Google I/O Extended Hanoi

For some time, Google Developer Group Hanoi (GDG Hanoi) has been helping to build the developer community here, which is remarkable considering that they are all volunteers. This month, the first Google I/O Extended event was held in Hanoi for the local community to get a first-hand look at upcoming Google products and services.

Google I/O Extended (with the “I/O” portion meaning “Innovation in the Open”) is a way for those in Hanoi (and other cities) to deep dive into new technology that was announced during the annual Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco (which was first held in 2008).

At Extended locations, such as the one in Hanoi (and in Ho Chi Minh City the day before where approximately 400 people turned out), participants have the opportunity to code, get their hands dirty, and get to experience some of the latest technology. The conference is geared toward those who want to launch an application, or add new features to existing application.

Participants received updates on a variety of new-and-upcoming consumer-focused Google products including Google Now on Tap, Google Photos (which now has the ability to recognize, categorize, and group everyday objects such as food, landscape, etc.), Project Jacquard (which allows designers and developers to create touch sensitive surfaces in clothing thereby transforming fabric and literally integrating technology into what you wear), Google Cardboard (which your author experienced), Google Spotlight Stories (introducing augmented reality capability to smartphones), and Project Soli (which can detect sub-millimeter motions at high accuracy). However, there was no mention of Project Ara, a smartphone with modular components.

Present at the first Google I/O Extended Hanoi conference were members of Google’s Developer Relations Ecosystem Team, Partner Account Management Team, and of course, the Google Developer Community Management Team. The goal of these conferences is to help developers make successful applications and turn those applications into successful businesses— and the community is the biggest part of that drive toward success. Across the world there are 600+ GDG in 100+ countries and in the last six months 3,000+ local developers have met up at events to collaborate, share knowledge, and build skills.

Google recognizes people outside of the organization who are very knowledgeable about Google products; they call them Developer Experts. These are people who are active in community, localize content, and speak at events. At the conference, Google representatives announced that they were looking for the first Google Developer Expert to emerge from Vietnam since there aren’t any currently (but they hope to change that soon).

To become a Google Developer Expert, it requires someone technical, someone very involved in the program. A competitive candidate will have to sign an NDA in order to gain early-access to pre-release products. Some of the benefits include getting to travel to Google I/O in San Francisco and access to Google developers. Currently, there are only 120 Developer Experts worldwide so the successful Vietnamese candidate will have to be highly technically-oriented.

On the developer side of things at the conference, Google promoted a few products including Google Launchpad (which is geared toward startups), Polymer 1.0 (a web technology toolkit which brings material design to the web and offers new tool bars, menus, and offline caching), Project Brillo (bringing standardization to the Internet of Things), and Firebase (allowing everything on the backend to stay in sync using a JSON database), among others.

Also shared with the crowd of student and professional developers was that the permissions for applications on Google’s Play Store had been updated; now an application asks for permission as needed instead of during installation time which will resulting in easier application updates.

Another promoted topic was app indexing which means that in addition to web results, app results are also shown in search results. However, it requires that developers take the time to index content in their applications. Once that is done then Google can crawl and return content for applicable searches. In essence, it’s another way for users to find developers’ applications and install them–free of charge.

One of Google’s major themes is “building for the next billion users” which Vietnam is definitely part of. This initiative includes building for emerging markets by optimizing products and services for the next billion users in a country where many millions of them live. For example, offline support for YouTube videos in places where connectivity is slow or latency is high; or improving load times for search results in order to maintain a quality user experience.

During one of the workshops, the Google Design Sprint was covered where six fundamentals were shared with the audience.

1. Focus on the user—design for them;

2. Do your research—understand the product area;

3. Strive for simplicity—make sure your propsition and benefits are clear;

4. Prioritize speed—make most important actions the easiest to accomplish;

5. Never stop learning—seize every opportunity to learn; and

6. Solve big problems—create lasting value for users.

This entire Design Sprint can be completed in a week so the emphasis was on building something and learning something from it. The advice given was that if the build doesn’t work then don’t get bogged down in it (within reason) and go onto the next one. In other words dig into the problem in order to understand, diverge, decide, prototype, and validate. And then do it all over again.

There was another event that weekend, an AngelHack held in Ho Chi Minh City from July 4-5 which had about 250 registered participants. Interest, demand, and standards for these kinds of events are increasing across the board. Last year’s success with Flappy Bird was a watershed moment for the developer community and it has spurred the growth of numerous independent game developers. GDG (and Google as well) is providing the support for users of its products and services as well as developers of content in Vietnam so it will surely benefit from playing a pivotal role in building Vietnam’s innovation economy.

Jason Tien Le, an Account Partner Manager at Google shared his thoughts with us, echoing this very sentiment:

“We’re delighted to see Google I/O Extended continue to grow and connect local developers with a truly global community. We see tremendous talent in Vietnam, and we’re committed to exploring ways to support the developer community, at home and around the world.”

Right now, the market here is still in the clone stage but it’s only a matter of time before some more hits emerge out of Vietnam and splash into the region and beyond. Vietnamese developers are hungry, they have quick turnaround times, and they are talented–the hard part will be to shift from a short-term orientation to a long-term focus in order to build relationships with other communities and customer bases around the world. Perhaps it will happen even sooner than expected since developers here are quick learners.

Vietnam 2014: Year in Review

Firsts and Notable Events

Tomorrow is the last day of the year in the Gregorian calendar but the Year of the Horse in the Vietnamese lunar calendar extends until mid February, 2015. Overall, 2014 marked many firsts for Vietnam: the first McDonald’s opened in Ho Chi Minh City shortly before Tet (the lunar new year). The first Rolls-Royce dealership opened in Hanoi in August, and the first mobile game out of Vietnam, Flappy Bird, went viral (and is now currently only officially available on Amazon Fire TV). Notably, Lotte Center Hanoi opened on September 2, Vietnam’s Independence Day, (after five years of construction) and Formation 8 sponsored a bi-city Hackathon, demonstrating that there is continued interest in the growing startup ecosystem in Vietnam from outside investors.

More recently on Christmas Day (December 25) Hanoi received a “gift” in the form of the new airport terminal that opened for its first flight but the terminal won’t be fully operational until December 31. The four-story, 139,000 square meter Terminal 2 has cost several hundred million dollars to build and it will accommodate a growing number of travelers to Vietnam. However, not all of 2014 happenings were rosy; the falling price of oil, anti-China protests in the middle of the year, and continued reports of Vietnam’s public debt increasing were some of the more worrisome developments during the past year.

Trade Impacts: Sanctions and Price Swings

In the last six months the price of oil has dropped by 40% and it’s certainly quite a different situation from this time of the year in 2007 as oil was about to break the $100 per barrel mark. Consumers in the west will certainly enjoy going to the gas stations once again and the increased disposable income will provide short term benefits for their economies. Similarly, the price of gas in Vietnam has been falling as well, as it is regulated by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Industry and Trade. We will most likely see a cycle of global oil production slowing down, new oil projects put on hold, and then the price of oil skyrocketing back up, perhaps even before the end of next year.

For 2015, Vietnam’s GDP was projected to grow 6.2% if the price of oil had stayed at $100 per barrel and for every $1 the price of a barrel of oil loses, the State budget would lose VND 1-1.2 trillion (approximately $5.1 million). Oil export revenue makes up an estimated 10.2% of the total budget revenue which is  lower than in previous years. However, the budget revenue target is VND 911.1 trillion (over $42 billion) so the change in the price of oil still impacts the budget and will continue to as the price of oil continues to fluctuate.

At the same time, EU and US sanctions against Russia (and the Russian counter-sanctions) also provide an opportunity for Vietnam to increase its exports (in particular seafood and fruit) to Russian consumers, who will still demand or need products that were readily available to them earlier this year. The complicating factor for Vietnamese exporters will be the declining value of the Russian ruble, currently in free fall (and valued at approximately half of its worth at this time last year). Still, Vietnam and Russia recently concluded negotiations for the Customs Union agreement, which is expected to increase trade between the two countries to $10 billion by 2020.

Changing Skylines and Construction Interruptions

If you’ve been to Nguyen Hue street in Saigon’s District 1 recently then you know what a eyesore the metro construction project has been there (and in District 2). Earlier this year, the cost projections for the project were revised from $1.1 billion to a staggering $2.7 billion. On the opposite side of the country, the $1 billion metro project in Hanoi hasn’t progressed much since construction began in 2012. Completion dates for both projects keep getting pushed back as well—something that will most likely continue to happen before the current projected completion dates.

Now is construction season in Hanoi, mostly due to the cooler weather and attempts to finish projects before Tet so families can spend the holiday in their new homes. However, for the neighbors of such a construction project it can mean a significant decline in the quality of life for the duration of demolition and building. Construction can begin anywhere from 5:30 to 6:30 AM every day of the week and last until 6:30 PM with a break in the middle of the day for a lunch and siesta (usually one to two hours). At night, trucks delivering supplies for the next workday can arrive at 11:00 PM, 1:00 AM, and 3:00 AM due to lack of required permits to transport the goods during the day. For residential construction in narrow alleyways, workers can block nearby entrances, leave a mess, and contribute to the local noise and air pollution with jackhammers and gas-powered pulleys (in the last six months, your author has experienced three such projects). Surprisingly, many Vietnamese don’t seem to mind the noise and delays, unless they are traffic related.

For a changing city, cranes perched across a skyline are the sight of progress. But perhaps the costs of construction projects can also be measured in psychological effects due to the disruption in daily schedules. The noise of progress is far more intruding than the sight of progress and it has lasting impacts on future generations. Still, if not construction then other sonic interruptions such as public karaoke, horn honking, or motorcycle engine revving will emerge through the city soundscape. For sure, anyone who has visited Hanoi has learned to appreciate silence in this loud, chaotic, and flowing city.

Clear Winners

In 2014, Korea and Japan deepened their relationships with Vietnam on cultural, educational, and economic levels. Additionally, Vietnam established or renegotiated a number of bi-lateral trade agreements with states such as Lao PDR, Israel, Macedonia, and others.

Additionally, Samsung selected Vietnam as the location for a $3 billion manufacturing facility. It already has a $2 billion plant here so Samsung’s selection of Vietnam shows its faith that Vietnam’s business climate will continue to meet Samsung’s future production needs; this development continues the trend of manufacturing shifting away from China. Vietnam’s largest export value for 2014 is still cellphones and components—something that has remained unchanged since last year.

Furthermore, Mercedes-Benz Vietnam had the best first-half of the year ever since setting up in Vietnam— and one could make the case that it’s the unofficial vehicle brand of Hanoi given how seemingly ubiquitous the models are throughout the city. It will be interesting to see how the brand finishes out the year once the final numbers moved are tallied. To that extent, luxury brands here continued to do well, overall (though there are emerging signs that some Vietnamese may be living beyond their means).

Last but not least, the World Cup was a huge winner in 2014, no doubt causing the loss of serious amounts of productivity over the summer as Vietnamese workers stayed up until 5:00 AM or later to catch the games in Brazil. Not everyone was a winner though, as those who gambled away their fortunes or homes were left with low spirits. Still, the World Cup was a chance for Vietnamese families and friends to get together and share the communal experience of watching the nation’s undisputed favorite sport.

Undoubtedly, 2014 was many things for Vietnam (not all of it covered in this post), but it certainly wasn’t dull. We hope that you will continue to join us in 2015 as Vietnam and Southeast Asia continue to ascend. Happy New Year to you and yours wherever you are in the world!


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.