Vietnam’s Transformation

In just a few decades, Vietnam has undergone a dramatic transformation, from an agrarian society to one that has embraced the modern era. Its youthful population and growing middle class have helped drive solid growth—and opportunities for many global investors. This up-and-coming market hasn’t fully embraced capitalism—it remains a Communist state—but it has managed to achieve an interesting balance. There has been a bit of buzz about Vietnam among investors in the past few years, but given the election of Donald Trump as the next US president, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), of which Vietnam would have been a key beneficiary, seems even less likely to move forward. However, new trade deals are in the works—including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which Vietnam has joined along with nine other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea and New Zealand. And, there could be new, bi-lateral trade deals in the future.

Nevertheless, I believe Vietnam remains an attractive destination for both investors and tourists, and we think its future looks bright. I recently had the opportunity to visit Vietnam and see the latest wave of changes taking place.

Vietnam has seen strong economic growth, with gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging just shy of 7% from 2000–2015.1This economic boom has also boosted consumer buying power. In 1990, gross national income (GNI) per capita was US$910, but by 2015, it had risen to $5,690.2 During my recent trip to Vietnam, I found tremendous opportunities in the consumer sector as a result of this rise in income levels.

For example, we visited a dairy company and learned that while per-capita milk consumption in the United States has been above 100 liters per person per year, and in China it was 30 liters, in Vietnam it was only 16 liters. However, that number has been growing very quickly, and it’s no wonder the milk company we visited in Vietnam has seen profit growth every year for the last five years. The company produces fresh raw milk from local cows as well as reconstituted milk from powder, condensed milk, baby formula and yogurt. The company exports its products not only to its neighbors in Asia but also to some markets in the Middle East.

Many companies in Vietnam are government-majority owned, but privatization is expanding with plans to publicly list shares of a number of companies in the future. Some will initially be listed on the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange’s secondary exchange, the UPCoM, which has less stringent disclosure requirements, but we think eventually many companies will likely be required to list on the main board and institute broader disclosure. We believe the sale of some state-owned enterprises should help lower Vietnam’s rising national debt, but foreign direct investments are strong, and industry and exports are doing well. As services (including tourism) represent more than 40% of Vietnam’s GDP, it is the area we are most interested in.3

Phu Quoc Island

To study Vietnam’s tourist industry, my colleagues and I flew down to Phu Quoc Island off the coast of southern Vietnam. We landed at a new, modern airport capable of handling a growing influx of both local and foreign tourists. Local tourists can fly from Ho Chi Minh City for the equivalent of only US$30 to US$50 one way on Vietnam’s low-cost airline. While travel regulations can be tricky and ever-changing, today, foreign tourists can stay between 15 to 30 days without a visa in Phu Quoc, which is a unique concession not available for visitors to other parts of Vietnam.