Viet kieu ‘shooting star’ wishes to share his luck 

Nguyen Quang, a Vietnamese-Swedish entrepreneur, with the Male Shooting Star certificate awarded by international auditing firm Ernst and Young in Sweden in November last year

In early February this year, a leading Swedish daily, Göteborgs-Posten, used up a huge portion of its cover page for a photograph of Nguyen Quang, a Vietnamese-Swedish businessman.

Inside were two pages telling readers the story of a very young boy who arrived in Sweden with his father 30 years ago, and has risen, by dint of sheer hard work, to become one of Sweden’s largest food importers from Southeast Asia.

The 35-year-old director of Saigon Food AB became well known among the Swedish population after he was honored as the Male Shooting Star at the awards ceremony for Entrepreneur of the Year held by UK-based auditing firm Ernst & Young in November last year.

“Nguyen Quang started literally empty-handed. Today, his company is the market leader in food imports from Southeast Asia,” said a jury. “With a heart that beats for both employees and customers, Nguyen Quang is a good example for other entrepreneurs.”

Quang was modest about his success. “We have been lucky,” he said.

I met Quang at the end of February when he’d come to Vietnam to source Vietnamese food products to be shipped to his company in Sweden, and to do some charity work. He spoke to me about his journey from being empty-handed to handing out charity.

Soon after their arrival in Sweden, his parents opened up a grocery store. After returning home from school, young Quang would assist his parents in selling food and household items. He also helped deliver purchases to customers living near his house.

He studied economics at the university before he took over his parents’ shop and in 2004, established the Saigon Food AB in Gothenburg to sell food products coming from Southeast Asia. Two years later, his company directly imported such products before distributing them to not only Gothenburg residents but also those living in other cities.

“In the beginning I was working probably 75-80 hours a week. I worked in the office during the day and went around and delivered in the evenings. Sometimes I slept in a sleeping bag in the office.” Later his siblings joined him.

Most of Saigon Food AB’s products are shipped from Thailand while the remainder comes from Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia.

However, that could change in the future.

 “Through the numerous times I have returned to my native country, I have realized that the quality of Vietnamese food products has become better and better, and are not inferior to Thai products. Thus, this year and next year, I will focus on importing more Vietnamese products like Sa Giang shrimp crackers, banh trang (rice paper), and mi trung (egg noodles).

“Many Swedish people love Vietnamese food after traveling to Vietnam as tourists. When they return, they would like to enjoy Vietnamese food again. I will import more of it to satisfy their demand,” he said.

Saigon Food AB’s revenues for 2009 reached SEK142 million (US$23 million.) His company has posted an average annual sales growth of 25 percent since it was set up.

Not just business

Quang has not seen his business growth in purely economic terms. He has seen it as an opportunity to help needy people.

Because Vietnamese as well as others of Southeast Asian descent who are somewhat advanced in years find it hard to get work in Gothenburg, Quang has welcomed these people into his company.

Saigon Food AB now has around 25 staff of Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian and Thai origins. He also helps out other entrepreneurs. Many Thai women, for instance, who have started their own shops because they were unable to find jobs, are his clients. “We try to be generous with credit, remembering what it was like for us earlier,” he told the Swedish newspaper.

Quang said he plans to buy a 15,000-square-meter area in Gothenburg to expand his business, and generate more jobs for Vietnamese-Swedish finding it tough to find employment.

He said though there are not many Vietnamese people living in the city, the community always gathers together for sporting, camping and cultural activities together during Tet (Lunar New Year) and other festivals. Saigon Food AB is one of the main sponsors of the Vietnamese Cultural Society in Gothenburg, which organizes these get-togethers.

Quang said he is always looking for ways to help people in his native country as well. While reinvesting all the company’s profits, he takes out “the normal salary (for himself) and a dividend that I give to the poor in Vietnam,” he said.

Over the last five years, he and his parents have returned to Vietnam many times for charity work.

“Every year, I come back to Vietnam twice for charity purposes. This time [February this year], I spent VND500 million ($24,000) buying medicines and some essential products to give the poor, the old, and the orphaned living in Dong Nai.”

The award jury noted that the tremendous growth of his company was also marked by “his generosity and constant hunger to evolve on all levels.”

“If you share the money and experience, it gives you extra energy and motivation,” he said.

Advertisements

Stretching an hour into a year 

Hanoi youth gathered at last year’s Earth Hour celebration. Millions of people are expected to switch off lights for an hour from 8:30 p.m. on March 26 to raise awareness about energy conservation during Earth Hour 2011.

La Thuy Diem Hang is sure that this year’s Earth Hour will witness record participation in Vietnam.

This week, volunteers and organizers have been busily arranging activities and preparing communities all over the country for the big event.

This Saturday, environmentally-conscious people and businesses all over the world will shut off their  electric lights from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The main event in Vietnam is set to take place in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

“In 2010, the campaign was held in Ho Chi Minh City mainly by WWF Vietnam,” said the 23-year-old graduate from the HCMC University of Science. “This year, many local environmental clubs and organizations have gotten involved.”

Hang said that many young first-time participants in last year’s event in HCMC have joined this year’s campaign to mobilize others. “We have distributed leaflets and encouraged locals from seven neighborhoods in HCMC to join the campaign,” she told Thanh Nien Weekly. “Also, 60 cafés in the city have committed to turning off their lights during the event.”

As Vietnam faces down its growing energy needs, energy efficiency policies and programs are being looked to as the cheapest and most immediate solution to the nation’s power shortcomings.

Making strides

Manufacturing flourished as the nation’s economy soared, driving up the country’s power demands – and not always in the most efficient way.

In the past ten years, international development agencies have implemented a host of small scale programs to help Vietnam make its grid more efficient.

In 2003, for example, researchers discovered that Vietnam consumed 39,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) for every dollar of its gross domestic product (GDP). That same year, Japan used about 5,000 BTUs per dollar of GDP.

From 2004-2009 Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) implemented a program to promote the installation of energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in houses and buildings across Vietnam. 

“The program had a major impact, transforming the lighting market in Vietnam, and reducing peak demand by 300 MW,” said Peter du Pont, who worked as a consultant to EVN and the World Bank during the implementation of the program. “It also reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, by more than three million tons." 

At the moment, the Asian Development Bank is looking to fund the streamlining of seven heavy manufacturing sites, according to Felix Gooneratne, Asia Director, International Institute for Energy Conservation (IIEC).

“Investment grade audits conducted at seven sites (five cement and two steel) have identified significant potential for generating electricity from process waste heat that would supplement on-site electricity demand,” said Gooneratne. “Investment plans are currently being finalized.”

At the same time, the United Nations Development Program has targeted small and medium-sized manufacturers for efficiency projects.

Future energy needs remain a major issue in the country.

Last month, the government raised the costs of electricity roughly fifteen percent. Officials at the Ministry of Industry and Trade said they hoped that higher power prices would make the construction of large power projects more attractive to foreign investors.

In the meantime, Vietnam is looking to develop its own grassroots campaign to curb energy usage.

Beyond the hour

Earth Hour was initiated by the WWF – a non-governmental environmental advocate – to increase climate change awareness and induce mitigating responses.

The first event was held in Sydney in 2007 and has quickly spread around the globe.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people across the world, in 4,616 cities and 128 countries and territories, turned off their lights during the last weekend in March.

Tran Minh Hien, Vietnam Country Director of the WWF Greater Mekong Program, said that they plan to launch an extensive campaign that will last the whole year.

“The main event night is just a beginning,” she said. “Several activities have been launched for individuals, companies and organizations nationwide.”

WWF Vietnam has held talks with students from 16 universities and schools about climate change and Earth Hour.

Hien said that the first success of the campaign is that it has attracted more support from governmental agencies, organization and individuals.

In 2010, 20 cities and provinces as well as more than 300 companies and organizations participated in the event.

“This year, up to 30 cities and provinces and more than 4,800 companies and organizations have committed to participating,” Hien said.

Facing down energy demands

This January, the Law on Economical and Effective Use of Energy took effect. The law resolution sought to establish limits on the use of energy in homes and businesses-though actual regulations have yet to be established.

In the meantime, Vietnam is facing some very immediate problems in its energy needs.

According to the HCMC Energy Conservation Center (ECC) the city will face a shortfall of two million kWh of electricity every day during the remainder of the dry season—which ends in May.

Center Director Huynh Kim Tuoc said that the energy shortfall would not be a problem if local consumers became more conscious about their energy usage.

“If 1.8 million households in HCMC turned off their air conditioners for an extra 30 minutes, the city would save 900,000 kWh of electricity a day,” he told Tuoi Tre newspaper in an interview last week. “More efficient use of electricity in factories and offices would also solve the energy shortage.”

But local campaigners and public awareness campaigns are already taking hold.

Last March, the ECC and the HCMC Women’s Association launched a campaign to make 100,000 households energy efficient. As a result, many households have reduced their electricity bills between 10-50 percent during the previous year.

”We built a network of some 1,200 propagandists in all the city’s 24 districts,” Tuoc said. “Each was assigned to be in charge of around 100 families to offer energy saving consultations and encourage them to use electricity efficiently.”

Tuoc added that the ultimate goal is to change the community’s awareness in purchasing and using electricity.

“The result was great,” he said. “The participants later encouraged others to participate in the program.”

Don’t count your tourists before they’ve arrived 

Tourists check a map at a street in Hanoi.

Vietnam tourism officials may be patting themselves on the back a bit too soon.

The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) recently announced that Vietnam welcomed five million international arrivals.

The figure has somehow gone on to be reported as the number of international tourists who visited Vietnam in 2009 as officials laud a record “tourism” increase of 34.8 percent year-on-year.

However “international tourists” and “international arrivals” are by no means the same.

The former are foreigners who visit a country purely to travel and relax, while the latter are those who travel to visit family, and conduct business.

In fact, in its detailed report, the administration said around 3.1 million foreigners visited Vietnam for travel.

One million came on business; nearly 600,000 came to visit family, while the rest came for other purposes.

Businesspeople don’t spend much during their brief visits. Those who come to visit family rarely patronize tourism services because they stay with their loved ones.

One tourism expert said, on condition of anonymity, that no other country would make such an obscure declaration about tourism arrivals.

Businesses use those figures to make plans for next year and such equivocation can ultimately hurt industry development.

Tran Thuy Linh, another industry expert, argued that related agencies should separate tourists from other visitors to create an honest assessment of Vietnam’s capacity to serve foreign tourists.

Vietnam air travel set to grow 10.2 pct annually: industry group 

 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said Vietnam will see some of the world’s most significant industry growth in the coming years.

The association expects Vietnam’s airline industry will grow 10.2 percent annually by 2014 in terms of international passengers, making it the third fastest growing market after China and the United Arab Emirates.

Vietnam will also rank second in terms of growth in domestic passengers, after China, IATA said in a statement Monday.

The association expects the global airline industry to see 3.3 billion passengers by 2014, up 800 million from 2009. Asia will account for 45 percent of the increase, the association said.

“Despite some regional differences, the forecast indicates that the world will continue to become more mobile. This creates enormous opportunities but also presents some challenges,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “To realize the economic growth potential that this will bring, we will need even more efficient air traffic management, airport facilities and security programs.”

In terms of air cargo, IATA expects international freight volumes to surge to 38 million tons in 2014, compared to 26 million tons in 2009.

The top three fastest growing international freight markets over the period will be Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, the association expects.

Vinashin’s debt troubles to hurt Vietnam banks’ credit quality, S&P says 

 

Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry Group’s potential failure to make debt payments is likely to undermine the credit quality and profitability of Vietnam’s banks, according to Standard & Poor’s.

The state-run company, known as Vinashin, may default on foreign-currency debt due in “in the near term,” highlighting the need for lenders to assess the creditworthiness of each government-controlled entity, S&P said in a statement Monday.

Vinashin may represent as much as 3 percent of the individual loan portfolios of some state-owned Vietnamese banks, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Banks that had counted on government bailouts in the event of problems in lending to state-run firms may post larger-than-expected credit losses, S&P said Monday.

“Vinashin is the first signal that state-owned banks have more doubtful loans than appeared to be the case in the past,” Alain Cany, the Ho Chi Minh City-based chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, said by telephone on Monday. “This may reduce the valuations of state-owned banks, but the problem is that not many people know the extent of it yet.”

Vinashin had debt of about VND86 trillion ($4.4 billion) as of June, the government said in August. The shipbuilder may delay a $60 million payment on a $600 million loan, Moody’s said last month in a note.

One-year delay

“All eyes are now on an impending syndicated loan repayment that the company must make,” Vietnam Holding Ltd., a UK-listed fund, said in a note posted on its website Monday. “Vinashin’s management is seeking a one-year delay in the timing of the payment, for want of sufficient cash.”

Nguyen Ngoc Su, chairman of Vinashin, didn’t immediately respond to telephone calls, while Chief Executive Office Truong Van Tuyen wasn’t immediately available on his mobile phone.

“Vinashin’s woes highlight the lack of transparency, weak accountability and poor corporate governance in Vietnam,” Ivan Tan, a credit analyst at S&P, said in the note Monday. “A wide disconnect exists between industry-reported non-performing loan ratios and the true state of the system’s asset quality.”

Government-controlled companies in the nation account for 30 percent to 40 percent of loan books at state-run banks, S&P said.

While Vietnam’s government is “restructuring Vinashin’s projects” to help the company operate profitably, the shipbuilder should make its $60 million debt payment on its own, Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc said Dec. 8.

Company’s credit quality

The government’s stance on Vinashin indicates that it expects creditors to lend to government-related entities based on each company’s credit quality, “without an expectation of timely extraordinary government support when required,” S&P said.

The government is coping with a budget deficit and doesn’t want to come to Vinashin’s rescue, Vietnam Holding said.

“Until now, commercial banks — both foreign and local alike — have tended to regard loans made to large state-owned corporations as having an implied government guarantee,” said Vietnam Holding. “It now looks like Vinashin will serve as the acid test for this perception.”

Vinashin’s problems are also unlikely to stop capital injections into state-owned lenders in Vietnam, it said, citing the banks’ systemic importance, and the government’s majority ownership and history of providing support.

Built to last 

A ground breaking ceremony to build houses for flood victims in Quang Ngai Province

Another flood has hit the central region of Vietnam.

Though the central coast has avoided the usual rounds of typhoons, however, floods have slammed the region like never before. Four rounds of floods have pummeled the coast since the end of September, killing hundreds of people and damaging thousands of homes.

Authorities and scientists continue to study and debate why Mother Nature has been so furious this year.

But I wonder if anyone will take the time to consider why the government spends trillions of dong, every year, building homes that are doomed to be swept away in the inevitable annual floods.

Despite all the money spent, the lives of the poor in the flood-stricken region have hardly improved.

Because the government is more concerned with quantity over quality.

Usually the government spends between VND7-12 million (US$359-615) to build a home.

Why? Because the recipients of these homes are often too poor to contribute to the construction, the houses remain merely “temporary” structures.

Whenever floods end, the poor become homeless again.

Last year, Thanh Nien readers donated enough to allocate VND30 million ($1,538) for the construction of each home. The government spent VND5 million ($256) in matching funds and construction volunteers were supplied by a number of local youth unions.

Despite this being the worst year on record for the floods, those homes are still standing.

Everyone needs a roof over his head.

That’s why local authorities nodded theirs, last year, when Thanh Nien proposed building houses for flood victims. Many patrons, meanwhile, have strongly supported the newspaper’s “steady houses of love” initiative.

I hope that more people, especially authorities and charities, will learn from the initiative and, in the future, provide flood victims with effective and lasting relief. Only solid homes will ensure that our best intentions turn into sustainable and effective relief for the central coast flood victims.

Loan sharks scam HCMC students 

 

Students unable to repay debts fear for their limbs

Binh left his home in a nearby province and came to Ho Chi Minh City with dreams of a degree.

Struggling with the high costs of living in the city, he failed to pay his university fees in October and ended up borrowing VND5 million (US$256) from a friend.

When the friend asked him to return the money, Binh reluctantly went to one of the many loan sharks that lend money to cash-strapped students in the city.

“I had no choice. Banks and legal loan services won’t give me loans because I have no assets [to mortgage],” he said.

At a money lender’s in an alley off Tran Hung Dao Street in District 1, just steps away from the dormitories of the HCMC University of Economics and the HCMC University of Natural Sciences, Binh was “approved” for a loan at an interest rate of 21 percent per month.

To legalize the loan, Binh was made to sign a document saying he received the money as a deposit for a laptop he would deliver later.

Before he left, the lender warned the student with dire consequences if he failed to pay his debts. “They threatened to contact my family and cut off my limbs,” he said. Thankfully, he was able to pay off his debts within ten days.

But another student, Tu, was not that lucky. He was threatened and seriously bullied all November after failing to pay interest on a loan of VND11 million ($564). Fearing for his limbs and life, Tu borrowed money from his sister to pay off the interest. But he is still mired in debt.

According to Tu, hundreds of students have borrowed money from the same lender, identified only as C.

The 47 universities in HCMC attract thousands of students every year from around the country, especially the southern provinces. Loan sharks lurk around the universities and thrive on ripping off broke students.

Students get mired in extortionate interest rates, often ending up struggling to pay off just the interest, without any hope of getting out of debt.

Abundant bloodsuckers

Following a complaint from a victim student, Thanh Nien conducted an investigation and found hundreds of students who have seen their hardships turn into horrors.

Disguised as a relative repaying a student’s debt, a Thanh Nien reporter found that the loan shark popularly known as C. belongs to a ring with at least three unlicensed lenders around universities in HCMC.

He was told that he could pay the interest at any of the other “branches” in the city – at Street No. 2 near University of Technology in District 10, at D5 Street near a branch of Foreign Trade University in Binh Thanh District, and in the Thu Duc university area in Thu Duc District.

The service on D5 Street appears to be a pawn shop with a board advertising “low-interest loans with easy procedures.” A man called H. directed the “customer” to a nearby service on D2 Street to discuss the loan. However, he refused to lend money when the reporter presented an invalid student card.

Another loan shark in H.’s racket said many other loan sharks in Thu Duc university area charged even higher interest rates, of VND40,000 per day on a VND1 million loan, which works out to be 120 percent per month.

H. also claimed that the ring has tight connections with government and police officials who protect the illegal services.

According to state regulations, interest rates should be no more than 150 percent of the benchmark interest rate set by the State Bank of Vietnam. At the moment, the benchmark rate is 9 percent per annum, and the maximum interest rates charged by money lenders should not exceed 13.5 percent. Violating lenders can be punished by jail terms of up to three years and fines up to ten times the involved interest amount.

INVESTIGATION UNDERWAY

Following Thanh Nien’s report published Monday (December 6), the police in District 1 summoned 28-year-old Nguyen Manh Cuong, previously identified as C., for interrogation.

Cuong, who operates the money-lending service on Tran Hung Dao Street confessed he had lent money to students at a monthly interest of 21 percent. He also admitted that he had forced borrowers to sign false documents saying they received the money as a deposit for laptops.

However, he failed to say how many students had borrowed money from him. A subsequent police raid of his facility found records of 29 students who had borrowed a total of VND185 million. The police also found several leaflets introducing his services.

Police said Cuong has so far not revealed any connections with other loansharks’ services in Binh Thanh District or elsewhere in the city.

A District 1 police officer said they are investigating the case and are determined to crack down on the loan sharks.

Meanwhile, several students who had borrowed money from Cuong told Thanh Nien that they received anonymous phone calls instructing them to pay their debt at a facility in Binh Thanh District.

The Binh Thanh District police told Thanh Nien they would verify the information about the loan sharks operating in their jurisdiction.