#Asia From diaspora to a brighter digital future: Why investors are betting on Vietnam

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In Vietnam, respecting the past and embracing the future go hand in hand

Independence Palace-FINAL

On this historic day, the world seemed to be ending for many people, including a young girl who had yet to turn 10.

After beginning the bombardment of the city’s defenders with heavy artillery the previous day, the enemy troops were now entering the capital and capturing key positions. The little girl did not know it at the time, but her father was making a daring escape from the capital, after knowing that his family had been evacuated. Throughout his long military and political career, her father had been the head of the country’s air force, then its Prime Minister, and finally Vice President.

With Thailand out of range of the military helicopter he was piloting, her father decided to fly his Huey toward the US Navy fleet, landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier Midway and bringing himself and more than a dozen passengers to safety. He would only be reunited with the little girl in Fairfax, Virginia together with the rest of her family.

The little girl was Vietnamese-American personality Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen,  and her father was one of South Vietnam’s most colorful leaders, Nguyen Cao Ky.

And that historic day? April 30, 1975.

On that day, a North Vietnamese Army tank bulldozed through the gates of the Independence Palace, signalling the end of the Vietnam War. April 30 is celebrated in Vietnam as a public holiday known as Liberation Day or Reunification Day. The losing side, the South Vietnamese expatriates in the United States, refer to it as Black April. The world knows it as the Fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, which was then renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victors.

‘I am filled with emotion’

Now, imagine that little girl, who grew up in her adopted homeland of America, returning to the palace whose fall symbolised the end of the world her family had fled more than 40 years ago.

“I am filled with emotion,” she told the audience as she sat on stage. “I don’t have a word yet for the feeling.”

Nguyen made a new life for herself in America, graduating from the Western State University College of Law after just two-and-a-half years of study. She is the co-host of the popular Vietnamese-language musical variety show “Paris By Night” and the CEO of her own e-commerce company.

Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen-FINAL

During her talk on “Catalysing the Growth of E-Commerce in Vietnam,” Nguyen emphasised the youth and talent of the Vietnamese workforce.

“The labor force is young,” Nguyen said, adding that the Vietnamese are very enthusiastic about embracing technology and the latest gadgets. This is a generation that was born into and believes in digital, she said, making the workforce ideal for any e-commerce or other technology company looking to innovate.

She also noted the determination and resilience of the Vietnamese people, and how they can adapt to whatever life may throw their way.

Respecting the past, embracing the future

Nguyen was one of the speakers at Echelon Vietnam 2016  – the first time the Echelon summit that brings together technology startups and investors, was being held in Vietnam. Organised by Quintessentially and powered by e27, Echelon Vietnam 2016 was held on Nov. 18-19 at the Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City.

Also known as Reunification Palace, the Independence Palace is a fitting venue for the Echelon Vietnam 2016 conference that brings together the different stakeholders in the tech and startup ecosystem of Vietnam.

To navigate the intricacies of Vietnam’s digital landscape, you have to know and respect the Vietnamese people’s long history, rich cultural heritage, and strong sense of identity, forged from many lifetimes of repelling invaders and fighting for survival. It is about understanding the past and present of a nation that was once divided and to this day has millions of people scattered in the Vietnamese diaspora, in order to embrace the future.

This was one of the things highlighted by Jerry Lim, Grab Country Head for Vietnam, during his talk at Echelon Vietnam. Just as in all their markets, Grab’s approach is to work closely with the government and all its requirements.

“Grab is legal in Vietnam,” Lim emphasised.

He pointed out that Grab owes its success across the region to its commitment to tailoring its services to each market and respecting each country’s laws and culture, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. What might work for another country will not necessarily fly in Vietnam, he stressed. Lim, however, noted that the country should also take the advantage of learning from the experiences of its neighbours, so that Vietnam can avoid the same mistakes other markets may have made.

For his part, ex-Googler and General Partner of Access Ventures Charles Rim said he is bullish over Vietnam because of the key structural improvements he is seeing. In particular, he cited the shift to mobile, which he compared to what was happening in South Korea in 2010 and 2011.

He said the convergence that the world saw happen in South Korea, with the shift to mobile platforms and the rise of social commerce, will also happen in Vietnam.

“What we see now is no ‘social commerce,’ no ‘e-commerce’ – it’s all commerce. That’s convergence,” he said.

Local talent, foreign investors

One person at Echelon Vietnam 2016 who was very vocal about championing the local talent was Francis Tuan Anh Nguyen, Developer Experience & Evangelism Lead of Microsoft Vietnam.

“I want the world to know that the best software engineers are from Vietnam,” he said, sharing his mission to gain recognition for the talent of the Vietnamese workforce and encourage companies to invest in the country.

Showing just how much attention Vietnam has been getting from investors, one panel at Echelon Vietnam 2016 had Chinese investors talking about bridging the gap between China and Southeast Asia, while another was on how Russia could help Vietnamese startups.

The “Bridging the Gap between Southeast Asia and China” panel included Zhang Di, Head of Financial Advisory of TechTemple, and Andy Tian, Co-Founder and CEO of Asia Innovations Group, and was moderated by Coco Sun, Head of Global Partnerships and Marketing of TechTemple. (Disclosure: TechTemple is one of e27’s investors.)

The panelists stressed that China is now eyeing more investments in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. AIG, for instance, recently acquired the Vietnamese online video company BIG CAT Entertainment for an undisclosed amount.

Meanwhile, in a fireside chat with e27 editor Kevin McSpadden, Alina Suslova, Head of Projects of The Skolkovo Foundation, talked about Skolkovo, Russia’s Silicon Valley, and what lessons can be learned for the community they are building for the 1,000 resident startups.

Suslova said Russia’s startup workforce has the talent, but the challenge is to teach them to become more of entrepreneurs. “We have to teach them to be more brave. How to be more global minded.”

She noted that the Russian startup ecosystem is still young, and that the lesson for community building is not to hurry and push the system. She said that Vietnam’s startup ecosystem is very new and the community should also be patient. One advice she imparted was to pay attention to the rural areas, including bringing the internet to the rural areas and providing payment systems, as this was also the Russian experience.

The Vietnam diaspora

While more and more foreign investors are eyeing Vietnam, the biggest investors might turn out to be the Vietnam diaspora, the millions of overseas Vietnamese, who remain connected to their country. The US alone, for instance, is home to more than 3.5 million people with Vietnamese ancestry.

Like Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, a number of Vietnamese expatriates are deciding to return to their homeland and invest in its future. Up to a million overseas Vietnamese want to buy homes in Vietnam and live there in retirement, according to this Vietnam Investment Review article.

This is not to gloss over the bloody events and conflicting views that led to the diaspora, or the challenges entrepreneurs face when starting up in Vietnam. Cutting across generations and geographical divisions, however, is a shared identity that seems to bind the Vietnamese people, wherever they may be.

The little girl who fled more than 40 years ago said she hoped to see more overseas Vietnamese return home from the diaspora and start their own businesses in their beloved homeland.

“Deep down, we’re all still Vietnamese. We are all still deeply connected,” Nguyen said.

In a country with a long and troubled past, this shared identity might be the best hope for a brighter future.

The post From diaspora to a brighter digital future: Why investors are betting on Vietnam appeared first on e27.

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