Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Corporate America Rushes In

Teeming Ho Chi Minh City, with its crumbling colonial facades and hordes of mopeds, isn't a natural setting for a bunch of slick capitalist pitchmen to do lunch. But that didn't stop ad shop Backer Spielvogel Bates Worldwide Inc. from flying its Pacific Rim managers to Vietnam for a strategic retreat last month. Says Chairman and Chief Executive Carl Spielvogel: "I thought it would be a good way to open people's minds about what's going to be a great consumer market one day."

Just how far off that day will be for U.S. companies will be determined during the final weeks of the Bush Presidency. Corporate lobbyists are agitating to get President Bush to lift a 17-year-old trade and investment embargo against Vietnam before he leaves office on Jan. 20. They fear the incoming Clinton Administration won't move on the embargo until well into 1993. Meanwhile, Asian rivals are rushing into Vietnam, where roughly $3 billion worth of deals have been struck during the past 18 months. "American companies are already at a great disadvantage," says Irwin Robinson, president of the newly established Vietnam-American Chamber of Commerce, based in New York City.

Robinson and other Vietnam business boosters, however, have reason to believe that U.S. companies will soon crack this emerging market of nearly 70 million consumers. On Jan. 5, the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs will release a 600-page study that credits Hanoi with helping investigate the fate of 2,260 missing American soldiers. The kind words from Congress, plus the repatriation of more remains by Hanoi, could provide the political cover Bush needs to move. Says one committee source: "Vietnam has committed to an awful lot."

If Washington lifts the embargo, Vietnam would gain access to billions in new investment from U.S. companies--and loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Hanoi desperately needs the money. Twenty years of socialism has left Vietnam's economy and infrastructure in a shambles. The country now has embarked on an "open-door policy," says Nguyen Manh Thao, a commercial attache at the Vietnamese Embassy in Tokyo.

And Corporate Asia is walking right in. Since Vietnam started opening its economy in 1988, trade with South Korea has more than tripled, to $334 million, through the first nine months of 1992. And Japan is busily expanding its presence. Three days after the U.S. election, Tokyo announced it was resuming economic relations with Hanoi. To kick things off, Japan has come up with a $375 million loan package.

OIL SCOUTS. U.S. businesses aren't sitting still. On Feb. 5, a group of 50 U.S. executives will depart on a trade mission to Hanoi. The Vietnamese covet the technical savvy and financial clout of such U.S. multinationals as Amoco Corp. and Mobil Corp. Both are scouting potential drilling sites in the South China Sea. And American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and Motorola Inc. want to help modernize the country's telecommunications system.

The most maddening aspect of the embargo to some U.S. executives is that Vietnam officials want U.S. suppliers to serve as a counterweight to Asian companies. "Virtually to a person, they're anxious to get Americans in there," says Steven A. Senderling, a regional director at Motorola Asia Pacific Ltd.

None of this has been lost on Bush's foreign policy team. But POW groups argue that Bush would be crazy to give up any leverage until every missing soldier is accounted for. "They haven't nearly gone far enough," says Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families, a POW-MIA lobby.

Such protests might not halt the momentum toward normalization. The powerful economic forces driving these two erstwhile enemies together suggest that the day when U.S. executives begin cutting deals all over Ho Chi Minh City is at hand.

      AT&T Won special approval to reestablish direct phone links between the U.S. 
      and Vietnam. Wants to upgrade nation's telecom system
      AMOCO, CHEVRON, MOBIL Want a shot at exploring Vietnam's potential oil reserves 
      in the South China Sea
      UNITED, DELTA, NORTHWEST Looking into adding steps to their existing Asia 
      routes to include Vietnam
      COCA-COLA, P&G With their products already on the black market, they're 
      studying how to reach Vietnam's 70 million consumers
      CATERPILLAR, FLUOR DANIEL Set to provide construction equipment and engineering 
      knowhow to upgrade Vietnam's infrastructure
      DATA: BW
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