The Olympia Schools

We all remember the best and worst teachers we had growing up but what makes a school great? Is it the students, the teachers, or the environment? Is it a top-down approach, organic growth, or innovative teaching methods? Or is it simply a matter of caring and going beyond preparing students for the next stage of life?

With some exceptions, primary and secondary education in Asia doesn’t have a stellar reputation to begin with: many schools are pressure cookers that are ripe with rampant student cheating, some who freely admit to doing so. In some instances parents pay teachers to “look after” their children and teachers pay the school’s principal to get a job in the first place. Traditionally, the goal of education in large parts of Asia is to absorb and repeat as much as factual knowledge as possible (rote learning) all without questioning the wisdom and authority of teachers.

The Olympia Schools aims to change the educational mindset whereby students focus on how to learn and access information so that they are able to develop the critical thinking skills which will be essential when facing new challenges in the 21st century. The school places emphasis on the process of learning, and seeks to intersect theory and practice for each of its units throughout the school year.

Simply put, the Olympia Schools are a new breed of education in Vietnam. The school started out as Dream House 11 years ago and was the creation of four Vietnamese women who weren’t satisfied with the local kindergarten offerings in the neighborhood. So naturally, they did what anyone would do: they opened their own school. Word spread about the new school and it became a popular school with parents who wanted better alternatives for their children. It was so popular that when the co-founders’ children finished kindergarten, they started an elementary school. Finally, about four years ago the school became the Olympia Schools. Today, some students are bused to the school from up to an hour away.

Christopher McDonald, a native of Michigan, is the Head of Schools. He has played an integral part in shaping the school’s atmosphere and amenities to form the current school environment. We stopped by on a recent Friday morning to speak with Mr. McDonald about what makes the Olympia Schools unique in Vietnam and how the school is preparing its students for life (the school’s motto).

A Meteoric Rise in a Decade

The Olympia Schools is located in Trung Van, Tu Liem, Hanoi. The facilities at the school include a tennis court, a football (soccer) field, an art studio, a games area, a weight room, and even an underground swimming pool. The vast majority of the students are Vietnamese and instruction is given in both English and Vietnamese. Among one of the many notable firsts, the school was the first in Vietnam to offer the PSAT last year and currently offers AP courses. During the summer, the school is host to a camp called Utopia where participants create their own society.

The campus has a distinct international feel to it and has a wide range of easing colors throughout the halls. When we arrived, the first graders were practicing for the Winter Festival, to be held later this month. There is a good feel of school spirit, from the formal uniforms (which are worn every day except on Casual Fridays) to the country flags hanging in the entrance hall to the nice green spaces surrounding most of the school (it’s sometimes hard to find quality green space in a bustling city like Hanoi). Even Martial Arts and cooking classes are offered and the students’ photos are displayed on digital signage on their birthdays, a nice way to make the students feel even more special.

Below is the school’s mission statement:

“The Olympia Schools embrace Vietnamese values while providing an integrated experience in the study of English and global issues by developing fundamental skills, fostering creativity and problem solving, and promoting ethics that allow students to adapt, to improvise, and to overcome challenges–we prepare students for life.”

Grades 1 through 12 are offered at the campus and there are plans to bring the kindergarten classes on site in the future. The school also has partnerships with educational organizations in the United States as well as Canada—something that gives it an advantage in terms of prestige but also exposes its partner schools to resources on the other side of the world–a winning formula for all.

The school also focuses on soft skills beyond the classroom to develop all aspects of a student’s character and attitude. The faculty is a mix of local and foreign teachers and we saw several classrooms that had projectors as you would find in the US. The school currently uses a four term school year where students focus on different objectives each term. For example, Term 1 revolves around project based learning (PBL); Term 2 ends in traditional formal testing; Term 3 features Creative Learning Expression which requires the student to demonstrate what s/he has learned via any medium; and Term 4 is a portfolio review/analysis which culminates in a reflective end to the school year. For more information about the terms, please see here.

Additionally, there is a summer skills component which may include an internship, e-project, or reading assignment. As a testament to how impactful the school’s efforts are, Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) has followed The Olympia School’s success in regards to using integrated studies in its curriculum. The result has been Olympia Schools graduates going on to be successful in their university careers, in large part due to the emphasis on scholarship and continuing studies.

As profiled in the Forbes piece:

“It was the first Vietnamese school with a college counselor on site like an international school—normally college counseling is offered via a separate paid center—and its graduates often attend university overseas.”

The school’s alumni in recent years have gone on to study in the US, Singapore, Australia, China, and other countries. From organizing a kindergarten class to building an entire campus and sending students off to universities within a decade; an amazing feat indeed.

A Future Model

On December 20 and 21, the Winter Festival will be held at the Olympia Schools. The Winter Festival will feature performances, a fair, and games and will include participants from other schools in Hanoi as well. This year’s theme is fairy tales of Vietnam and other countries with the purpose being to raise money for the “Seasons of Care” fund which was founded four years ago. The fund aims to build a new water supply and filtration system for Na Loc Primary School, Ban Mu, Tu Xuyen, Van Quan County in Lang Son Province, close to China. Art performances and games will be held from 2:00 PM to 9:00 PM on both days as the fair provides opportunities for the community to come together to make an impact in Vietnam all while enjoying each other’s company.

So beyond this month, what’s in store for the Olympia Schools? Well, it hopes to be the new model for schooling in Vietnam by combining learning with experiences in and out of the classroom, i.e., learning by doing and by sharing with others.

In this day and age students cannot afford to be mere bystanders or observers of history because the classroom of today will be the workplace of tomorrow in terms of diversity, culture, and foundations of excellence. The successful students will be the ones who communicate effectively, who engage with different and relatively unknown cultures from their own, who think critically, who ask thoughtful questions, who reflect upon their experiences, and who can work together with anyone to accomplish synergy.

Schools like The Olympia Schools realize the new world that we all live in–this Information Age–and seek to prepare students for a rapidly changing and volatile world by enabling them to craft and assemble the tools to understand and overcome complex global challenges that they will encounter in their lives. This task is critical because one day in the near future students will have to answer a vital question: what does this change mean for me?

Thanks to Christopher McDonald, Head of Schools for sharing his time with us and answering our questions. 


Being an Expat

We’re a bit late with the post this week as we spent last week in Saigon. What a change it’s been since last year: massive construction on Nguyen Hue, new buildings, and new faces as some familiar ones have moved on. Saigon is definitely a city in flux–the growing pains are evident trying to navigate around District 1 or District 2–and it seems like it will be that way for awhile as the metro takes shape.

Anecdotally, if an expat in Vietnam makes it to two years in Vietnam then s/he either stays for the long haul or heads to a different place. Thus, there is a staggered mass exodus every two years—which means that the expat community that is present today was largely not around five or more years ago.

In many ways, being an expat in Vietnam is about survival: who can outlast, adapt, and add value in ways that locals and foreign companies will appreciate and are willing to pay for. At the same time, the decision to invest more into Vietnam can be difficult (especially for expat entrepreneurs). Another way to look at it is how integrated should one be in Vietnamese society?

While there are benefits (business rights, visa, and so on) that come with a local spouse anywhere, whatever costs savings by living in a developing nation are wiped out if one is sending his/her child to a quality private school. So there are other considerations for entrepreneurs attempting to integrate into Vietnam beyond learning Vietnamese and moving into a fringe/edge business—especially for older expats. Indeed, it can be hard to change over from a lifestyle business to a scalable business model.

Finding the right balance in Vietnam can be challenging for many people. For example, there is the uninhibited nightlife in Saigon, and there are the midnight curfews in Hanoi. Business meetings can last from two to three hours and even longer if the booze is flowing and the bonds are strengthening. Where does the line for business and personal relationships end? Sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish whether it’s a friend or a business associate who is picking up the check–and sometimes it’s both.

There is a small town feel here—less so than Vientiane or Phnom Penh—but it’s not uncommon to run into the same circle of people in various establishments or at least to meet people who know the same ones that you do. For expats who want to be successful here and in Southeast Asia, Vietnam should be a long term plan. There is no doubt that Saigon, Da Nang (Hoi An included) and Hanoi attract different kinds of expats. But too often, a segment of expats seem to fall into a cycle of complacency, vices, and distractions. Out of those three cities, it’s perhaps easiest to lose a sense of self in the sprawling metropolis of Saigon; the loneliness of being an expat can contribute to a less-than-healthy lifestyle as well.

For certain, mistakes will be made both in business and social settings in a new environment and setting—no one is perfect. The key is to learn from mistakes and to not repeat them again. Even when some people have reached their wits end after being here for years, other opportunities have popped up which have compelled them to stay—but it’s only because they’ve tried and failed previously that they were noticed–and had the reputation to be suitable for a new project. But what drives people to “leave Vietnam for a third time?” Or to stay in Vietnam for years and never learn the language beyond a basic level?

The real opportunity here is to create and shape markets. Vietnam is still in “tree growing” mode. Sure, one day there will be a harvest—but it takes time, money, and other resources to educate consumers, stakeholders, and to build/create a marketplace. To that end, Vietnam needs more entrepreneurial talent, more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) talent that knows what it takes to bring a product to the global market, and more people who are interested in Vietnam from a cultural point of view instead of a bia hoi/bia om focus. But, how to attract such talent?

For starters, lower the risk of coming to Vietnam and doing business here (corporate governance), lower the barriers to raising capital here for startups (beyond incorporating in Singapore and keeping a local team here), and promote finding ways to leverage local talent to create products and services that can be differentiated.

Another major pitfall for expats is to adopt local ways of thinking and doing things. It’s very easy to complain and to succumb to some of the craziness that permeates interactions in the workplace and beyond. Staying rooted, being patient, and remaining steadfast during negotiations are valuable qualities to have ample supplies of. However, also knowing when to quit due to wasting time, the expectation of charity, or unprofessional expat or local counterparts can save many headaches for everyone involved. It’s definitely easier said than done and is a skill that takes time to develop.

Above all, expats should find that their tolerance for healthy and smart risks will have increased after living/working in Asia. Whether it’s riding a motorbike to/from work in the middle of crazy traffic patterns, or dating someone from another culture, or seizing a new opportunity, each experience will help shape confidence and character in future situations.

Living and working in a new country is a risk itself—why stop there? Vietnam is not perfect—no country is. But finding the good in situations and people is more of the result of attitude instead of focusing on all the current problems. Part of the trouble is that the more things change, the more they stay the same—especially here, just with fewer expats that you know. In that sense, finding what’s right about Vietnam can be harder than usual. If you’re in a city that you don’t like, then move somewhere else. If you’ve tried a few cities and still aren’t happy then move to another country. This place isn’t for everyone and staying true to oneself and being ethical/moral seems to be a challenge for many, including westerners. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

For those that stay in this part of the world, have a strong sense of self, and see opportunities, “if a whole country is blind and you have one eye, then you can be king.”


Uncharted Territory

Ebola-VientianeIn 1976 Ebola virus (EBOV or EVD) was discovered in a village in Central Africa near a river from which the virus takes its name. Prior to this year, EBOV had only been present in Africa—but that all changed as infected people in Africa headed west and brought the virus with them. Today, Ebola has reached the developed world and cases continue to grow exponentially in West Africa. According to the WHO, “the average EVD case fatality rate is around 50%.”

As of October 17, there have been 9216 confirmed cases and 4555 deaths according to the WHO and roughly every 21 days the resource requirements necessary to defeat Ebola double. Currently, the organization leading the fight against EBOV, Medicins San Frontieres (MSF), has reached their capacity to provide care for patients in West Africa. On the other side of the Atlantic there are about 1,000 people under some level of supervision or quarantine in the US.

Prime Minister Cameron has called Ebola, the “biggest health threat to our world in a generation.” Global awareness has been raised—but it still hasn’t translated into much action.The UN trust fund specifically for battling Ebola has only received $100,000 out of $20 million pledged. Yes, the US is prepared to dispatch up to 3,000 soldiers to affected areas in West Africa and Cuba has sent more than 450 medical personnel to help with the Ebola outbreak there but more resources need to be diverted to West Africa to get a leg up on the disease.

The current efforts haven’t been particularly reassuring consider that the UN has admitted that it has “botched” the initial response to the Ebola threat. And once the virus arrived in the US, the way that Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital handled Thomas Duncan’s case can be summed up in a series of missteps. There is simply too much misinformation, hubris, and dogma present in how the danger of Ebola has been communicated to the public.

Unclear Events

Let’s take a look at how information regarding the American EBOV cases came out recently:

Story #1: ABC News – 10/15 – 10:30AM

“The level of risk to people around her would be extremely low,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Frieden says the health care worker traveled to Ohio before she knew that the first nurse had been diagnosed. She was undergoing self-monitoring at the time.

The unidentified nurse flew to Cleveland on Friday, the same day a colleague, nurse Nina Pham, was hospitalized. Pham’s diagnosis with Ebola was disclosed on Sunday.

The airplane’s crew said she had no symptoms of Ebola during her return flight on Monday. But Tuesday morning she developed a fever and on Tuesday night tested positive for Ebola.

Story #2: NBC – 10/15 – 4:30PM

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters that the nurse had a temperature of 99.5 degrees before she got on the plane on Monday.

Because of that reading, and because she had treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, the nurse should not have been on the plane, he said.

“She should not have traveled on a commercial airline,” Frieden said.

Story #3: WFAA ABC – 10/15 – 9:19PM

It was later confirmed that the CDC gave Vinson permission to get on the plane because she was showing no other symptoms of the virus, and her temperature didn’t reach the threshold of 100.4 degrees.

“She wasn’t bleeding or vomiting,” Frieden said. “The level of risk around her would be extremely low, but because of the extra margin of safety, we will be contacting [all those who were on the flight].”

Story #4: The Blaze – 10/16 – 12:24AM

In a letter to employees, Frontier Airlines CEO Dave Siegel said he “was notified by the CDC that the passenger may have been symptomatic earlier than initially suspected; including the possibility of possessing symptoms while onboard the flight,”

The CDC had previously said that the nurse “exhibited no signs or symptoms of illness” while on the flight, but said they still wanted individuals who were on the flight to contact them. In a statement, Frontier had echoed that and said their crew didn’t observe any signs of illness from the patient.

Story #5: Reuters – 10/16 – 6:07PM

An Ebola-infected Texas nurse who traveled to Ohio over the weekend to plan for her wedding may have been ill as early as Friday[10/10], a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

Dr. Christopher Braden told a news conference in Ohio that the CDC may include people who were on a flight Amber Joy Vinson took to Cleveland from Dallas on Friday in its investigation of possible contacts.

Vinson went to a bridal shop in Akron on Saturday but otherwise spent the weekend mainly with family before taking a return flight to Dallas on Monday, the day before she was diagnosed with Ebola, according to county health official

Dr. Marguerite Erme, medical director for Summit County, told the news conference that people who visited Coming Attractions Bridal & Formal Inc in Akron from noon to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday should contact health officials.

Eight people who had confirmed contact with Vinson during her Ohio visit in Summit and Cuyahoga counties are in voluntary quarantine and have not shown symptoms of the virus, county health officials said.

Uncertain Direction Ahead

Of course, more people have died than has been officially reported due to the challenges of obtaining accurate data in the field and the scale of the outbreak. For example, there is an overwhelming flow of patients to newly established care centers as soon as they open and the untold economic effects will surely linger long after the outbreak reaches equilibrium. Co-discoverer of EBOV Peter Piot: “The three countries that are affected are being totally destabilized, not only in terms of people who are killed by Ebola — their families, the orphans that now are coming up because the parents died — but the economy has come to a standstill[.]”

In Vietnam, the extent of Ebola on the radar here was when a few rumors were spread by locals in August an attempt to raise awareness. Upon arrival at Wattay International Airport, debarking passengers are presented with an Ebola information card as they pass through a manned kiosk. While the Noi Bai (Hanoi) airport also has a kiosk, it was not manned when arriving late last month. It’s worth noting that airport officials have tightened restrictions since then.

However, all is not bleak: Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer didn’t infect anyone else on his flight to Nigeria despite having clear visible signs of the disease. Also, Thomas Duncan’s family seem to have not been infected–although the real “all-clear” threshold is 42 days instead of 21. Furthermore, the UN recently officially declared the outbreak in Senegal over and Nigeria has managed to stop the spread of Ebola beyond the few outliers that broke protocol. These are real successes and lucky breaks.

The upcoming Flu season will be a true test of healthcare systems in the US and other nations as the fear of Ebola continues to rise and more infected people span out of currently affected areas. Travel plans, daily habits, and business activities will all be altered as people attempt to minimize exposure to anyone who might be infected. Let’s hope that the mishandling of the initial cases will serve as a wake up call to governments, health organizations, and people so that a more proactive approach to combat Ebola can take shape.

Additional Resources:

An up-to-date timeline of how the Ebola virus has spread around the world.

A recent Johns Hopkins Symposium discussing what is known and unknown about Ebola.


Startup Israel–2014 Competition

On October 6, 2014, Hub.IT hosted an information session about Startup Israel–2014 Competition, an initiative organized by the Embassy of Israel in Vietnam in collaboration with Ministry of Science and Technology and Business Studies and Assistance Center (BSA). The information session was an opportunity for startup teams to ask Ambassador H.E Ms. Meirav Eilon Shahar questions about the competition as well as to learn more details about the application requirements.

During the event, Ambassador H.E Ms. Meirav Eilon Shahar (who has been Ambassador to Vietnam for about two years) explained that the competition launched about a month ago and it’s the first program of its kind that the Israeli Embassy in Hanoi is promoting. According to Hub.IT, approximately 30 startups were represented in the audience. The competition’s deadline was recently extended to accommodate an influx of new candidates.

The competition specifically seeks Vietnamese seed stage companies. The interesting feature of this competition is that the startups get to choose what to send to the review panel—so they need to determine the best way to present their startup’s idea, team, product, competitive advantage, etc.

The winners will be announced in mid-November and they will travel to Israel in December to take part is what has been termed a “study tour.” The exact details are unknown but suffice to say the Vietnamese entrepreneurs will meet similar startups, visit with incubators, take in lessons learned and connect with businesses in Israel, which already has a global outlook for its startup community.

Originally, the plan was to send startup founders for a few months to work with startup companies in Israel but that was deemed unrealistic due to the time commitment required. So, the project had to be adapted to the Vietnamese reality of being busy with managing a startup. Now, one representative from each team from each sector will go to Israel for primarily networking, learning from adaptation, and knowledge exchange. Ultimately, the organizational partners want to see the results of this first “class.” Maybe the results will be too limited so the project can be tweaked in the future or additional resources (except financial) can be added, such as tutoring.

The hope for the project is that the Vietnamese founders have the study tour to learn about the ecosystem and to make connections with Israeli founders. One of the big lessons learned is that startups involve failure—but despite failing one should try to improve for the next time.

According to a handout that was distributed to the participants:

“The competition brings together Vietnamese startups throughout the country to compete for the opportunity to take part in an intense startup study in Israel.

Only four representatives from four winning teams selected from the shortlist of 8 teams will go to Israel for the startup study tour in December 2014.

In order to eligible to apply for the competition, applicants need to meet the following criteria:

Age of submitting founder: 20-40

Sectors: Web/Mobile/Agriculture/Life Science

Stage of Startup: Seed Stage

Participants are responsible for reserving their intellectual property rights to the submitted products.

At least one member of the founding team of the startup should be fluent in English.”

Israeli Vietnamese Connection

The purpose of this project is to share experience with Vietnamese entrepreneurs and to expose Vietnamese startups to the Israeli startup scene. The startup scene in Israel is privately-led by businesses—although at a time it was largely government directed. The Israeli market is small; its population is approximately 8 million so everything has to be exported globally; this outward focus is true for all Israeli businesses. So in a sense, Israeli startups need to have a global view even from the onset whereas American startups can focus on the available 300+ million population. Indeed, even the VC presence is difficult in Israel but it was harder before; Israel in the 1980s was very different than today’s Israel—it improved over time, developed competition, and leveraged a strong teamwork ethic to foster innovation.

Israel is currently experiencing a debate over whether exit events by local startups and the resulting outflow of human capital is taking away innovation. Is it better to keep innovation in Israel at the expense of a potential exit? Startups in Israel simply go to US and maybe Japan. However, traditional entrepreneurs come to Vietnam as part of delegations and invest as small businesses.

Ambassador H.E Ms. Meirav Eilon Shahar revealed that the Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology was in Israel last week for five days. During this time, the first joint committee was formed and Minister Nguyen Quan met with Israel’s chief scientist to learn more about the Israeli startup sector and the unique ecosystem in Israel. As a result, Israel and Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to increase collaboration between the two nations in the fields of science and technology. In Vietnam, the Israeli Embassy in Hanoi is concentrating in private sector because government support is currently limited for startups.

A Winning Formula

Flexible criteria was purposely selected to be as inclusive as possible in order to spur creativity for the Vietnamese entrepreneurs who might connect with Israeli startup. What is important for startups to remember is to have the right product/market fit. It may be that the most important life experience is to go to another environment than one’s home country—in this instance for Vietnamese entrepreneurs to go abroad. Bobby Liu, founder of Hub.IT, explained, “I realized that we are only a few years behind Singapore, which started its accelerator in 2012. Being successful requires a lot of confidence. We have no choice but to explore since Vietnam may not have a suitable environment. Go somewhere else to explore: that’s what entrepreneurs do.”

Failure is a part of startups; entrepreneurs need to see and learn how to improve for the next time. It’s a long term haul—not a short-term win. One industry that Israel has focused on to grow and “own” is Homeland Security; in fact, Israel will be hosting the Israel Homeland Security convention next month which features information on cyber security, emergency preparedness, and law enforcement.

Considering there is no signup form, the challenge for startups is to submit an application that best portrays the product to the judging panel. So, 10 page proposals are out and the idea should be optimally refined to a single sentence of explanation (with supporting information). Hopefully, better judgment prevails here.

Interested parties can apply as outlined below (via handout):

An application in both English and Vietnamese includes general information about the startup and thorough business plans in PDF.

A video clip in English, no more than 2-3 minutes long, explaining why their company should be picked to go to Israel.

After screening of applications and video clips, 8 finalists will have interviews (in English) with a board of judges including representatives from the Embassy, the Ministry, and BSA. The final interview stage consists of presentation and Q&A session with judges.

Applications needs to be sent by email only to the following address:

For more information, please contact Ms. Phan Thuy Trang; Mobile: 0914 551 528; Email: or visit the Embassy Homepage or the Embassy’s Facebook page.

The deadline for submission is October 15, 2014 and only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

Ongoing Events in Hong Kong

The images coming out of Hong Kong over the past week have been increasingly troubling as tensions rise between protesters and authorities—and the political, economic, and social impacts remain unclear as the Occupy Central movement builds. Ultimately, it boils down to competing narratives: one where the protestors are “rabble rousers” who are perverting the spirit of the Basic Law in Hong Kong. Of course, the protesters and their supporters see the situation as fighting for their ability to freely choose an elected leader without interference from Beijing—at least on the face of the movement—but there is, no doubt, underlying economic pressures that have influenced the course of events to lead to a potentially transformative event like Occupy Central.

At the forefront of this movement to retain autonomy from China (and to express their grievances) is the youth of Hong Kong. Each day, more people are joining the ranks of fresh faces on the ground, thereby disrupting daily school, work, and livelihoods. On one hand, stability is important—especially in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)—and let’s face it: Hong Kong relies on financial operations and markets flowing smoothly in order to prosper. At the same time, a segment of people in Hong Kong wish to express themselves—but at what cost?

On The Ground in Hong Kong

Below is a first-hand account of what things are like in and around the tense atmosphere. Please note that GKTA Group Limited does not endorse, condone, or support the following views unless otherwise noted.

“This week is usually really important for Hong Kong shopkeepers, because people from continental China are on holidays for national day and go to Hong Kong for shopping–those sales represent an important part of the turnover in the season.

Actually, [Friday], I was in Causeway Bay, which is a shopping quarter – the place where the riots took place – there were only tourists from continental China inside shops. But students and demonstrators from [the] Occupy [Central movement] were still blocking the streets.

I was in a shop – which was unexpectedly calm for a sales period – and we got blocked inside because of the arrival of those men wearing masks and the beginning of riots between “pro” and “anti[.]” Here, it is said that these “anti”-guys come from the Triads funded by the government.

In two minutes, the ambiance changed dramatically from a friendly atmosphere to a strained and electric one. But tourists didn’t seem to be frightened, and two blocks further, families were quietly going shopping.

However, some people seem really exhausted here, especially shopkeepers and people supporting Beijing, and even in my subway station far from the center of the city, people are fighting. I cannot speak a word of Cantonese so it is quite hard for me to understand discussions.

Besides, we need to take into account inequalities in Hong Kong: 50.000 people are literally living in cages and 50.000 people are living in subdivided flats with the same indecent comfort.

And this “great” movement for democracy comes from students from rich and well-off classes but is not followed by the part of population with tough living conditions whose first priority is not democracy.

Concerning the impact on the economy, usually, people go out of work and then join demonstrations and sittings. However, the whole central quarter is blocked and lot of people work at home. The major part of banks and companies are paralyzed because of barricades and closed subway stations in the business district, but for the moment, it is just impacting shopkeepers.

Plus, as everything is free during demonstrations (drinks, food, umbrellas, masks), shops around don’t really take advantage of it. I don’t know who pay[s] for all that stuff; [the] gossip [is] that it is funded by billionaires supporting the Occupy movement, but these are just rumors.”

The Global and Local Response

Nationalism for many countries in this region involves simply showing that one’s side is more vocal, animated, and devoted to its cause—which can result in ugly protests and political fervor. The response to the Hong Kong protests from the world (largely) has been to support the growing student and citizen movement in Hong Kong. Across Facebook, users in Vietnam and other countries are sharing links of the media coverage of the events as they unfold. Perhaps the Vietnamese are taking a deeper interest in China (as opposed to other Southeast Asian nations) because of the recent events in the South China Sea; the Vietnamese and Chinese histories have been intertwined for approximately 2,000 years.

Every nation acts in its own self-interest; the Chinese have shown that they are long-term and strategic thinkers who are adept at influencing external factors to achieve their aims. There are two clear ways the situation can play out: either the protestors become tired and go home, or Beijing gives in to the protestor’s demands. If Beijing gives in then it would set a precedent—a bad one from the government’s perspective, and a good one for supporters of Occupy Central.

If we look at the recent controversy over HD-981, the $1 billion oil rig owned and operated by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the rig was moved out of the way when an incoming typhoon threatened the rig—not because Beijing had realized it had caused a major disturbance with its southern neighbor. Beijing was most likely testing uncharted territory by moving the rig into the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), thereby surprising Hanoi. And it was Vietnam, not China that felt the economic sting due to riots and protests that damaged hundreds of factories back in May.

From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like China is the common denominator for disputes in the region, whether it’s in the South China Sea, or Hong Kong, or in the East China Sea. However, from the Chinese perspective, they believe they had every right to move its HD-981 oil rig within the nine-dash line—and of course, the Chinese position on Hong Kong is clear after reading the recently published white paper and considering the latest statement via the People’s Daily newspaper. It’s a tough situation all around for those involved as they strive to realize their aims and guide the episode’s outcome in their favor.

What about future issues in the region—how might they look like? There is a distinct possibility that the next time China and another country or Special Administrative Region (SAR) differ on principles, it will most likely be the dissenting party that pays the price—not China. However this situation in Hong Kong pans out, the bottom line is that some future investments may flow into Shanghai and Singapore (since they look more stable than Hong Kong at this point) as a result of this episode of social unrest. Beijing has a distinct advantage going forward: time–in the sense that as events continue to develop, the Occupy Central protesters and their opinions may become more fragmented as Beijing remains steadfast in its stance.

Thanks to Lina Skoglund for sharing her views and photos, and to Louis Boulay for contributing to this post.

Vientiane, Lao PDR

In the 1960s Vientiane had the reputation of being the wildest city in Asia. Today, Laos–with Vientiane as its “sleepy” capital–is known as one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. Usually, people know one of two facts about Laos: that it is land-locked or that it is the most heavily-bombed country, per-capita, in the world as a result of being a battleground for 20th century ideology. However, these quick facts don’t do the beautiful country and its warm and friendly people justice–and this basic knowledge barely scratches the surface of the complex history of Southeast Asia.

Laos shares a linked history with Vietnam but this relationship was further strengthened during French colonial times, and continued through the Second Indochina War. Even today, there are strong and deep ties between the two countries; for example, earlier this year Vietnam funded an upgrade to the Kaysone Phomvihane museum in Vientiane.

Similar to Vietnam, Lao PDR began to open its economy to the world in 1986 but maintained strict controls on its political apparatus. Despite the current political and economical situation, there is foreign investment here; a significant portion of new construction projects are implemented by either Vietnamese or Chinese companies depending on the size of the project. For existing construction, the electrical wiring indoors, while exposed, is run neatly, and the wiring in the streets are bundled together in an orderly fashion. In homes, switches and outlets are grouped together in junction boxes that are dispersed at chest level in various rooms. Anecdotally, the power might go out for a few hours once a month in the capital.

The most visible element of consumption by the upper class, luxury vehicles, are somewhat common throughout the capital and there are some nicely designed houses in a westernized sort of style dotted throughout Vientiane. The Toyota Hilux is the unofficial vehicle of Laos as it is ubiquitous throughout the capital. Furthermore, a significant number of vehicles are modified from their stock origins in some way–be it hood scoops, snake eyes, or chrome accents–so there is a growing tuner culture in Vientiane.

Unfortunately, rush hour traffic fills up portions of the city quickly and traffic jams can occur for no apparent reason, e.g., lack of a traffic collision or police checkpoint. When there isn’t heavy traffic, whirring diesel engines and turbo-chargers spooling up in SUVs are common sounds (and the drivers love to careen down roads meant to be driven on no higher than 30 or 40 KPH). Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and other luxury vehicle brands have dealer presences in the capital; considering Lao PDR’s economic rankings, it can be surprising to see the Mercedes SLS in a showroom—and even more surprising to see it on the roads of Vientiane.

Vientiane Through Foreign and Local Eyes

Chiang Mai, Thailand and Vientiane, Lao PDR are two cities that are similar despite being in different countries; in terms of population, consumer preferences, and lifestyles they are very much aligned. Additionally, there is a strong Thai influence in regards to fashion, youth culture, news, and entertainment in Laos. The Lao PDR capital is literally across the river from northern Thailand, after all.

Even though many Thailand-based expats (farong in Thai) travel to Vientiane for visa-runs, it’s surprising that there isn’t a larger presence of foreign freelancers in Vientiane and in Laos in general. From a visa perspective, it can seem quite attractive for remote workers and there exists the support for foreign freelancers in Vientiane in the form of Toh Lao co-working space. For foreign full-time professionals, the options range from EMC to Sciaroni and Associates to DFDL (the last organization having been founded in Lao PDR). Of course, there are also some foreign banks such as VietinBank and Sacombank (Vietnamese banks) that have branches in Vientiane and there are also many foreign restaurants in the capital to represent small expat-operated businesses—Istanbul Restaurant, Soul Kitchen, and Jamil Zahid to name a few.

Many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have a large presence in Vientiane as well so there are expat support staff who regularly work with their local counterparts. In general, locals and foreigners who might meet and develop a romantic interest in each other can’t live together and sexual relations between them are forbidden–but marriage is always an option for those who find their soul mates in Lao PDR. A good way to meet people in the Vientiane business community is via weekly events such as the meetups put on by AmChamLao. In addition to the robust expat house party scene, there are the famous get-togethers at CCC bar in downtown Vientiane. Overall, Vientiane is a small place—there is a sense of a village mentality so reputation is important since “everyone knows everyone” in both the local and expat communities.

Outside of Vientiane and into the Countryside

The youth of Lao PDR’s high-society (Hi-So) in Vientiane can be found at Mark2 or Marina wearing trendy and/or revealing clothes and dancing the night away to western style arena house music from Thursday through Saturday nights. “After hours” almost always includes karaoke in some interesting but comfortable places for all sexes (since the culture is inclusive). Yet, these experiences are so far removed from the daily lives of the average Laotian.

Outside of Vientiane things quickly become poor besides a few cities like Luang Prabang, Pakse, and Suvannahkhet. Think unpaved roads, wooden huts, shoeless children, etc. However, throughout Lao PDR there exists a deeply respectful and hospitable culture with a strong beer drinking tradition; Lao people are perhaps the most laid back in Southeast Asia. The quintessential Lao experience is singing karaoke on a nearby river or body of water while drinking Beerlao. Social gatherings are important and women and men are not always separated at these events where people are sometimes sitting on the floor and are sharing food with one another. One unique aspect of Lao culture is the use of a single glass to drink beer in addition to a personal glass, which is passed around and shared among all the guests at an special event.

Other activities that Laotians enjoy include fishing, football (there already is a healthy representation of the up-to-date Germany World Cup jerseys), and petanque. Petanque in Laos is different than petanque in France (where it originated) and government ministries usually have a petanque court on site. Half the government ministries have their signs in French, and the other half in English (besides Lao)–the same goes for the road names in Vientiane.

The three most visible brands throughout Laos are Beeline, a telecommunications company; Beerlao, a product of Lao Brewing Company—a joint-venture between Carlsberg and Lao PDR; and Johnnie Walker, which is also popular in Thailand. Beerlao is on every restaurant sign as well as restaurant equipment such as standees and cash register desks—the result is a very large market share of beer consumption in Lao PDR.

A Future Focus

Officially, the Lao PDR government actively seeks investments in agriculture, hydropower, manufacturing, and tourism, according to its investment brochure. Organically, Laos experienced its first Startup Weekend ever in Vientiane in May of this year. Last week, Nana Souannavong, president of Snap International, and co-founder of Toh Lao co-working space, was gracious enough to explain to us the state of the startup ecosystem in Vientiane.

As Nana sees it, the biggest challenge ahead of the Vientiane startup community is getting people to understand what a startup is and getting people to be more entrepreneurial because they like the stability of public sector jobs. She shared with us that a generally strong curiosity among participants and a higher proportion of female entrepreneurs are the biggest strengths of the startup community in Vientiane. Those (aspiring) entrepreneurs who are passionate are the hardcore ones who stick through the multi-day events such as Startup Weekend–and they will be the ones to get the most out of the events. It gave her hope to see so many people show up to the first Startup Weekend because if no one showed up then she knew that the community wouldn’t be ready for another five years–the fact that people showed up was a huge victory for the Vientiane startup community. Nana also revealed that the winners of the May event are still working on the concept but as a side project since the team members already had a full-time focus before winning at the Startup Weekend.

While the official Lao PDR Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) office also supports startups, there will be many challenges on the way to creating and building a suitable environment for venture capital (VC) firms and angel investors to operate in—something does not exist although there are other forms of external investments. However, the legal framework does exist for foreign investors and founders in regards to equity but only outside of the retail industry. Nana’s advice to future entrepreneurs is to “think through what you are trying to do to understand the consequences.” Along those lines, her favorite quote is “life is an investment.” She should know since her company provides financial advice in money markets for local and foreign companies.

Startup Vientiane

At the Startup Weekend, there was a mix of tech and non-tech products and services being pitched but going forward there are no obvious areas for startups to form around. Y Combinator, perhaps the most prestigious startup accelerator, has a Request for Startups (RFS) feature on its website. While the list below is not a request for startups in the strictest sense, it does provide an external view on the opportunities in Vientiane and beyond after speaking to locals and longterm residents.

Opportunities for Startups:

-Targeting tourism (perhaps first via and then expanding on original concepts specifically for Lao PDR)

-Creating accounting controls (perhaps in the form of mobile applications) for local and/or foreign SME in Lao PDR

-Products and/or services for the many NGOs in Lao PDR, e.g., tools to train local staff or tapping into external crowd funding

-Leveraging the growing consumer communities (for example, the car tuner culture) and collecting data points on them

-Helping expats to adjust to Laos by finding housing, goods, or services more easily (a better English->Lao dictionary, for example)

Perhaps when people think of Lao PDR in the future, a third fact might enter their consciousness: a growing startup hub centered around Vientiane. The people in Lao PDR have many things to offer the world–foremost among them is their hospitality and resilient attitude–this much is apparent upon crossing the border into Lao PDR. Another Startup Weekend is scheduled for later this year at Toh Lao co-working space–hopefully, the organizers will be able to build off the success of the last event and the participants will take even bigger risks to share their ideas with the community. It will be a long road indeed, but with community leaders like Nana, anything is possible.


Yamaha Town Hanoi

On September 5 Yamaha Town Hanoi opened its doors to the public at 62 Nguyen Chi Thanh in Dong Da District, Hanoi. The opening of the showroom is unique because it is the only official Yamaha Motors Vietnam showroom in Hanoi—although a potential local partner has the option to takeover the management of the facility, which includes a state-of-the-art service area on the first floor (ground floor for the Americans), and office space on the second floor.

It took about a year to open this particular location but depending on a local partner’s resources (and relationships) and taking the dealership location into consideration, it can take between three and 12 months to open up a new Yamaha Motors Vietnam dealership.

Across Vietnam there are approximately 500 showrooms where Yamaha Motors products can be found in—a staggering figure considering that Yamaha Motors Vietnam has been operating here for 15 years. Yamaha Town Hanoi is the latest location to join the stable of other Yamaha Town locations throughout Vietnam. There are Yamaha Town locations in the cities of Can Tho, Vung Tau, Phan Thiet, Nha Trang, Da Nang, and Hai Phong. In the entire country, Hanoi is the second-largest market for Yamaha Motors Vietnam as the brand is more popular in Saigon.

At the opening ceremony, the director of Yamaha Motors Vietnam, Mr. Masaru Ono, spoke about grasping the needs of each customer segment and he also set the development of marketing as an urgent task. Mr. Ono laid out how Yamaha Motors Vietnam has a specific strategy to set the highest standards for its customers—something that will help Yamaha drive sales in the current market and in the future.

It’s currently a particularly difficult time in the motorcycle industry in Vietnam due to saturation, some recent economic uncertainty, and a rising interest in cars from consumers with increasing purchasing power. Currently, about 61% of the vehicles in Vietnam are motorcycles. But cars will not be able to fully replace motorcycles due narrow passages, housing density, and high vehicle tax barriers.

FZ150i brand ambassador, singer Tuan Hung was present at the event and delivered some remarks about his opinion on the Yamaha brand and its products.  Mr. Hung mostly spoke about his affinity for Yamaha’s sporty designs and how he thought they contributed to the brand’s success here in Vietnam. Afterward, fans were able to take photos with him in the showroom and outside on the sidewalk.

During the event there were different elements of Yamaha operators, each fulfilling a different role: promotion girls to attract attention to the products, ao dai girls to greet the event guests, Yamaha Grande girls to parade through Hanoi, and sales girls to answer questions from potential customers.

The event wrapped up with a parade of at least twenty Yamaha Grande scooters led by Mr. Masaru Ono, who also had the pleasure of owning the first motorcycle sold at the new dealership. He then proceeded to don proper riding gear in front of the showroom and took off in a southerly direction through the streets of Hanoi.

Yamaha’s Local Operations

Honda is Yamaha’s main competitor in Vietnam. Whereas Honda can leverage its economies of scale, and expertise in the automobile and other markets, Yamaha focuses specifically on motorcycles segments and connecting with its customers.

One way that Yamaha Motors Vietnam engages its customers is through a customer relations management (CRM) program based on three month intervals. It uses call centers to directly contact their customers in order to remind them of service dates and intervals. The service technicians also use stickers that are placed in the storage compartment of motorbikes (under the seat) so when getting gas the customers are reminded of the next service date as well. Because of these different methods of engaging consumers, the average Yamaha product has a seven year lifespan.

In terms of training and customer service, Yamaha Motors Vietnam’s technicians go through a training program to eliminate technicians with poor attitudes and/or a lack of soft skills. This training program ensures that graduated technicians will be able to deliver consistent experiences at every showroom, thereby resulting in satisfied customers. In order to be selected for the training program, technicians need to have at least a basic understanding/basic training of technical know-how.

Yamaha Motors, like many corporations, has a global strategy but largely relies on country organizations like Yamaha Motors Vietnam to implement local initiatives. For example, Yamaha Motors Vietnam has a specially modified caravan that goes into small towns across Vietnam. During local weekend events thousands of Yamaha riders will attend and receive free oil changes and other perks.

These local community support events are important because some motorcycle (and bicycle) riders do not perform basic maintenance on their vehicles, resulting in a smokescreen behind them due to burning oil or screeching brakes when stopping–so these sort of initiatives are imperative to keep the products functioning properly on the roads. Nine complimentary oil changes are included in the sticker price and every Yamaha product that is sold has a three-year warranty or coverage for up to 30,000 kilometers—whichever comes first.

All of Yamaha Motors Vietnam’s production is in northern Vietnam. Yamaha Motors Vietnam has about 7,000 factory workers spread across three factories in the surrounding areas of Hanoi. One factory produces spare parts and two are dedicated to the assembly of Yamaha Motors products. Additionally, about 200 marketing staff work out of an office in Hanoi.

A 15 Year Legacy and Positioning for the Future

When Yamaha entered the Vietnamese market, it initially made a big push in Saigon because the surrounding cities would and did end up following the trendsetting Saigonese. In Vietnam, Yamaha Motors Vietnam is positioned as sporty brand, targeting the young males consumer segment. Since Yamaha entered the Vietnamese market in 1999, it has used its sporty designs, sporty engines, and key local influencers to attract and maintain the attention of young Vietnamese men. Its tagline: “Revs your heart” and its byline on advertising, “Fun injected” (a play on words for “fuel injected” or the primary way fuel is delivered into engines), reflect this sporty and playful brand positioning.

Other foreign motorcycle/scooter brands have an easier time to target Vietnamese consumers because of consumer perceptions of higher-quality foreign products. For example, Piaggio is a go-to brand for women interested in scooters because Vietnamese consumers prefer American and European brands over even some foreign Asian brands.

Since Yamaha is not viewed as a luxury brand in the Vietnam market, it needs to focus specifically on certain motorcycle segments and leverage its competitive advantages. In part, this foreign preference is due to a desire for larger engines and models—which can present some challenges for operators with smaller bodies who are essentially sacrificing vehicle control for image. This example is one key difference that distinguishes the Vietnam market from even other markets in Asia.

In fact, Vietnamese consumers are so different compared to other consumers in Asia-Pacific region that Yamaha launched a product specifically for the Vietnam market, the Yamaha Grande. Previously, it had tested some Indonesian models in Vietnam but they were not that successful with consumers. Between markets, several elements can be changed such as the engine timing, shift points, throttle sensitivity, etc. For example, in other markets such as Malaysia, drivers like to go (and can go) faster on roads (partly due to better infrastructure).

The Yamaha Grande is specifically designed for women who like scooters. It took two years to develop the Grande, which was released over the summer. With the Grande, Yamaha now offers nine models to serve the Vietnamese market. For its Yamaha Grande marketing campaign, Yamaha enlisted prominent celebrities such as Ho Ngoc Ha to target and connect with women. In its message, there is a clear Paris influence (promoting foreign luxury elements) that is evident from its video promotion to the outfit on its Yamaha Grande girl riders—all of which is done in-house.

We were surprised to find out that the company puts on over 200 events per year—and it’s usually closer to 300 events per year with about 20 big events such as the grand opening of the showroom. Recently, Yamaha teamed up with Elite Model Look Vietnam 2014 in a quest to find the best model talent in Vietnam. During a “Thanks Party” held in Hanoi, the Yamaha Grande was prominently featured in the event, including a $20,000 version outfitted with Swarovski crystals.

The exposure from Elite Model and Fashion TV (who had correspondents at the party) will positively impact Vietnam’s image on local, national, and international levels by instilling national pride in Vietnamese and exposing new people around the world to the beauty and potential of Vietnam. If Yamaha continues these clever kinds of cross-promotional events then it will surely be able to capture the hearts of women in addition to its success of attracting thrill-seeking men in Vietnam and beyond.

Startup Weekend Hanoi 2014

It started off with 220 online applications and eventually organizers selected 70 people to participate in the Startup Weekend Hanoi held at Hub.IT from August 29 until August 31.

While there were no specific themes to adhere to, participants entered one of two tracks: Track A, which included pre-formed teams of three-to-five people and Track B, which consisted of pitch ideas from individuals who could be joined by others to form a team if his/her idea was was approved by the audience.

Startup Weekend was created in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City in 2011 and then expanded to Hanoi in 2013. This year the organization aims to open two chapters: one in Da Nang in central Vietnam, and another in Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta. Last month, the event was held for the second time this year at Hub.IT.

Hai Nguyen, an organizer of the Startup Weekends in Vietnam, shared with us that the aim of the events is not only to nurture and foster innovation and entrepreneurship in Vietnam but to also promote the empowerment of Vietnam’s strength sector, e.g., agriculture, through technology.

The opening session of the Startup Weekend started on Friday at 6:30 PM and lasted until about 8:30 PM. Each participant had one minute to convince the audience that his/her presented idea should be one of the final group selected by popular vote (with Facebook “Thumbs-up” stickers placed on the most-liked written ideas hanging on the wall).

Among the various ideas presented during the initial round but were ultimately not selected by the audience included a mobile payment app, an online ticket website, and a way to repurpose unsold flowers for tea and medicinal uses. One of several recurring themes throughout Friday night seemed to revolve around vegetables and student buffets. And there was even a pitch for an online social network specifically for those born in the 1990s—perhaps a clarion call to start a new social network every 10 years? In all, about 30 ideas were shared but only seven made the cut for each track.

Newly formed and established teams returned the next day to Hub.IT from 9:00 AM until about 7:00 PM where they met with seven mentors to hash out their concepts and to prepare their final pitches for Sunday, the last day of the event. Finally, during Sunday evening each qualifying team had four minutes to present their concept, followed by a four minute Q&A session led by the four-member judging panel.

The Final Teams Presenting

First up was Team BB, which presented a compelling story time application. The team had developed a story creation landscape so that users can create stories with their family or friends. Afterward, a user can record his/her voice which is then overlaid on the story timeline. There are some quite exciting potential case uses for this technology. For example, parents can use the app to connect with their children even if they are on the road or away from home or a group of friends can get together to create a story during a reunion.

Next up was OnTot, an online tutoring service that creates a marketplace for students and potential tutors. When asked by a judge if the model was scalable, the team leader responded that he believed it could be used in the region in a country like Thailand or the Philippines. While parents may be interested in using an online tutoring service for their children, it’s unclear if students, especially younger children, will use such a service effectively. The team leader did point out that the team can launch the service in a month (although it wasn’t clear if it would be a funded or bootstrapped version) so it will be interesting to see what happens next for OnTot.

The next team presented marketing solutions software for small and medium businesses (SMB), called Beeketing. In short, the software automates the marketing process and suggests a range of tactics for a business owner to implement. It definitely could help some nascent online businesses to get the word out about their products or services or to help differentiate them from competitors. A judge asked how the service would retain customers as their knowledge of marketing improved and proposed tiers like Beeketing 1.0, 2.0, etc. to effectively approach consumers on their marketing knowledge platforms. This tiered servicing makes sense for Beeketing to meet the different needs of its customers.

One traditional concept that was presented was part-pastry shop and part-dessert distributor, Hy Hy Kitchen, named after the creator. It’s basically a handmade treats online kitchen with (at least) a single brick-and-mortar aspired location. Based on the four judges reactions, it was clear that they admired Hy Hy’s enthusiasm and gumption for her concept of “any dessert, all delivery.” Ms. Hy Hy explained the nomenclature behind her concept and told the audience that she wanted people to order Tiramisu, and to associate it with “forget me not.” We certainly won’t forget the delicious-looking photos you showed of your products.

Next up was Olymsearch, which is currently in Alpha stage of development. It was one of the few working products that were presented at the Startup Weekend Hanoi 2014 and it positioned itself as the go-to service for a personalized shopping experience. According to the Olymsearch team, the online platform is a combination of Google, Facebook, and E-Commerce all mashed up into one. The difference here is that Olymsearch is looking to fill the local e-commerce needs of Vietnamese.

AnGiNgon is a listing site for food, and is also geo-location based. Imagine checking the app to see what food options are nearby when you step out to lunch. Perhaps it is loosely based on Yelp, but what problem is the app solving? And for whom? The majority of Vietnamese consumers are extremely preferential and rely heavily on family and friends for a variety of suggestions on where to go to eat, drink, and shop.

Team OIC presented an indoor mapping solution—a service that could be offered at a mega mall like Vincom’s Royal City. The service would be able to direct users to stores that they are interested in and also provide information about on-going promotions at various retailers. The team was one of the few that utilized the dual presentation screens. The promotion portion sounds great but unless they are exclusive promotions for the app users then it may be hard for the app to gain traction. is a way to help homeowners design the interior of their homes. It’s definitely geared toward modern and trendy Vietnamese since a large component of Vietnamese decor is how ornate, or big, or traditional an item can be—usually sourced locally. looks to partner with name brands in order to promote and offer their products. As Vietnam continues to modernize perhaps or a similar service can fill a growing need. The site is currently in a closed beta.

Occupy Buildings Project—no, not a political movement but rather a system for utilizing rooftops to grow vegetables and other leafy greens. The team even had an irrigation demonstration to show the judges how the watering system would work. One possible way to monetize the idea was to share some of the revenue with the building owners from the sale of vegetables or whatever greens that were harvested on the roof. As one judge rightly pointed out, it is a vision of the future, perhaps 20 years ahead of its time. It’s definitely a long-term project but it could substantially transform the way ecology and business is viewed in Vietnam.

VipiOne is a negotiation service that acts on behalf of those seeking to buy a residence in Vietnam. However, it’s not clear why someone would use the service instead of negotiating him/herself. It’s also not clear why a potential homebuyer would trust the young founders to carry out the transaction.

Last but not least was Fit n’Grit, a personal trainer app. The two concept creators are currently offering personalized fitness tracking—and already have clients. The pair of friends are fitness enthusiasts who are in their last year of university where they are studying accounting and finance. The kernel of the idea is good and there’s definitely a need for proper fitness training and nutrition education—too often gym-goers are seen cranking out sloppy rapid-fire repetitions to the beat of the Vinahouse music.

Yes, there are personal trainers available in some gyms but at western prices and one-to-one personal sessions don’t scale well. We suggest that the Fit n’Grit team start by providing value on social media to create an online community ready to try out their app whenever it may be ready. Another approach could be to partner with independent gyms to provide an introductory training session (and share fees with the gym) and at the same time the team could collect contact and demographic information.

The Winners and Looking Forward

OIC and BB team emerged as the winners when the judges’ scores were finally tallied. The winners of Hanoi’s Startup Weekend event will head to Saigon to participate in Demo Day organized by and Business Startup Support Center on September 12. The winners of the DemoDay will head to Seoul, ROK, where $100,000 will be on the line at the Startup Nations Summit 2014 from November 23-25.

Bobby Liu, judge and founder of Hub.IT, where the event was held, felt that this time around had a lot more solid ideas from startups and the split into two divisions was fair to the participants. On behalf of Hub.IT, Mr. Liu stated, “we’re obviously glad that we could support such a significant initiative and look forward to doing more.”

There are definitely some exciting times ahead as the BB and OIC teams represent Hanoi at Demo Day Saigon. It was also great to see the variety of the initial ideas presented to the audiences during the Friday night portion of Startup Weekend Hanoi. For some ideas, the matter is a question of timing. For others, it’s a matter of finding suitable ways to execute the idea. And for another segment of ideas, they just need some time and love to either develop or discard. No one has a monopoly on good ideas—and with the support system and effective platforms in place in the startup communities of Vietnam, the ideas coming from entrepreneurs, coders, and young Vietnamese can be turned into sustainable and scalable business models.

The Changing Face of the Auto Market

On August 27, 2014 the first Rolls-Royce Motor Cars showroom opened up in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Two events were held at the showroom in the HCO Building at 44B Ly Thuong Kiet, next to the Melia Hotel. One event was held for members of the press from 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM and included the official ribbon-cutting ceremony. Later, from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM, an event for VIPs and potential customers was held in private at the showroom and adjoining outdoor patio.

British First Secretary, Andrew Holt, attended the event and delivered some prepared remarks about the significance of the first Rolls-Royce Motor Cars showroom in Vietnam. Mr. Holt expressed that he was honored to be part of the Vietnam success story. In fact, the common theme throughout the press event was the “remarkable success story” of Vietnam and the “country’s ambition for the future.”

In effect, the event on Wednesday was put into motion over a year ago. In June 2013 Rolls-Royce Motor Cars announced Regal Motor Cars as its first authorized partner in Vietnam. The chairman of the authorized dealer, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Hanoi, is Minh Doan with Trung Doan serving as the Chief Operations Officer. In the time leading up to the official showroom opening ceremony on Wednesday, the brand’s Facebook page had already accumulated over 32,000 “Likes” which, according to Mr. Holt, served as an example of how the Vietnam market was ready for an official dealership.

When directly asked about unit sales in Vietnam prior to the opening of the official dealership, Paul Harris, regional director Asia-Pacific at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, responded that it was difficult to know exactly how many cars had been sold in Vietnam due to unofficial channels but that it was around 100 cars. Mr. Harris revealed that Rolls Royce had directly supported one car’s production from Goodwood, England, where the company’s cars are assembled by hand.

Mr. Harris reiterated that now that Vietnam has an official dealership, it is the place to go to satisfy consumer demand for the brand and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars sees the Vietnamese market growing, with great potential in the future. In terms of global demand, the Ghost is the most popular model, followed by the Wraith and the Phantom.

Finding a Suitable Vietnamese Partner

The on-boarding process for the local partner was revealed by Mr. Harris; first, potential Vietnamese partners were encouraged to apply. Rolls-Royce then assessed the candidates, and analyzed the business, the partner fit, and passion of competitive candidates. Rolls-Royce selected Mr. Minh in part because he is a Rolls-Royce owner himself and the Rolls-Royce team felt that he was in a unique position to understand the brand and to deliver the brand’s message and values to the Vietnamese market.

During the Q&A portion of the event, a member of the Vietnamese press asked Mr. Harris why Regal Motor Cars was chosen as an authorized but not exclusive dealer. Mr. Harris responded that, for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, authorization means exclusive as it has no intention to expand to a second dealership in Vietnam. Mr. Harris wrapped up his response by explaining that Rolls-Royce Motor Cars knows that demand is here in Vietnam for significant sales and that “we and our dealer partner are happy with the sales forecast but won’t divulge numbers.”

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, currently owned by BMW AG, is in the midst of expansion plans in the Asia-Pacific region outside of China. Last year a showroom in Osaka, Japan was opened up and a new dealer partner was announced in Manila, Philippines as well.

The “Oriental Sun” Rising in Asia

On display was an $1.8 million model, the Oriental Sun, an exclusively produced limited edition model for Vietnam. That extravagant model was sold during the second event held at the showroom at night. In many ways it’s amazing that there is even a market for such vehicles in a country where the gross national income per capita is around $2,000.

It’s not surprising that the first Rolls Royce dealership opened in Hanoi instead of Saigon. Many luxury brands pass through the capital before setting up shop in the south where the customers usually evaluate products on more criteria besides price and/or country of origin. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars would be wise to continue these custom runs of single units (in addition to its Bespoke program) so as to allow potential customers in Hanoi and the surrounding areas to further differentiate themselves from their contemporaries—especially in the northern provinces of Vietnam. After all, one measure of uniqueness is the price tag between the same or similar products.

The Vietnamese Auto Market

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars’ expectations for the Vietnam market are in line with those of other auto manufacturers. Recently, Mercedes-Benz Vietnam announced that it had sold more than 1,000 cars in the first six months of the year. These sales figures amounted to a 70% increase from the same time last year and set a new record in the company’s 19 year history in Vietnam.

In total, more than 65,000 vehicles were sold in the first six months of the year according to Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers Association. A brand new car in Vietnam can cost two-to-three times or more than a similarly equipped model in the US due to taxes and import duties. Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers Association projects that a total of 130,000 vehicles will be sold this year, compared to 110,519 in 2013.

Luxury cars are becoming more common place in cities like Hanoi and Saigon. One can spot Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis, Bentleys and the full gamut of European and Asian luxury vehicles at any time of day or night while walking in either city’s downtown. While not everyone can afford such exotics or high-end luxury vehicles, there is still much demand for and attention given to these foreign brands.

In 2013, the Vietnam Motor Show, held at the Saigon Expositions and Convention Center (SECC) in District 7, Saigon drew over 155,000 visitors over the course of four days last October and resulted in the sale of 200 cars during the event. For comparison, the New York International Auto Show (NYIAS), the oldest and biggest auto show in the US, attracts slightly more than a million people over nine days. At the Vietnam Motor Show last year, some luxury brands such as Infiniti and Lexus made their first appearances at the event. And last year more than half of all luxury sales were comprised of Mercedes Benz vehicles—a sign of the preferred auto brand by Vietnam’s elite.

For those looking to score a deal in Vietnam’s pre-owned car market there are a myriad of options available including, but not limited to:

The Future of Auto (and Luxury Goods) Sales in Vietnam

As Vietnam’s economy grows, so too will grow the number of successful individuals who can afford the high price tags of luxury goods offered by established brands. These brands, of course, include luxury auto makers. In some ways, a car someone drives in Vietnam is more important than the home where s/he lives because everyone can see his/her car and few may see the inside of his/her home. This value placed on public appearances can lead to interesting situations where a high-end luxury vehicle may be parked in front of a modest looking house (or an attempt at an Asian castle).

Regardless, the number of people who will be able to afford these luxury vehicles and other goods in Vietnam will only increase. Auto and other luxury goods makers will need to find new ways for the nouveau riche and super rich to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi. At the same time, the newest rich joining the ranks of the newly rich also leaves the door open for after market modifications from esteemed companies such as Brabus. Then, the only question left to answer will be where to drive such a super-charged beast? For sure not in rush hour traffic in either Hanoi or Saigon.

Still, the Vietnamese dream is to drive to work in a car. It serves as one measure that s/he has “made it” and it also helps to insulate from bad weather, pollution, and nasty injuries resulting from traffic accidents since cars are higher in the pecking order than motorbikes and other two-wheeled modes of transport.

The takeaway here should be that if rich Vietnamese can afford luxury vehicles with high sticker prices then they can probably afford whatever luxury brand you represent (and they will most likely want to buy it). The key is to set the new standard for whatever experience you are trying to create—because once you do that then most consumers and other brands will follow. Getting that first domino to tip may be tricky but the rewards will surely make it worth your while to make it happen.

A closer look at the showroom's facade.

A closer look at the showroom’s facade.

Mr. Holt addressing the crowd.

Mr. Holt addressing the crowd.

Right before the unveiling.

Right before the unveiling.

The exterior of the showroom.

The exterior of the showroom.

After the unveiling.

After the unveiling.

Mr. Harris addressing the crowd.

Mr. Harris addressing the crowd.

During the Q&A session.

During the Q&A session.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Minh.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Minh.

Before the event.

Before the event.

The team at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Hanoi.

The team at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Hanoi.

Vietnamese press checking out the Oriental Sun.

Vietnamese press checking out the Oriental Sun.

Hackathon Vietnam 2014

Last weekend approximately 30 teams in Hanoi and 70 teams in Saigon competed locally in a Hackathon primarily organized by Silicon Valley VC firm Formation 8 in coordination with Hanoi-based incubator and consulting firm, 5Desire. In Saigon, the event was held at the National Academy of Public Administration and in Hanoi the event was held at the University of Science and Technology. Held over two days (Friday, August 1 and Saturday, August 2), the hackathon essentially served as a startup convention featuring guest speakers, presentation panels, and workshops. But the main hackathon portion itself consisted of 23 hours of coding as teams turned their wireframes, designs and visuals they had prepared earlier into prototypes or Minimum Viable Products (MVP).

The event in Hanoi culminated in two pitch sessions where teams presented their final products of the 23-hour hackathon to a panel of judges from 1:30 PM until 6:00 PM on Saturday with some brief breaks in between. According to the Hackathon Vietnam 2014 website, up to four member teams comprised of “any student, developer or technology enthusiast in Vietnam who [were able to] travel to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City on the day of the hackathon” attempted to examine one of the following themes:

• Connecting More With Mobile

• Social Networking across Regional Cultures

• Integrating Technology into Education

• Pushing Wearables into Everyday

• Spirit of Innovation

After the team presentations in Hanoi, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology Tran Viet Thanh was able to personally congratulate the winning teams. Another distinguished guest, Joe Lonsdale, Cofounder and General Partner at Formation 8 was present on Friday to speak to the hackathon participants. Mr. Lonsdale was previously in Vietnam earlier this year when he spoke at an event in Saigon in January.

The Teams and Products

We caught most of the presentations in Hanoi. For us, the most interesting product was Dicterious, “The English Studying App.” The UI was presented in a gorgeous flat design style and what we liked most about the app was that the game mechanics allowed the user to learn some English, learn some local history, and to have fun while doing so—all at the same time. At one point one of the judges stated that a serious English learner wouldn’t use an app like Dicterious and asked the team leader if it was primarily a learning tool or a game. The team leader responded that it was primarily a game but, in our opinion, it most resembles a learning tool with gamification elements.

Early on, one team’s mission was to “solve daily problems with social knowledge and photos.” Basically, the team was attempting to create a “knowledge flow” and have users contribute to the communal knowledge for a particular geographic area. There is especially a need for this kind of service for foreigners in Vietnam because there are a multitude of repeat postings on the two main Facebook expat groups, “Hanoi Massive” and “Expats in HCMC.” Most of these postings revolve around trying to find a suitable neighborhood to rent in, where to buy a particular foreign product, or asking for general help in some way. Surely there must be a more efficient way to organize repeatedly requested information for users to consume. Perhaps there is a potential business model in finding a way to phase out the same Facebook group posts over and over again via a social platform which can pair locals with foreigners for joint problem solving and cultural exchange.

Another interesting product was a bookmarker for maps. Yes, Google Maps has a save feature where you can “star” a location but after a while it can be hard to remember why you starred one place versus another. One of the prevalent features (although not unique) of Vietnam is that there are entire streets full of stores devoted to the same product or a similar range of products (lights, engines, bathroom furniture, etc.). So if a startup can find a way to organize, classify, and present that data to consumers (especially foreigners) then there might be a way to monetize that database. Perhaps the product or service can be as simple as a more accurate online map of Vietnam in terms of addresses with an overlay feature showing where there are clusters of similar stores across Hanoi or Saigon. was another intriguing concept and upon reflection it or something along those lines could be a hit here. It’s a mobile social network application which gives you the ability to record a message for people you give a gift to. In a country (and most of Asia for that matter) where pictures of food and selfies are some of the most recorded media, perhaps the team is onto something. We can definitely see younger Vietnamese use this service to declare their affection for one another via video, which can then be uploaded to Facebook for the entire world to see.

The Winners and Prizes

The top three products were Voicepedia, Genius Kid, and Imaginator with the TT team (Voicepedia) winning the Hackathon and Genius Kid coming in second place. Coincidentally, both members of the TT team have the same name: Nguyen Duc Tam. There were also five honorable mentions for the teams that impressed the judges in one way or another.

Imaginator gave anyone (the team suggested teachers) the ability to create an online course. Perhaps they can tap into the growing popularity of Udemy and tailor the product to help content creators such as YouTube Stars establish new revenue streams.

Genius Kid, an edutainment app, had a nice UI and it looks like the well-presented art style might resonate with parents as well as children. If Vietnamese parents believe that the app will give their kids an advantage or will create “gifted children” at home then the Genius Kid app will be one step closer to being successful.

The winning team, TT, utilized text-to-speech technology in order to access Wikipedia articles. For their efforts, the winning team won a cash value of $11,500 which, according to the hackathon website, includes:

“A round trip for all winning team members to Silicon Valley to visit Formation|8 portfolio companies, Introduction to Silicon Valley’s top VC’s and Formation|8 portfolio companies. Dinner with Formation|8 team[.]”

The second place team won $750 and the third place team won $500.

The Takeaway

Overall, the event was a success—it was clear to see the enthusiasm of the teams when presenting, the judges were keenly interested in the presentations, and there were a number of compelling visions that were realized by the end of the hackathon. While not the first ever hackathon in Vietnam, or even the first bi-city hackathon in Vietnam, it was the biggest one yet. What mainly separated this hackathon from others before it was the high-profile organizers from the US and Vietnam as well as participation from members of Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

However, there were a few disappointments. The pitches in Hanoi were mostly in Vietnamese, apparently due to a change by the judges in order to accommodate some of the more nervous teams. The fact remains that English is the language of business across most of the world and if any of the teams want to end up in Silicon Valley on a permanent basis then they will have to be comfortable pitching to potential investors in English.  Also, the ending of the hackathon in Hanoi was rather abrupt. Of course, it’s understandable from the participants’ perspectives–and they must have been exhausted by the end of the 23-hour hackathon, but it would have been nice to speak to the teams at the end or to make some connections between the participants and attendees. After all, there was at least one Fortune 20 company representative in the crowd who was actively scouting startups in the region (and others in the crowd who were recruiting).

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how often events like this one will take place in Vietnam now that it has been done at this scale. The startup community in Vietnam has had its ups and downs with more of the latter lately as signaled by the closing of co-working space Saigon Hub earlier this year. More local events such as hackathons and other community-building activities are needed to continue to drive the startup community in Vietnam in a positive direction, i.e., to raise the local standards to a global level. Ultimately, the hackathon was a watershed moment for the startup community in Vietnam—now it will be up to the entrepreneurs, coders, and technologists to keep the momentum going in the months ahead.