HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam Today the Saigon Hi-Tech Park (SHTP) looks like little more than a flattened patch of land on the dusty outskirts of Vietnam's commercial heart, Ho Chi Minh City.
But like the country itself it's a place with big ambitions that look set to become a reality. The zone has attracted a whopping $1.4 billion dollars in investment over the past five years, and will soon be home to the largest factory in Intel's global network as well as operations from Nidec, Sonion, and Jabil Circuit. When it becomes fully operational in late 2008 the first phase of the park will house 40 companies needing over 20,000 workers, a precision mechanics laboratory and a technology training institution, a dedicated wireless broadband network and even a venture capital fund.
And SHTP president Nguyen Dinh Mai doesn't plan to stop there. Employees are already hard at work on a second phase that will bump its total area up to over 600 hectares. The park is also developing rental factories for the smaller firms that will support its larger tenants, as well as a special zone for design, software development and outsourcing firms that will result in a "completed supply chain" and advance the park's strategy of eventually shifting from manufacturing to services.
Though he admits Vietnam is a "latecomer" to the industry compared to China and India, Mai says the government is committed to "integrating deeper and deeper into the global economy," and building a legal framework for technology companies "that's comparable to the best in the world."
And the world appears ready to take Vietnam at its word. Intel's massive investment may have propelled the country into the headlines, but a host of other names are setting up shop here -- Matsushita with an embedded software center, Toshiba with a research and development facility, and the newly formed Vietnam-Chipscale Advanced Packaging Services with a $200 million packaging plant.
Taiwanese contract manufacturer Foxconn is reportedly poised to pour some $5 billion into factories throughout the country. In a recent study PricewaterhouseCoopers named Vietnam the most profitable emerging market for manufacturing companies, and said it was now a "serious rival destination" to powerhouses India and China.
Ask anyone about the country's greatest strength and the answer is almost always the same -- its people.
"The country has always had a very good work ethic; poor families are the most eager to send their children to school," Mai says. "There's a tradition of self improvement and being eager to learn, which results in a workforce that's easy to train -- and that's very young."
"Vietnamese engineers are excellent, and very suited to creative tasks," agrees Tsuneo Sato, the outgoing president and CEO of Renesas Design Vietnam, which was one of the first major arrivals to the country when it opened its doors in 2004. "They may not have much experience in design or the semiconductor industry, but they study and learn a lot faster than engineers in other locations."
Add to this a government that Sato says is "aggressively" looking to groom the hi-tech industry -- authorities recently unveiled a plan to more than double annual electronics exports to at least $3 billion by 2010 -- and it's no surprise multinationals find Vietnam a welcoming environment. SHTP, for example, offers investors such goodies as a four-year income tax holiday, import duty exemptions and fast-track visa, investment application and customs services. And many note those moving into the country are likely to get a warmer reception than they would in more crowded destinations.
"In China you have to be an Intel to get attention, whereas in Vietnam you can be a small guy and still get the government's support," says Fred Burke, managing partner at law firm Baker & Mackenzie's Vietnam practice.