Hello, Vietnam

Article excerpt

Three decades after the companies of that era are seeking new footholds.

Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, there's a surprising twist to the business environment in modern Vietnam: The U.S. companies that were most closely assoeiatecl with what's known here as the "American War" are being welcomed back by the Vietnamese government, mostly with open arms.

The companies that built weapons systems and bombs, as well as those that built the planes and helicopters that dropped them, have come back to do business and compete for contracts. The list includes Raytheon, Boeing, Sikorsky and Bell. And they arc joined by the companies, including Dow Chemical, DuPont and Monsanto, that made Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant still blamed today for birth defects among children. "They are welcome," says Pham Chi Lan, a senior official in the Hanoi government who advises the prime minister on economic development. "We have waited a long time for them to come back."

That surprisingly forgiving attitude stems at least in part from a healthy pragmatism on the part of the country's leaders. They have seen what foreign investment and trade have done for archrival China and are eager not to be completely eclipsed. "In general," says Lan, "Vietnamese leaders balance the problems of history with the need for new relations today."

The economic indicators in Vietnam have been welcoming as well. GDP growth has clocked in at around 7 percent and above for the past several years. With 7.2 percent growth in 2004, Vietnam has one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia; it is expected to grow 7.5 percent in 2005, according to World Bank calculations. Two-way trade between the U.S. and Vietnam surged to $7 billion in 2004, from just $3 billion in 2002, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, following the 2001 agreement that normalized trade relations and phased in U.S. access to Vietnam's consumer and financial markets.

Open Arms

Representatives of American companies confirm the open-arms policy, saying they have found smooth sailing in getting government licenses to operate here. "DuPont has no difficulties doing business in Vietnam," says Le Hoc Lanh Van, a Vietnamese national who serves as the general manager for DuPont's Vietnam operations in Ho Ghi Minh City. "We have gotten much high-level support."

Van reports that DuPont's business has been growing about 15 percent per year over the past five years, mostly in sales of industrial polymers used for making packaging, as well as in crop protection products, including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. He declined to give sales figures. "People don't remember the war," Van says. "The government and the population now, they don't care about the past. They understand that it's capital, technology and management expertise that are needed to grow the economy."

Even those for whom the war is not a faint memory have been able to make a distinction between the companies that were involved in the war effort then and the same companies seeking to do business in Vietnam today. "For most Vietnamese, it's more about the people who were doing the spraying, rather than the companies that created [the spray]. They're thinking it's the U.S. military, not the companies. They're pragmatic enough to realize that you can't hold a grudge against a company that potentially is going to invest millions of dollars in your country," according to an American expert on Vietnamese culture who asked not to be identified.

"They are very pragmatic," agrees Fred Burke, a Ho Chi Minh City-based American lawyer for Baker & McKenzie, who has been helping companies navigate Vietnamese legal regulations for more than a decade. "They want good technology at a good price. If you were a defense contractor, a Raytheon or a Lockheed, you are very welcome here. The Vietnamese need to modernize their army. If Vietnam isn't able to mount a respectable defense of its borders, there's going to be a tempting power vacuum [for China], because power abhors a vacuum. …