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Cars and motorcyclists ride on the newly built bridge in Ho Chi Minh City, 24 April 2005.
Cars and motorcyclists ride on the newly built bridge in Ho Chi Minh City, 24 April 2005.

ALEXANDRA SENO

Vietnam's growth offers wealth of opportunity Add to ...

In 2008, Canadian lawyer-turned-software entrepreneur Alexandre Legendre moved to Vietnam after his wife, who works for a U.S.-based government relations firm, received an attractive job offer.

Since it was her family’s homeland, it seemed like the right time to get to know the place better.

Mr. Legendre, who serves as vice-president of Hanoi’s Canadian Chamber of Commerce, says “a lot of people underestimate or are not aware of the potential of the Vietnam market.” Like much of Southeast Asia, the country is often overshadowed by the buzz about China and India. But as Mr. Legendre points out, Vietnam offers lots of opportunity for savvy and adventurous entrepreneurs.

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A 2002 graduate from the University of Ottawa, Mr. Legendre practiced law for seven years before plunging into entrepreneurship. His Montreal-based telecom company is a going concern, though at the moment he is not involved in operations. In Vietnam he returned to the legal profession and is now a partner at Leadco, a major corporate law firm. He is one of the few locally licensed foreign lawyers in the quickly developing market, where the language of big business tends to be English.

“One of the best ways to be effective in business is to understand the rules of the game,” the 41-year-old says. “Practicing law is the best way to learn the system in record time. Regulations are changing all the time in Vietnam.”

Mr. Legendre works on a variety of projects for multinational corporations, independent family businesses and small start-ups.

Although still branded a Communist-run country, Vietnam has a thriving capitalist bent. The country has a population of about 90 million, and most are under 35. “Despite what is going on in first-world countries, Vietnam (GDP) is still growing 5 per cent to 6 per cent a year and that means there are opportunities.”

He notes that infrastructure and education are booming. There is also a hunger for new technologies, an area in which Mr. Legendre says Canada can be very competitive. Software and services enterprises, he adds, should look to expand into the Vietnamese market. He believes the country is an ideal launching pad – not to “move jobs out of Canada” but to allow for greater access to other new markets in the region, creating value for Canadian companies.

And with so many young Vietnamese citizens with rising disposable incomes, the consumer goods sector is also ripe for opportunities. “People have more money in urban areas and consumer habits are changing. In the past four years, just in terms of food, for example, people are now more open to Western-type food, to try new dairy products. They are buying fast food. They are exposed to foreign culture in the media.

“The new generation graduating from schools speak English quite well because they want to do business internationally.”

After four years in Vietnam, the mix of French colonial and indigenous architecture continues to charm Mr. Legendre as well as the landscape of the countryside. The bustle of the cities and their busy, motorcycle-clogged streets he could perhaps do without. “Yes, the difficult part is dealing with every day problems. Getting to and from work can take a long time.

“For me this was an adjustment since we Canadians are used to cities that work better and are more organized.”

Mr. Legendre’s key piece of advice for businesses seriously looking to enter Vietnam? “You have to be present and be here to capture opportunities.”

Special to the Globe and Mail

Alexandra A. Seno has written about economics and business trends in Asia since 1994. She is a regular contributor to Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal Asia. She lives in Hong Kong.

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