Investors bullish on Vietnam despite recent volatility

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Nguyen Thanh Trung brings Vietnam's only privately owned plane level at 24,000 feet (7,315 meters) over the Central Highlands towns of Pleiku and Da Lat before swinging right and bringing the eight-seat Beechcraft King Air 350 in for a smooth landing at Ho Chi Minh City airport.

Trung is familiar with the landscape: Thirty-five years ago he was a Viet Cong agent and fighter pilot who recalls dropping two bombs on the headquarters of the American-aligned southern regime in the city then known as Saigon, one of the last skirmishes before the end of the Vietnam War.

Today, Trung, 62, is on a mission that symbolizes his country's transformation: He's the personal pilot for Doan Nguyen Duc, an entrepreneur who is one of Vietnam's richest men.

Duc, 46, estimates that his empire, which includes Hoang Anh Gia Lai Joint-Stock Co., Vietnam's biggest listed property company, gave him a personal wealth of VND28.4 trillion (US$1.48 billion) at the end of 2009.

"Duc owning a private jet is very good for Vietnam's economy; it shows that Vietnamese people can also be successful like businessmen in other countries," Trung says. "This is a time for dynamic entrepreneurs."

Foreign investors in Vietnam a land that beckoned outsiders with great fanfare in the 1990s are having a bumpier ride than Duc and his pilot.

Roller coaster

Indochina Capital Advisors Ltd. last year decided to liquidate a London-listed Vietnam equity fund that had lost 50 percent of its value. In November, San Francisco-based hedge fund company Passport Capital LLC demanded the return of uninvested cash from a fund that bought Vietnamese and Cambodian property.

The Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange's benchmark VN-Index, Asia's best performer in 2006, plunged 66 percent in 2008 as inflation followed by the global recession destroyed confidence in Vietnamese investments. The index rose 57 percent in 2009. It's up 3.5 percent this year to March 24.

Investors who are staying on in Vietnam, though, are quietly bullish.

It's still possible to make money in this land of 86 million people provided you're willing to do homework, find the right opportunities and ignore the market froth, says Mark Mobius, chairman of Templeton Asset Management Ltd., which had $24 million of investments in the country as of February.

"Investors should see the real value of specific investments without being driven by pure sentiment," Mobius says. "The private sector continues to grow and has become more important to the development of the economy."

That new realism follows a decade of unbridled enthusiasm for Vietnam.

"Vietnam was viewed as the final frontier of Asia," says Son Nam Nguyen, managing partner of Vietnam Capital Partners, who advised global investors on more than $30 billion in financing as the former head of Citigroup Inc.'s investment bank in Vietnam. "No one wanted to miss out on the next China."

Instead, investors bought into a bubble as higher prices for commodities drove up the cost of living. Inflation peaked at 28.3 percent in August 2008. The central bank raised interest rates three times in 2008 to 14 percent to slow inflation.

"Historically, because of bad experiences with inflation and currency depreciation, people are very quick to lose confidence," says Manu Bhaskaran, a Singapore-based partner and head of economic research at Centennial Group Holdings, which provides advice on emerging markets. "The global financial system still has a risk of new shocks, and in that kind of context, countries like Vietnam are vulnerable."

Think local

The volatility may slow Vietnam's development as an equity market. Since 2006, the total number of companies listed on Vietnam's two stock exchanges has increased more than 11-fold to 486 as of March 24 from 43.

Foreign investors, which are limited to 30 percent holdings in local banks, have won some gains when setting up new businesses: In September 2008, HSBC Holdings Plc and Standard Chartered Plc won approval to operate wholly owned units in Vietnam, the first of five such licenses.

Foreign investors can find themselves at sea in the local culture, says Don Lam, chief executive officer and a founding partner of VinaCapital Group.

Lam, who was born in southern Vietnam but grew up in Canada, says his Vietnamese managers typically spend 18 months to build relationships with owners before striking any partnership.

"About 80 percent of my deals, when they close, it's over dinner," he says. "That's why it's so important to have a senior Vietnamese team to negotiate without interpreters."

VinaCapital's $774 million Vietnam Opportunity Fund has invested in companies that focus on consumers, including Vietnam Dairy Products Joint-Stock Co., the country's third-biggest stock by market value; Kinh Do Corp., the nation's No. 1 candy maker; and Vietnam Export-Import Commercial Joint-Stock Bank. The firm had $1.7 billion invested in Vietnam as of mid-March compared with $10 million in 2003.

Gerard Lee, CEO of Fullerton Fund Management Co., the Asian fund management unit of Singapore's Temasek Holdings Pte, is one of several investors who say Vietnam, with its political stability, ready pool of cheap labor and years of economic growth, reminds them of the superpower to the north.

"Vietnam has a lot of the characteristics of China," Lee says. "So it's good to do all the heavy lifting and homework in Vietnam, because we believe we will be richly rewarded in years to come."

Fullerton's $30 million Vietnam Fund, which primarily invests in local equities, lost 30.4 percent from its inception in April 2007. In the 12 months to March 23, the fund is up 58 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Normal relations with the West and Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization lured many Viet kieu, or overseas Vietnamese, back to their homeland.

"Silicon Valley"

Trung Dung, an Internet entrepreneur, returned to HCMC in 2006, 22 years after he left the country.

Dung, 43, says he was impressed by a bustling city in which countless scooters and motorcycles jostle for space alongside bicycles and rickshaws as eager young people work hard to realize their dreams.

"It was chaotic," Dung says. "It felt like the Silicon Valley of 1995." Using some of the money he made from selling his San Ramon, California-based electronic commerce firm OnDisplay Inc. in 2000, Dung founded MobiVi Co., a similar venture.

Today, MobiVi is helping transportation companies, merchants and banks settle payments electronically.

Dung says there's plenty of growth ahead in a country where fewer than 1 percent of the people hold credit cards and only one person in 10 has a bank account.

"What I learned is that it doesn't matter how smart you are," Dung says. "It takes time to understand the local market."

On the ground floor of MobiVi's office block, there's a Highlands Coffee outlet. The cafe chain, often referred to as Vietnam's Starbucks, was established in 2002 by David Thai, a former refugee who was raised in Seattle.

Thai's cafes cater to a high-end clientele that can afford Western prices: A small latte costs VND44,000, or about $2.25, the equivalent of a beef noodle soup dinner for two. The 80 Highlands outlets are equipped with air conditioners, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi connections.

In January, Thai spent more than $2 million to open Vietnam's first Hard Rock Cafe in HCMC.

"Vietnam is the most dynamic consumer growth story within the Asia region," says Thai, who predicts that the country's retail market will grow as much as 30 percent annually in the five years to 2015. "It doesn't have the same population as China and India, but it's not crowded in terms of competition."

Outside the country's two main cities, though, Vietnam's economy is making a transition more slowly from rural subsistence.

Agricultural and forestry work still accounts for about half of all jobs in Vietnam, employing 22 million people as of July 2008, according to figures from the General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

From 2000 to 2008, manufacturing jobs doubled to 6.3 million, making up 14 percent of the workforce.

Intel Corp. is scheduled to open a $1 billion factory in HCMC this year, while General Electric Co. has a $61 million power generation component plant under construction.

Samsung Electronics Co., the world's second-largest mobile-phone maker, opened a $670 million handset factory near Hanoi in October, 14 years after it started a television manufacturing plant in HCMC that helped establish the company as Vietnam's No. 1 TV producer. Microsoft Corp. outsources digital animation and modeling for its computer games to Vietnam.

Vietnam's Googles

Henry Nguyen, managing partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam in HCMC, is one of the entrepreneurs hoping to profit from Vietnam's emerging middle class.

His company's $100 million fund is nurturing some 40 technology, media, telecommunications and gaming companies with a typical investment horizon of 10 years for each holding.

The names include those of VinaGame, Vietnam's biggest online game company, and Vietnamese-language search engine company Socbay.com. "These companies will become the Googles of Vietnam in the next five years," says Nguyen, 37.

Socbay.com owner Naiscorp Information Technology Service Joint-Stock Co. last year rejected Google's offer to buy Socbay, according to Naiscorp CEO Nguyen Xuan Tai. "Google's offers were attractive but didn't reach our investment goals," he says. "Besides, we really want Vietnam to have core technologies owned by Vietnamese people." A Singapore-based Google spokesperson declined to comment.

Since opening its first representative office in Vietnam in 2005, Temasek which doesn't disclose the value of its Vietnam portfolio has invested in the country through its holdings in Minh Phu Seafood Joint-Stock Co., transportation company Vietnam Sun Corp. and Kinh Do, according to stock exchange filings.

"Vietnam fits well with our overall themes of investing in transforming economies and the growing middle income group," Derek Lau, Temasek's chief representative in Vietnam, says. "We actively look for opportunities along these general themes. Overall, our sentiment towards the investment environment in Vietnam remains positive."

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