Reunification Day in Vietnam. Forty-five years ago today the helicopter lifted from the roof of the American embassy, the tanks rolled down what became Le Duan Street, and the Vietnam War officially came to an end. For the United States this ushered in nearly half a century of recriminations, regrets, and disbelief. For Vietnam a long road of isolation and eventual liberation that has led to one of the few positive growth stories in the world in Q1 2020.
For years after what Vietnam now refers to as Reunification Day, the country was poor and relied heavily on aid from the Soviet Union. But in the mid-Eighties the economic policy of Doi Moi led to relaxing of State control over all economic factors and the beginning of small scale capitalism.
It took another decade before the United States reopened diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Relations that have become increasingly friendly since, a slow progress that almost climaxed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership under Obama, but that was quashed by his successor.
And then the Enterprise Law was passed, and the Investment Law. It became possible for citizens and then foreigners to invest capital in business. No longer was the State the sole source of capital, the sole manager, the sole. Vietnam began to open up. Amendments were made, different versions passed the National Assembly. Vietnam began to grow more prosperous and became a frontier market.
Not the first brave soul to venture into the wild, I dipped my toe in Vietnam for the first time in 2003. Diamond Plaza was the only shopping center. It had a KFC and a bowling alley. The three big hotels (Sheraton, Park Hyatt, and Caravelle). existed downtown, a few serviced apartment complexes served the needs of expat managers and technicians, and the backpacker section the needs of the adventurous Australian and European youths who came to Southeast Asia seeking the dollar a liter beer.
I stayed with a co-religionist family in the Somerset Apartments on Nguyen Binh Khiem in District One. I lazed about during the day, swam in the pool, read and wrote, and then dressed for the evening English class I taught at Duong Minh English school in District 3. A solid twenty-minute walk–enough to leave me sweaty and grimy–that took me along Hai Ba Trung past Tan Dinh Market. It was an idyllic life. I spent a few hundred a month and lived fine. It was a fun summer, and my first experience with the Vietnamese who won the war. (I had previously spent two years with the Vietnamese population in California–who were still fighting the war on the streets of Orange County.)
And then a new version of the Enterprise Law. As a law student, I offered commentary on the draft law–even by that time the international community managed to elicit a drafting process that allowed for stakeholder input–though the National Assembly by and large ignored the more Western requests. But they passed the law, and its companion the revised Investment Law, and began to see increased inflows of FDI.
While I was in law school, Vietnam acceded to the WTO (at the time still a respected institution) and opened wide the doors to international investment and trade. After a decade of negotiation and liberalization, the Communist country was welcomed into the Capitalist West by the international community. They signed IP agreements, and opened their doors to imports, and allowed a phased entry into numerous service sectors by foreign players. It was a triumph for Capitalism.
And it presaged a burst of legal activity the likes of which the country had never seen before. Previously, attorneys had existed for civil disputes, family affairs, and as the local representative for international firms seeking to be present in the country. Around 2000 the most prominent local firms began to form, and then in the mid-2000s, in anticipation of the WTO commitments and the increase of FDI inflows, the deluge.
Indochine Counsel came into existence in 2006, formed by practitioners of what had, essentially been a French-led firm before, and like so many other firms at the time opened their doors for business. And the bulk of their business became foreign investment. I remember in 2009 spending much of my time in the WTO commitments. The first thing we did when confronted with a request for service was to check the commitments, to see what the restrictions were on the service sector, and only once we’d confirmed what commitments allowed would we move into the local investment and enterprise laws.
Business establishment was a big thing then, and took months, and cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and required a huge amount of red tape with countless different ministries involved. Saigon Trade Center on Ton Duc Thang was the tallest building in the city, Times Square was an abandoned hole in the ground, Vincom Centre was under construction, and Bitexco was a concrete tower rising so high that every road in the city led directly to it. The FDI inflows were immense–though they would grow larger–and a new city was being built.
Yet Vietnam was still considered frontier, a risky investment. Special Economic Zones were coming into being where infrastructure was being built to provide for international manufacturers who wanted to take advantage of the cheap labor available in a developing country. Intellectual Property protections improved. The number of bootleg DVD stores in the city decreased–though just upstairs from the newly opened Carl’s Jr. was a bootleg retailer–in Ho Chi Minh City’s first real shopping mall.
And the country continued to progress. By 2011, the WTO commitments had been phased in completely and Vietnam was now open and liberal, a Socialist country with Communist features. Vietnam joined ASEAN, and came privy to the ASEAN China, ASEAN Japan and other free trade agreements. Japan and Korea grew their investments in the country to the point of near economic-imperialism. (I can’t say much, I live in Binh Thanh District’s Little Japantown.)
A new revision of the Enterprise Law and Investment Law came into effect and, in many ways, protected the shareholder and non-management stakeholders much more effectively than Western legislation. It had been a few hard years after the Great Recession, but Vietnam managed largely positive economic growth during the time, and though, not the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia, one of the most consistent high-performers.
Business formation ceased to be the bread and butter of law firms like Indochine Counsel. The few years since the WTO accession and the dissemination of corporate governance led to a growing number of Mergers and Acquisitions in the market. Sure, there had always been some, but the mid-2010s saw a huge increase in foreign instigated M&A. Intellectual Property law became developed enough to require actual legal acumen. Compliance developed to the point of necessity. The stock market was a thing now.
The city sprawls, now–much like it did before, but now the skyline is filled with high rise apartments, office towers, and hotels. Cars are de rigeur though the motorcycle still rules. Infrastructure has improved and green energy is so prevalent that the national grid struggles to cope with the influx. New enterprise and Investment laws are expected during the next meeting of the National Assembly. The EVFTA is expected to be approved at the same meeting and then to enter effect–the most sweeping and complete free trade deal that Vietnam has entered yet.
Indochine Counsel is no longer one of a few, but one of many. The law has become complex enough to demand specialization–Indochine Counsel has partners in each of the main areas necessary for conducting investment and business in Vietnam–and foreign firms abound. International ratings agencies are on the verge of classifying Vietnam as a developing market along with the likes of China, India, and Brazil. Even the backpacker district has become a glitzy and expensive place to get drinks.
Ever since Vietnam’s first Reunification Day on April 30, 1975, there have been many changes. Socially, legally, economically, internationally the country has grown from a backwater destitute from thirty years of war to an economic powerhouse on top of the Coronavirus and well poised to lead the region in growth and development for the next decade. Forty-five years on, Vietnam celebrates Reunification Day and proves that Democratic Capitalism isn’t the only way to have success.