Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rahul

Madame Nguyen gave us the Communist Party’s perspective on the fast-developing Vietnamese economy but on Tuesday I met with one of the foreigners facilitating massive investment in the country. After dinner, I lay down in my hotel room looking ahead to a solid night of reading. Then my cell phone rang. It was Mark, who said, “Uhh, I’m at a bar with an American businessman who’s a friend of Desaix’s or something. We thought you might want to come by.” So I went over there to say hi and the four of us ended up hanging out for several hours.

Rahul Desai is an Indian-American, thirty-something, emerging Asian business tycoon. He carries some of the same mannerisms and speech patterns of Kumar in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. An adolescent sense of humor pokes through lucid explanations of Japanese banking or Indian retail. When waiters or bartenders approached him, he would yell, “No, no, I no speak English” and begin making requests in Japanese, at which point the baffled server would smile and walk off.

Rahul is a jetsetter—he estimates that 70% of his year is spent traveling away from his home in Tokyo. Today he’s in Hanoi to close a deal, tomorrow he’s off to Paris to do who-knows-what. I spent the entire evening in a futile effort to understand what exactly Rahul does. As soon as I’d gotten my head around one enterprise he’s involved in, he’d mention another country and another business venture.

But if I had to describe what Rahul does, I'd call him a 21st Century capitalist who modernizes the financial structures of Asian countries. He’s worked with the Vietnamese government and their state-run companies to set up a modern stock exchange and banking system. “The Vietnamese are very eager to innovate,” he enthused, “and are receptive to new ideas.” I was reminded of the American intelligence agents in World War II who were amazed at how fast the Viet Minh guerrillas learned to operate modern weapons.

With the help of foreign consultants like Rahul, Vietnam has built a state-of-the art financial system from scratch. Rahul contended that the Vietnamese banking system is far more advanced than that of Japan, where the moribund banking system hasn’t improved much since the 1970s. Vietnam, a country where people were once arrested for owning foreign currency, now has the financial machinery to attract billions in foreign investment. “Capital is becoming borderless which is making Vietnamese investment possible,” Rahul explained.

Vietnam once had about 2,500 state-run companies, about half of which remain. Of the remaining state companies, over 700 are in the process of listing themselves on Vietnam’s new, advanced exchange. Foreign investors, eager to invest in a booming economy are snatching up Vietnamese stocks, pouring billions into the firms.

Not all Vietnamese investment is coming through IPOs, though. Rahul was actually in Vietnam this week to close a deal between Japanese investors and TFP, a large telecom, software and outsourcing giant, which Rahul described as “Vietnam’s Microsoft”. TFP was establishing a joint investment fund with the Japanese, who were contributing most, but not all, of the initial capital--$100 million now and likely to increase.

“What are they investing in?”, I asked, sitting at a nice lakeside restaurant eating foot-long river shrimp.
“They’re mostly interested in big development projects,” he explained. I flashed to the view from our classroom balcony—dozens of cranes lifting new towers into the air.
“Resorts are a big growth area,” he added.
“Really, does Vietnam have nice beaches?”
“Yah, some of the best in the world.”
“Oh, wow, so they’re going to build a new Phuket?” I guessed, referring to Thailand’s famous resort area.
“No, better. Phuket is for young backpackers. Vietnam’s beaches are going to attract new wealth from Japan and China. So they’re going to build seven-star resorts.”

Ho Chi Minh spent much of his career fighting the French from remote jungle hideouts and he never would have dreamed of seven-star hotels in Vietnam. Yet Ho’s party is quickly adapting the business climate of the country to attract investors of all stripes. “Everyone wants a piece of the action,” Rahul commented. “Count me in,” I thought.

China Beach, near Da Nang

New hotel construction near China Beach

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