing volunteer work teaching ISO9000 theory in Mongolia with the United Nations Volunteers. Having learned he was now working in Vietnam, I was very happy to have an opportunity to meet with him, and talk about his experiences and work since leaving Mongolia. We met in Hanoi at the Hilton Hanoi Opera on 2 December 2009.

Pacific-Tier: Today we have Ian Bromage, Organization Effectiveness Advisor with the Voluntary Services Overseas/VSO, part of the UK government. Hello Ian! How are you doing tonight?

Ian Bromage VSO in Hanoi VietnamIan Bromage: I am fine, thank you, and very much enjoying the evening!

Pacific-Tier: Why don’t you give us a little about your background – how did you get to Hanoi?

Ian Bromage: Well, my background really is in telecoms, I worked for British Telecom for a very long period of time. But a few years back I decided I wanted to do something different, so I went and did some traveling, and then went to work in Mongolia as a small business advisor for the United Nations Volunteers/UNV.

Then I really got the development bug, I went back to the UK and did some further studying, and decided I wanted to go abroad again, and that’s how I ended up in Vietnam, Hanoi, with the Voluntary Service Overseas. And I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here so far.

Pacific-Tier: That’s very interesting. Going from a corporate environment to a volunteer environment, primarily outside of your home country. What is the incentive, and what is the interest to take you outside of your own country, work in developing areas like Mongolia, Vietnam, or emerging economies?

Ian Bromage: Really I guess I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and it’s been a fascination with different cultures – that’s one of the key motivators. And I think you get an entirely different experience working in a country abroad than you get as a tourist. You get to know the people more, you get to know the issues more, and I enjoy working as a volunteer. Both because I quite like the ethos of giving up my time to help others, but also because I do actually just enjoy it.

So being a volunteer isn’t about being a martyr or suffering, or anything like that – it’s nice to have a good experience as well.

Pacific-Tier: That’s great. Having many years with a company like British Telecom, it does give you a lot of organizational expertise, a lot of training, a lot of tacit knowledge and experience that is impossible to get through school. And you’re turning that into a product you can deliver today to your Vietnamese counterparts. How do the Vietnamese themselves respond to your mentoring and direction, are they what you expect?

Ian Bromage: yes, and I certainly enjoy working with them, and alongside them, and I think it is important to emphasize the fact it is working with them, not managing them. I here to help, I am not here to direct their organization.

I think you mentioned the word “tacit knowledge,” and I think that’s the key. I think we forget how ingrained things are in our culture, like meeting deadlines, like planning things in a certain way. Things are done differently here. Some of those things are very good, and some of those things need to change if the organization is going to be effective, if they are going to meet their objectives from both their donors who are giving them their money (if they’re talking of the NGO sector), and more importantly their beneficiaries that they’re trying to help.

Pacific-Tier: That’s very interesting. You mentioned the NGOs, so we’ll drill into that in just a moment. But even with the NGOs, or governmental organizations, you’re starting up a new organization, you are starting up a new way of doing things, that could roughly be parallel to commercial startups, or entrepreneurs… What is the entrepreneurial spirit of the people in Hanoi, are they excited about what you are doing with them?

Ian Bromage: yes, I believe so. I think in general in Hanoi, I think you can see there is a huge entrepreneurial spirit. I mean you look at the streets, and there isn’t a bit of space that hasn’t been turned over to some sort of private enterprise. So that entrepreneurial spirit is definitely there, and in the NGO sector, that (the entrepreneurial spirit) is there too.

There is a lot of competition for resources, a lot of NGOs are operating in the same space. That brings advantages of competition, they have to be effective, do what they do well to survive, which is an ongoing concern. It also brings problems in the fact it causes a lot of fragmentation. Sometimes I think the organizations cloud learn to collaborate with each other better, and to work better together to see the advantages to working towards common goals.

Pacific-Tier: You’ve been primarily in a mentor’s role. Have you learned anything, either Mongolia or Vietnam, have you learned anything (yourself) by being in the countries?

Ian Bromage: To be patient is certainly one of the skills you learn in a developing country. You realize sometimes that people’s values are different from your own. Sometimes you learn the importance of family relationships and familiar are often more important than the relationships at work. I think that is something we could probably learn.

For example, where I work at the moment, everyone sits down to lunch together. They make sure they all have their lunch, then eat together. There’s a lot of conversation, there’s a lot of jokes, that is very different from the environment I come from where so often these days people just grab a sandwich, eat at their desks, get to their work and don’t speak with other people.

Pacific-Tier: We do need to sit back sometimes and understand that we have to balance our lives a little bit as well. So how long do you expect to stay in Vietnam?

Ian Bromage: My assignment is for two years, so it is a very good, long period. I’ve been here for three months so far. I think that two years does allo0w you to develop those relationships and develop trust with people. And as some things take a lot longer you have that time and space that makes you able to put processes and procedures in place and watch those take shape, which you can’t do in a short consultancy where you are just coming in to fix a particular problem.

Pacific-Tier: have you found your calling now, or do you find yourself slipping back into the corporate world at any time in the future?

Ian Bromage: I would like to continue to work in the developing (nation) field. I think there are aspects of the corporate world that I miss, but I think I could find those in the development arena as well. So I don’t see myself going back into the private sector in Western Europe.

Pacific-Tier: It’s a very big world. Mongolia and Vietnam are only two countries. With your experience there’s probably a lot of other places you can go. Will you continue to work with organizations such as the Volunteer Services Overseas, or do you see doing this as a commercial enterprise? What do you see in the future, or are you just living day-to-day now?

Ian Bromage: I would like to do a mix of work, I think, in the future. I would certainly like to continue work with NGOs. I would certainly like to work at, what is termed the grass-roots level. But I would also like to get involved with policy work, and other aspect of work with governments and things. So I’d quite like to develop a range of skills, and have a mix of opportunities to be able to move up and down at different levels and move across in different regions or geographic areas.

But we’ll see. Who knows what the future holds!

Pacific-Tier: We normally talk about entrepreneurship in this series. Working with a lot of young people today in Vietnam, and formerly ion Mongolia, do you have any advice for any UK, or American, or Vietnamese, or any other developing countries where young people are jumping into the market. Do you have any advice for them as entrepreneurs?

Ian Bromage: Well I think the key thing is to always look at fresh approaches to come up with new ideas. And that’s not just in the technical field in terms of inventions and things. It’s to look at new approaches to social problems, look at new techniques, look beyond your world, look at the way other people do things. Try to travel and experience other cultures.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – I think that’s very key. Everybody makes mistakes. You need to learn from them, and move on. So I think that’s a very important skill for young people to have. Not to be disappointed when things don’t turn out the way they expect them to.

Pacific-Tier: I would agree. I think that taking the risk and moving ahead is probably the best training somebody can get. You can’t pay for the training you get when you make an error, or if you have a failure in our plan, it’s the best training you can get.

Any other final worlds for people who may be listening to you from Hanoi?

Ian Bromage: Well if they are listening from Hanoi, I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here. I think it’s a great place, it’s an exciting place, it’s a fast moving place, I’m really enjoying it and I am looking forward to spending the next couple years here.

If anybody wants to come and visit Hanoi, I would thoroughly recommend it.

Pacific-Tier: Well thank you very much, and I sincerely hope that someday you will be able to take the time and do a few guest blogs for us.

You can listen to the entire audio interview at Pacific Tier

A Day in Hanoi – Moving On to a Tech-Fueled Future

How do you get 6.2 million people up every morning, feed them, send them to work or school, and put a roof over their heads every night in a country where the average income of a worker is around $800 a year? Then answer is easy. Hard work, sacrifice, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit that is partially survival instinct, and mostly hope.

Motor Scooter Covered with HatsIn Hanoi it is easy to be confused while walking down a main street where many shops offer the latest in wide screen TVs and mobile phone technology, while navigating sidewalks busy with vendors trying to scrape a living by selling used books and bowls of dumplings.

We’ve been here before. Guangzhou in the early 1990s. Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s. Jakarta. Locations that are now littered with a Starbucks on every street corner, Mercedes Benz jamming the streets, and a hunger for opulence that has literally flipped the economy and quality of life on its back.

Does Hanoi have the same opportunity and appetite for success as other Asian countries? The intellectual and institutional tools to make s it happen?


In the 1900s foreign tech companies would go to China to set up shop. Most had a twisted idea that if they sold a comb to one billion Chinese they would become wealthy, but others saw the potential of China as a place to build new business, and new business models not possible in their home countries. In the telecom Telecom and Power Cabling in Hanoibusiness we found university graduates with strong backgrounds in math, science, and physics – but had never actually touched a laptop computer or telecom switch.

Within a few months, with their strong academic training, the Chinese employees were overtaking their (in our case) American counterparts in both understanding the technology we were deploying, but also having a view into the future that was not nurtured in our home offices.

As a company we made the decision to let the China-based branch offices of our company loose to develop new products, software, and services based roughly on our company’s target market. The China office blew past our home office vision, and led the company into new areas of business that ultimately changed our entire service line – until we were eventually throttled back due to our business being contributed into a merger.

I see the same intelligence, capability, and burning hunger for success in Hanoi. The university graduates I meet are smart, really smart. Unlike the 1990s in China, Hanoi (and I assume many parts of Vietnam) already have some access to Internet technology. Very low cost Internet cafes dot the city, and a peek into the café reveals users are not playing games – rather they are using Facebook and other social media to communicate with expatriate relatives and friends, as well as making new contacts around the world.

Well-educated, and globalized.

Prioritizing Hanoi

There are several arguments possible on where and how Hanoi should focus their innovative efforts. The city infrastructure is appalling. Raw sewage floats down the sidewalks and street where children are playing. Tens Motor Scooters at an Intersection in Hanoiof thousands of scooters spew CO2 into the air. Low quality coal is used in homes for cooking and heat, spewing terrible levels of particulate into the air, as well as increasing the potential of illness due to CO2 poisoning in the home.

Clean water is also a commodity, and there is no assurance even tap water meets minimum international standards for health.

High voltage power lines are frequently running along the top of city sidewalks, and bundles of telephone and power cables drape their way across streets and intersections creating a situation that makes you pray there are no typhoons, earthquakes, or even irresponsible lorry (truck) drivers that may cause one of the utility poles to tumble into a crowded public space.

So the dilemma – should a city like Hanoi focus all its effort on rebuilding city infrastructure, or jumping into the 22nd century exploiting the capacity of their youth? Rhetorical? Maybe. Necessary? Definitely.

My suggestion would be to let the international agencies work with government to develop a strategy to rebuild the city’s infrastructure, and let the private sector develop the youth of Vietnam to build the basis for an economy and society for the next generation.

It would be a tragedy to force the youth of Hanoi, or any other developing country, to miss the opportunities of living in a global social and economic future driven by technology – and be forced to look forward to a life of selling used books to foreigners standing outside of the Hanoi Opera House, scraping enough money out of the sympathies of passing tourists, to find enough money to buy food to live through the next day.

Maybe there is a place for both. Maybe the youth can be trained to develop technologies that will help rebuild Vietnam’s infrastructure. The only problem that arises is that building infrastructure does not build products, provide exports, or support a market economy – it is merely a national cost center in a country that clearly is not in a position to afford a US-style deficit.

Back to the Future

But, when walking past an elementary school it is easy to become excited at the future of Hanoi. Young people must be smarter than our “baby boomer” generation, and they are being presented with basic intellectual tools to run with their dreams and visions. This will not be in competition to America or other country, but rather a new partner in developing a better world.

Given the experiences of China and Mongolia (my own experiences), I have deep empathy for the current sacrifices being made each day by the people of Hanoi, and great optimism that Hanoi’s quality of life and place in the globalized social community will level with the international community within the next generation.

John Savageau, Hanoi

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