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A sneak peek into the future

Sunday, June 02, 2019, 10:05 GMT+7
A sneak peek into the future
Customers do the shopping at an outlet of a retail chain in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Daily life in Vietnam outside the largest handful of cities these days reminds me of my native Canada when I was growing up. Family-run businesses dominate the landscape in small- and mid-sized cities here just as they did during my youth.

Whatever we needed came from a family business where we knew most of the owners by name and went to school with their kids. Restaurants, clothing stores, burger joints, ice cream shops, movie cinemas, book, music, and hardware stores – you name the business and we knew the people who ran it.

I’m overcome by a wave of nostalgia every time I think of those days! 

I still reminisce on social media with school buddies from that era: “They really had the best pizza!” Or we giggle about “that lady working at the cinema snack bar told us to stop banging our coins on the counter when we wanted service.” And “The staff at the café hated it when we came in and ordered 6 glasses of water!”

Then things changed – almost imperceptibly at first – as we grew up and became more educated, moving into skilled professional jobs that often meant pursuing our careers in the big cities.

Those family businesses slowly faded away over time, replaced by large companies who scaled and duplicated processes, grew in size, and opened clones of their operations all over the country. The objective was to provide the same image, appearance, and customer experience everywhere, and that they did.

In duplicating that customer experience, originality and local flair were removed from the equation, but we didn’t realize the longer term impact then.

Later during my career, I travelled a lot around the country, and the first thought each morning when I threw back the curtains in my hotel room was:

“Where the hell am I?”  

These days in that part of the world most cities are developed from a single mold: There are a handful of big coffee chains, maybe half a dozen top hotel corporations, two or three big supermarket concerns, a few convenience store brands, key cutters, movie cinemas, and even a national chain of barber shops. You can count the burger and fried chicken chains that have survived on two hands.

Who could have imagined that the local barber shop would be replaced by a branch of a large corporation?

Nearly all the entrepreneurs are gone except for the odd one occupying a very special niche, and their days are numbered too.

We can see the same evolution gaining momentum right here in Vietnam these days, where the middle class is growing in leaps and bounds. It’s heart-warming to see the pieces move around the board, the cycle of poverty broken, and lives improving.

The entrepreneurial spirit in Vietnam is the backbone of the economy, with many families depending on a small business to carve out their niche and move up the economic ladder. Some families got a jump start when a business was handed down from their parents, they received a windfall through inheritance, or they worked and saved money for their start-up ante.

The couple that runs the tap hoa (convenience store) in the neighbourhood where I live is a textbook example of such success, having put all three of their sons through medical school.  

The husband and wife team that serve bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef noodle soup) on the street corner have put one daughter through a university-level accounting program and their son is on his way to becoming an engineer.

During a three-cornered translated discussion with the little old lottery vendor in my neighbourhood I learned that she has made a large contribution to her grandsons’ education, so he’s well on his way through medical school in the big city. 

These are profiles of typical Vietnamese families, not rare exceptions by any stretch. With two-thirds of the population under 35 years of age in Vietnam there is no shortage of young people hungry for an advanced education, and plenty of motivated parents help make it happen.

Those professional jobs are just the first step in a long sequence. I can see how it will transpire because I lived it in my country. From shopping and dining to services and hospitality, our future daily lives will take on a different look and feel, and it all begins with the impact of education.

The situation is simmering, yet irreversibly heading to a boil as the parents are now around 60 years old with many of them looking forward to a more leisurely future lifestyle playing with their grandchildren.

The overlap between the two generations is partly why we haven’t yet felt a significant impact from all the education and economic progress in Vietnam. Fast-forward a few years and the corner store will be winding down, the soup people won’t be working so much, and the lottery lady won’t be able to walk those kilometers any more.

Despite having so many young people, there will soon be an aging element to the overall demographic in Vietnam: 10% of the population are now at age 60 or older, and that segment is predicted to be three times greater by the year 2050.

With the younger generation busy at better jobs, the chain of tradition is about to be broken because there’s nobody prepared to take the baton when the parents retire. 

What’s going to happen to those family businesses? 

As the parents move toward retirement larger companies form and corporate concerns move in, with those bigger players snap up property and businesses to form new ventures.

In the case of the neighbourhood store it could become a modern mini-mart. In the last few years in Ho Chi Minh City alone, the number of convenience chain stores has increased fourfold to about 2,000 retail locations, and they’re sprouting up like mushrooms all over the city and larger urban areas around Vietnam.

A spiffy new minimart

A spiffy new minimart

Just like with that store, the bun bo Hue stall and a few others like it will be replaced by shiny, new corporate fast-food soup outlets, and new machines will replace that lottery vendor.

The central market in Da Lat is getting a facelift featuring new tenants including a large hotel, an American fried chicken joint, an upmarket food court, and a spiffy new minimart.

The new food court in Da Lat Market

The new food court in Da Lat Market

This evolution brings many benefits – improved overall retail experience, economies of scale, standardized inventories across locations, and professional standards for quality and freshness.

Overall, it’s a more than equitable exchange given the four doctors, accountants, and engineers that those small businesses have produced, no question about the improvement in quality of life for us all.

Some small businesses will be exempt from this evolution. Many hotels are small family-run affairs in Vietnam, so the big corporate names can’t take them over and make them into large hotels unless they buy up entire city blocks of land.

But there is an eerie downside which we all need to prepare for: Wherever we travel to domestically, as the evolution gathers momentum, one place starts to look the same as another, just like it does in my country.

So, in a few years when you wake up, yank open the curtains in your hotel room in another city in Vietnam, and can’t figure out where you are, don’t despair. 

Just think of all those doctors, accountants, and engineers and their contribution to progress and that sad moment of nostalgia will go away! The future is bright and getting brighter in Vietnam.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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