By Don Lee
April 11, 2009
Reporting from Ho Chi Minh City — Just a couple of years ago, this city was among the hottest investment zones in Asia.
Multinationals as large as chip maker Intel Corp. and smaller firms such as Ampac Packaging, a Cincinnati-based maker of shopping bags for Gap and Target, flocked here and to other parts of Vietnam. They set up plants to complement or, in some cases, replace facilities in China that were becoming increasingly expensive to operate. “China plus one,” they called it.
Now, with the global downturn and China reasserting itself as the low-cost producer, Vietnam is feeling the effects of a different trend: “China minus one.”
In central Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, an apartment tower that would have been one of the city’s tallest buildings has been draped in green for months. Pinched for cash, its owner, Daewon Group of South Korea, stopped work on the development even after reaching the top floor. It’s one of many foreign projects in the region that have been halted or put off indefinitely.
Taiwan’s Wistron Corp. had planned to plow millions into building a laptop factory in Vietnam last winter, to supplement its main plant in the Shanghai area.
“Right now it’s just more or less on hold,” spokesman John Collins said.
Taiwanese investment in Vietnam in the first two months of this year was just one-fifth of what it was a year ago, said Catherine Chi, a senior director at Taiwan’s Chamber of Commerce, one of the largest foreign groups here. The government in Hanoi is expecting foreign capital inflows to fall by more than half this year.
Japanese companies such as Sony Corp. and Canon Inc. have closed or reduced operations in Vietnam. Chinese automaker Lifan Group suspended plans to make cars here.
By other measures, Vietnam’s economy is faring better than most in the region. Thanks to a rise in trade of consumer goods, government spending on infrastructure and numerous plant openings in the past, the country’s gross domestic product, or total economic output, is likely to grow by 5.5% this year. That would be the second highest in East Asia after China, according to the World Bank.
Vietnam’s comparative advantages include its motivated workforce, political stability and young population.
But the last couple of years also have been sobering to foreign managers. They’ve learned that Vietnam, with a population of about 87 million, isn’t a smaller version of China.
Though it shares East Asia’s Confucian values of education and family, Vietnam doesn’t have China’s command-and-control way of getting things done quickly. Businesses complain that, even after several years, workers still haven’t finished the highway from Ho Chi Minh City’s airport to downtown. Unlike China, relocation of families is painstakingly slow.
Nor does Vietnam have the depth of skilled labor that some thought. While young Vietnamese show a penchant for learning, universities tend to be heavily theoretical. Many of their graduates lack the practical and technical training needed for careers at multinational companies.
Intel found that out recently when it screened new hires for a $1-billion chip assembly and testing facility that it’s building here. The Santa Clara-based company managed to recruit enough engineering and skilled labor for its first wave of staffing, but realized it would need to build a talent pipeline if it wanted to grow in Vietnam, said people familiar with the situation. Intel is now trying to help local universities develop curriculum and programs.
Intel didn’t respond to a request for comment, but other Western companies also have begun to take a longer-term view of Vietnam.
“There’s been some rethinking,” said Sesto Vecchi, an attorney and consultant in Ho Chi Minh City for the last two decades. Although most foreign investors remain bullish on Vietnam over the long haul, he said, “there’s probably a more realistic sense now of how many people are available to support a fast high-tech industry.”
In some ways, Vietnam’s recent troubles have as much to do with China’s improved business climate than with any particular failing of its own.
Over the last decade, Vietnam had looked more appealing as the U.S. imposed anti-dumping duties on Chinese-made products such as furniture and plastic bags. At the same time, Chinese wages soared, as did raw material costs. Labor laws stiffened. The Chinese yuan surged in value. And authorities thumbed their noses at labor-intensive businesses, eliminating export tax rebates and cracking down on environmental and safety laws.
“The era of China as a low-cost, manufacturing-for-export market has come to an end,” the Shanghai American Chamber of Commerce declared in March 2008, noting that nearly one out of five companies surveyed had concrete plans to relocate some of their China operations to other countries, notably Vietnam.
But the global credit crisis and ensuing recession changed all that. The Chinese government revived export tax rebates and has beefed up infrastructure. China’s commodity prices fell, the yuan stabilized and officials backed away from pressing employers too hard, lest more plants close and jobs disappear.
The same chamber survey a year later found that the percentage of companies planning to relocate out of China had dropped by half, as had the number of respondents expressing concern about China losing its competitive edge.
“The larger companies that have had the experience of looking elsewhere have returned to China,” said Dean Ho, the Shanghai-based vice president of Unison International, an investment and consulting firm. Some of them couldn’t find enough good workers, he said. Others found rival countries had their own challenges.
Liu Guizhong, deputy director of foreign trade for China’s Galanz Group, the world’s largest microwave oven producer, remembers visiting Vietnam last April. He and his colleagues liked what they saw.
They got visas easily upon arrival. Ho Chi Minh City boasted several port facilities. Liu said production wages in Vietnam would be around $60 a month per worker, about half that of rural China and about one-third what Galanz pays workers in China’s coastal cities.
Galanz was considering three sites in Vietnam to build a $25-million plant, including the sprawling suburbs around Ho Chi Minh City near the Saigon River. Then Vietnam’s economy went into a tailspin. Inflation soared to 28% last summer, fueled by soaring commodity prices and rampant speculation in real estate and stocks. Vietnam’s currency sank. A series of labor strikes at garment and footwear plants added to the turmoil.
Galanz retreated. Like others, it now wants to wait until the global financial storm passes. Vietnamese authorities have rolled out new tax relief and other incentives to lure back investors, but Galanz remains noncommittal.
“Many companies are evacuating, so we decided to hold our plans,” Liu said. At the moment, “there are too many negative aspects.”