The top cities for starting something new: Ho Chi Minh City

Why you should consider relocating to this Vietnamese city in 2021.
Ho Chi Minh hero image (16x9)
The lowdown

Why you should consider it: 

It's a super-young, fast-moving and cheap place to set up something new – low overheads mean bootstrappers will find it’s inexpensive to get a new idea off the ground. Plus, you’re at the crossroads of southeast Asia, making travel to neighbouring countries dead simple. 

Who it’s good for: 

There’s a burgeoning creative industry – and raw opportunity to fill unmet demand. Municipal and national investment in startups is also at an all-time high, so expat founders considering the region will find the city appealing. E-commerce is a hot sector and, with a large unbanked population and rising smartphone usage, there’s opportunity for fintech startups to fill the gap.  

Why now: 

Vietnam’s economy is on the rise – it actually grew in the second quarter of this year, despite the pandemic, leading the Financial Times to say the country might see a ‘Covid dividend’. The ongoing US-China trade war has also led to multinationals turning to Vietnam for manufacturing contracts.

In a matter of decades, Vietnam has transformed from a rural, poor, war-torn country into one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with a rapidly developing middle class, rising disposable income, innovative startup and dynamic creative scene. 

While Hanoi in the north is considered Vietnam’s cultural capital – and proper capital – Ho Chi Minh City, still widely referred to as Saigon, is its bustling business centre and is a megacity with 8.9 million people (and almost as many motorbikes). HCMC can be overwhelming, but it falls somewhere between chaos and comfort. 

The large and growing expat scene has at its fingertips rooftop bars, tons of cafes with fast wifi, great food and endless ca phe sua da – Vietnam’s sweet and strong iced coffee with condensed milk, good for fuelling brainstorming sessions into the early hours.

An emerging regional design hub

Joshua Breidenbach, originally from the US, and Chí-An De Leo, a Vietnamese-Italian, met while working at a branding agency in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008. Here they talk about setting up their own studio, Rice Creative, three years later. 

Was Ho Chi Minh City a natural choice for your studio? 

A (CA): Branding studios didn’t exist [here] at the time. People were doing branding but mostly out of big advertising agencies. So there were huge opportunities for us.  J: We feel a great responsibility. Our first client was Marou Chocolate – a high-end chocolate – and we wanted people to clearly see that it’s chocolate from Vietnam. That ignited a fire in us: we were having an influence on what people were thinking about a place through branding.  

What were the challenges in setting up the business?

A (CA): The laws changed in 2011, allowing you to have a 100% foreign-owned company. Prior to that, you had to have a local partner. We were one of the first such businesses and it took a while to get our licence. Another challenge is talent. We try as much as possible to hire locally, but design education isn’t very advanced here yet.

Why is now a good time to move to HCMC? 

A: It’s a fast-growing economy but so much hasn’t been done yet. Even concepts that somewhat exist abroad, you can bring here and try the market. Besides, the laws change every six months. A recent one was that foreigners can now own apartments: not quite ‘land’ but it’s another incentive for the non-Vietnamese to build a business here.

Ho Chi Minh: The expat view 

In 2011, Franco-Japanese school teacher Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou, a Franco-American former advertising executive, founded the acclaimed Marou Chocolate. Here they give a brief guide to living in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Getting around 

Take a scooter. You can rent one for VND 1m (£33) a month. Life here without it is unimaginable. It’s really not a city for cars – they’re not in the dynamic spirit of the place – and it’s very hot in the tropics, so a bicycle isn’t practical, either.  

Where to live 

Classic expat areas like Thao Dien. Between there and the city centre is a place called Bên Thành that’s popular with the younger set.  

Take your time 

Business can be done quickly and cheaply here, but there’s a great passion for cutting corners – whether the person regrets it in the end or not. 

Find more of the top cities for starting something new in 2021.

This article was first published in Courier Issue 37, October/November 2020. To purchase the full issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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