One of the charms of Việt Nam is how a humble motorcycle becomes a beast of burden.
The cargo may range from a family of five to hundreds of pounds of bagged whatnot, balanced and strapped down for the ride.
I’ve seen motorbikes bearing beehives in mesh bags; an empty aquarium draped with plastic bags holding tropical fish swimming in water; a basket of unbutchered thịt chó – dog meat.
A friend told me she once saw a drunk tied to the back of a motorbike.
Every day – no, practically every minute – a foreigner on the streets of urban Việt Nam will see something that would earn a traffic citation at home.
And yet these shipments usually get to their destination – no problem.
The system seems to work.
But maybe this ingenuity in moving domestic products like eggs, beer and construction rebars may both mask and underscore a big problem dogging Việt Nam’s progress:
The logistics of imports and exports.
This system, as a recent World Bank study quantified, definitely is not working.
The study comparing Southeast Asian economies raised my eyebrows.
The efficiency of Singapore should come as no surprise.
Built for speed, Singapore requires an average of five days to process a commodity export and four days for imports.
Compare that to the Philippines:
15 days for exports, 14 days for imports – one of the slowest.
But Việt Nam is slower than slow – a full week slower than the Philippines, at 22 days and 21 days, respectively.
And a scoring system developed for the study found that Việt Nam’s trade logistics are getting worse, falling 31 points, while regional rivals are improving:
Myanmar up 38 points, Cambodia up 15, Indonesia up 30 and the Philippines up 8.
Vietnamese folklore venerates the tough, slow-moving turtle – but these numbers suggest a snail moving backwards.
The World Bank put a price on this inefficiency:
Việt Nam’s average cost for exporting and importing a container was $580 and $670, compared to $456 and $439 for Singapore, and $450 and $435 for Malaysia.
To me, Việt Nam’s slow pace presents a conundrum.
There is no questioning the impressive work ethic of the Vietnamese – but time itself seems to have little value.
I noticed this back home in California, when my Sài Gòn – born wife would occasionally hire Vietnamese handymen, who would quote a modest price for a job and then put it long hours getting it done.
My wife would half-jokingly refer to “Vietnamese time,” and I long ago learned that if she said “I’ll be there in 20 minutes,” it might take an hour.
So after arriving in Việt Nam, I felt affirmed when I read a EuroCham report that urged the Vietnamese to embrace the conventional wisdom that “time is money.”
So why does Việt Nam have so much catching up to do?
To me, the cultural component seems valid:
Perhaps nothing mattered more in the American War than perseverance and a willingness to outlast their enemy.
Việt Nam’s internal clock, a friend suggests, may have been set by its agricultural roots and tedious, time-consuming labor of rice farming.
But the Vietnamese are aware that their physical and bureaucratic system for foreign trade is a mess.
At the conference where the World Bank report was released, participants complained of having shipments held up by customs and other authorities who required three sets of approvals – and of some who wanted bribes to expedite shipments.
It’s hard to see a silver lining in this.
From a distance, it seems obvious that huge sums loaned for overbuilding and paralyzing Việt Nam’s housing market would have been better applied to upgrading roads, ports and other transport infrastructure.
Instead of building towers that now stand as an empty monument, a construction crew could have been improving a port that quietly makes Việt Nam work better.
Now billions of overseas development assistance has been pledged to Việt Namby foreign donor nations.
Foreign investment is also pouring into plans for new ports and “public-private partnerships” to improve highways.
There is a lot of work to be done just for Việt Nam to get up to the Philippines’ speed.
The question remains, however, how Việt Nam will fix its human infrastructure.