Opinion & Analysis

NZ perceptions of Vietnam: Forget the conical hats

Vietnam, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, is experiencing a staggering pace of change. If New Zealanders want to engage effectively with the country, we need to make sure our perceptions keep pace, writes Haike Manning.

OPINION: I often ask New Zealanders what they think is Vietnam’s number one export item. Usually, the answers are wrong.

Many people say rice or perhaps coffee. Others suggest footwear and clothing. It seems the bucolic image of a Vietnamese woman in traditional dress and conical hat still looms large in our perception.

In reality, Vietnam’s largest export item last year was mobile phones and smart phones. If you’re using a Samsung Galaxy or Note, or maybe an LG, chances are it was made in Vietnam. In 2017, Vietnam exported a total of US$45 billion (NZ$62 billion) worth of phones.

To put this in context, New Zealand’s largest export in 2017 was US$10 billion worth of dairy.

Vietnam is changing rapidly. Ho Chi Minh City is fast-becoming home to one of Asia’s hottest tech start-up scenes. Vietnamese people are increasingly sophisticated in their use of technology for both social and commercial purposes.Vietnam woman on phone5

Remote areas no longer out of reach

I got my own dose of how far digital technologies had permeated Vietnam two years ago while trekking in the remote hills around Sapa, a mountain town in the north of Vietnam.

I was anticipating a back-to-basics adventure and for the most part it was just that. But one day, as I puffed my way up a particularly steep mountain, my local guide Mai (from the H’Mong local ethnic tribe) took off ahead and was soon just a speck in the distance. When I finally made it to the top of the ridge, I was surprised to find she wasn’t sitting quietly taking in the view. Instead, she was taking full advantage of the downtime, working two phones simultaneously, one a brick and the other a late-model smartphone – chatting on a messenger app with a friend on one, and selling something on the other.

I asked Mai whether she had ever been overseas. No. Had she ever been to Hanoi, the capital city, three hours away by car? No. It turned out she had never left her home province, and had only been once to the provincial capital. Her physical existence was limited to a 25-kilometre radius. But through her smartphone and decent mobile internet, she was now connected to the entire globe. 

Later that evening, as I nursed sore calf muscles at our local homestay, I noticed Mai and her friends clustered around Mai’s smartphone. Turns out they were watching H’Mong language films on YouTube, made by the large H’Mong community in California.

New Zealand needs to update perceptions

I have now lived in Vietnam for five years and even after all that time, I still find my perceptions being constantly challenged by reality. The pace of change in this country is staggering. For visitors to Vietnam, or for foreigners who have never been here, the perception and reality gap is likely even greater.

A 2017 study from PwC predicted that Vietnam will be the fastest growing medium to large economy in the world over the next 30 years, through to 2050. And despite being one of the few Communist run countries left in the world, the Vietnamese people are instinctive capitalists. A 2014 Pew Research Centre survey of Global Attitudes found Vietnamese people were by far the most in favour of a free market economy (95 percent in favour) – almost 20 percent higher than the next country. The entrepreneurial spirit is everywhere here.

With a population of close to 100 million, increasingly globally connected, intensely driven and ambitious, who knows where this country will go, and the influence it will have on the Asia-Pacific region? 

One thing is for sure: New Zealand and the rest of the world will be hearing much more about Vietnam in the coming years. If we want to engage effectively, we need to make sure our perceptions keep pace with the realities of this rapidly changing nation.

Views expressed are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre