Hanoi, Vietnam. Photograph: Andrew Rowan

Last autumn, Vietnam celebrated its 70th anniversary of independence to much fanfare across the country. In Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, a massive parade effectively brought the city to a standstill on September 2 as Vietnamese citizens lined more than 40 streets across several districts in the 1,005 year-old city. Now, all eyes are turned towards the upcoming 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (Đại hội Đảng XII), which begins this week. This quinquennial meeting will set the agenda for the nation’s short- and long-term future as its leadership is renewed. Looking back, for those born after Vietnam’s Đổi mới (Renovation) policy took effect in 1986 (the median age in Vietnam is under 30), the progress that Vietnam and its people have witnessed, especially in the last 20 years, has been remarkable.

Since the international embargo ended in 1994, Vietnam has reached several major economic milestones such as becoming a full member of ASEAN in 1995, joining APEC in 1998, and accession into the WTO in 2007. At the end of last year, we witnessed the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) take shape, creating a single unified market across ASEAN member states with the reduction of tariffs scheduled to be almost zero for many products by 2018. As Vietnam continues to liberalize its economy, additional foreign investment will follow, leading foreign companies to hire more skilled Vietnamese workers (with an increase in wages) and contributing to the rise of Vietnam’s middle-class (though not the only factor). In fact, Vietnam has the fastest-growing middle and affluent class (MAC) in the region — and these future consumers with increased purchasing power will soon have improved access to a variety of new goods via Vietnam’s participation in an assortment of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), including the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement. But in the near future we won’t just see capital and goods flow into Vietnam — we will also see startups, technology, and innovation emerge from Vietnam.

By 2020, Hanoi hopes that Vietnam will become a modern industrialized country of middle income and increase the amount of exports of innovative products and services to the rest of the world. (This objective was announced in 2001 at the 9th National Congress.) In recent years, there have been numerous attempts to lay down the foundation for Vietnamese startups to thrive and even scale beyond Vietnam: the Finland-Vietnam Innovation Partnership Program (2009); HATCH! (2012); TOPICA Founder Institute (2012); Vietnam Silicon Valley Project (2013); Prosperous Vietnam Investment (2014); Startup Grind (2014); Egg Accelerator (2014); and the UNICEF Innovation Lab (2015) — all of which are currently active in Vietnam’s ecosystem.

On the funding side, Vietnam-focused investment funds (with a consistent on-the-ground presence) include IDG Ventures Vietnam (2004); DFJ VinaCapital (2007); CyberAgent Ventures (2009); LGT Venture Philanthropy (2012); Lotus Impact (2013); Unitus Impact (2014); Inspire Ventures (2014); and 500 Startups (2015). Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about “Kinh tế khởi nghiệp” or the Startup Economy in Vietnam. Taking stock of the current pipeline of growing (interest in) startups (and inspired by YC’s RFS), we collaborated with several investors and stakeholders across the country to ask them where they saw opportunities in Vietnam; and what areas they believed that Vietnam-based startups should focus on.

We decided to aggregate this Request for Vietnam Startups (RFVS) along several lines:

  1. Guidelines for developing Agritech, Fintech, and products/services for rural Vietnamese consumers (e.g., 70+ million people)
  2. Looking at demographics and trends; both short and long-term (e.g., ~1 million babies born each year, climate change affecting the Mekong Region, etc.)
  3. Leveraging relative and absolute advantages that Vietnam/Vietnamese talent has (e.g., low cost of labor, long coastline, renewable sources of energy in Ho Chi Minh City vs. Hanoi, etc.)
  4. Exploring critical issues (e.g., pollution, traffic, low standards in public education, corruption, etc.)
  5. A Passion for Wild Cards/Moon Shots

We should clarify that when it comes to startups, we are referring to any project which is sustainable (able to generate revenue) and is designed to scale very quickly — perhaps even designed to scale out of Vietnam. (And it’s different from a small business or a franchise.)

The RFVS can be found in its entirety here.

This RFVS isn’t all-encompassing — that means it’s not meant to be final, rather it’s part of the foundation for the community to disseminate and discuss. It’s a starting point. Not everyone will agree with the published version but that’s to be expected. We’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible in putting this RFVS together: in particular we want to express appreciation to Unitus Impact, 500 Startups, Cobri, 8 Bit Rockstars (.NFQ Asia), LGT Venture Philanthropy, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, and the UNICEF Innovation Lab for their feedback, comments, and/or input to help realize this project.

One thing that most people can agree on is that Vietnam has an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of countries like Japan and South Korea when it comes to its potential for being an economic powerhouse. Vietnam also has the ability to forge its own path along the way since Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora have a variety of strengths: Resilient, Improvisational, Driven, and Entrepreneurial (RIDE), to name a few. Today, Vietnam’s role in the world is still emerging and a prosperous Vietnam is in everyone’s interest. It will take technology, innovation, a long-term vision, investment, and commitment to ensure continued success in the rapidly-changing 21st century.

You can help. If you have an idea or concept then find a way to turn it into a product or service — and eventually a business via Vietnamese developers. If you are an expert in a particular vertical and want to help or be part of the next wave of Vietnamese tech entrepreneurs then come to Vietnam. If you’re already in Vietnam then join a local meetup related to technology, startups, or entrepreneurship in whichever city you are in. If your city hasn’t yet had an event then organize one. If you have the capacity to advise/mentor/guide or lead a Vietnamese startup then sign up here and we will get in touch with you.

The next generation of digital Vietnamese will come online soon — they are part of the Next Billion who will be connected to the Internet and to the rest of the world. But we have elements of the Bottom Billion in Vietnam as well. Not only Vietnam, but the world needs viable tools and solutions for both kinds of billions — and beyond.

Our hope moving forward is two-fold:

1) If you are a talented developer or entrepreneur in Vietnam but don’t have an idea then this RFVS will serve to point you in the right direction; and

2) If you’ve got a brilliant idea for a Vietnam-based startup (in one of these five areas or not) then reach out to one of us who has helped to put this list together so we can point you in the right direction.

For our part, we will continue to focus on capacity building with current and future private and public sector partners and seek to find ways to forge new relationships in the region for Vietnamese enterprises to tap into. Vietnam has come a long way from the days of Thời bao cấp or Subsidy Economy/Period (1976–1986). Now it’s on the way to having a robust and thriving startup and enterprise ecosystem; this RFVS is one step toward that goal. But just like a startup, the process won’t happen overnight and the results won’t be instant: dục tốc bất đạt.



Author of Startup Vietnam: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Socialist Republic. More at www.andrewprowan.com

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Andrew P. Rowan

Author of Startup Vietnam: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Socialist Republic. More at www.andrewprowan.com