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Vietnam

Silicon Valley In Vietnam? Ho Chi Minh City's High-Tech Play

Saigon Hub, an start-up incubator in Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon Hub, an start-up incubator in Ho Chi Minh City
Lien Hoang

HO CHI MINH CITY — Vietnam’s latest economic experiment has both significant government funding — $110 million — and an ambitious moniker: Silicon Valley Vietnam. Though it could take years before the country sees the same kind of success as the California tech companies it hopes to emulate, Vietnam’s GDP growth is at its slowest since 1999 and it is in dire need of an economic boost.

So it’s now betting on start-up companies to tap into a domestic market of over 90 million people and a burgeoning young population in particular. One popular meeting place for start-ups in Ho Chi Minh City is Saigon Hub, an incubator of sorts where an image of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is prominently displayed.

Here, Nguyen Hai is helping to connect the government with the world of technology. “Look at this project as a first signal to prove that the government is now aware of technology start-ups. So they do want to support and grow them in Vietnam.”

Officials haven’t released many details, but the earmarked government money is likely to go toward two so-called “accelerators” — one in Hanoi and one in Ho Chi Minh City. Accelerators are like mentor programs that support, train and connect start-ups with investors.

“The model is that they will support the start-up from the very beginning, from just the business idea to building the idea into the prototype,” Nguyen says. “And then test the market, launch the product, and then scale to the next level.”

Skeptics question whether governments should be involved in start-ups at all, but in communist Vietnam, nothing much succeeds without some government support. Many say that for start-ups to succeed, they need more efficient regulation.

“I would encourage anything the government can do to make it easier to get a license, to make it easier to pay my taxes to the government, to make paperwork easier,” says Chris Harvey, CEO of ITviec, a website advertising IT jobs.

“And if there’s a special program for Internet companies or start-ups, maybe some kind of fast-track program that makes it easier for us to get licenses and do business, that would be great.”

Unique advantages

The country is looking at examples in South Korea, Malaysia and especially Singapore, where the government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in entrepreneurial businesses.

But Vietnam has its own unique advantages. More than half of the country’s inhabitants are under 30 years old, and about one-third have Internet access. There are 120 million mobile phone subscriptions in a market of 90 million people.

“We’re experiencing a new generation, so there’s a lot of momentum right now,” says Anh-Minh Do, an editor at Tech in Asia, a popular online technology and start-up website. “A lot of young people are creating start-ups, a lot of experienced people are creating start-ups. So it’s in a new space it’s never been in before.”

These new grassroots businesses are vital right now, because Vietnam’s economic growth has reached a record low — and because IT is one of the few sectors that has remained strong despite the lagging economy.

“Information technology is a great industry for Vietnam,” say Chris Harvey. “It doesn’t require a lot of money, you don’t need a big factory. It’s clean, these are clean jobs, they don’t pollute, they’re highly paid generally. And also the world is moving towards more information technology all the time.”

Nguyen Thi Thu Tram, operations assistant at Square — the Burmese answer to Facebook — says these new entrepreneurial technology companies have many passionate employees. “There are a lot of challenging opportunities for me to work here,” says Nguyen. “I can learn a lot from this environment. So I think Square is a good company for me to learn and make my contribution.”

Square is among the many start-ups that use Saigon Hub as an office. Its founder, Hoang Tran Quang Khai, says he opened the incubator to encourage innovation.

“You can work from home or from a coffee shop,” he says. “But there's no sense of community… When you come here, you can have the motivation from all the entrepreneurs working with you. You can share all the resources and knowledge, the experience of each other to be successful together.”

With any luck, Saigon Hub will soon get a lot more crowded.

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