Vietnam's fledgling high-tech industry gets a major vote of confidence with the arrival Friday of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, whose visit says much about the country's success in establishing itself as a new player on the technology map.
Vietnam has been anxious to jump-start its high-tech sector, which got a big boost earlier this year when Intel Corp., the world's largest chipmaker, announced plans to build a $300 million chip assembly and testing plant in the country.
"The decision of Intel (to build) a plant in Ho Chi Minh City, and now Bill Gates' visit is confirming the recognition of Vietnam's potential for IT development," said Truong Gia Binh, CEO and president of the Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology, or FPT, the country's leading software and computer maker. "This is a major opportunity for Vietnam," he said.
Gates, who arrives late in the day from Japan, is coming at the invitation of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, who made the offer when he toured Microsoft's headquarters during his visit to the U.S. last summer. Khai was the highest-ranking Vietnamese leader to visit the White House since the end of the Vietnam War.
At the time, the two men had signed agreements for Microsoft Corp. to help Vietnam develop its technology companies and train some 50,000 teachers to use computer software. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
The head of the software giant is scheduled to hold talks Saturday with Khai and President Tran Duc Luong, speak to Vietnamese students at a local university, and tour Bac Ninh province near Hanoi to see how information technology is being applied in rural areas.
"We have a keen interest in developing the IT sector," said Deputy Minister for Planning and Investment Tran Dinh Khien on the sidelines of the Communist Party congress taking place this week.
Vietnam has clear ambitions of becoming another tech mecca like India and, with its young, literate work force, the idea isn't necessarily a pipe dream, said Nguyen Huu Le, chairman of TMA Solutions in Ho Chi Minh City.
"I think 2006 could be a watershed year. It's a critical year in terms of being able to get to the next level," said Le, a former Nortel Networks Corp. executive who returned to Vietnam to set up his own software company.
Tech companies "are starting to take notice of Vietnam. Even a few years ago, they wouldn't even think about Vietnam, much less search it out," Le said.
His company, which is doing outsourcing work for Nortel, Lucent Technologies Inc. and NTT Electronics Corporation, posted revenues of $10 million last year, he said.
Vietnam's potential is undeniable, though the country remains at a relatively early stage of development, said Binh, who is also head of the Vietnam Software Association. There are about 800 active software development companies in Vietnam, which range in size from tiny hole-in-the-wall operations to full-fledged companies like FPT with its 8,000 staffers, he said.
"I'm very optimistic with what's happening in information and communication technologies in Vietnam," he said. "The point is whether the world is ready to accept Vietnam as the next China."
The challenge for Vietnam will be in devising an education and training system that better prepares technology graduates for industry demands, Le said.
Vietnam has also battled a bad reputation as one of the region's worst violators of intellectual property rights. It has the highest percentage of pirated software in Asia.
"The good news is that the new graduates are better than five years ago. The curriculum is better and the English is better, but still we are working for foreign customers, so we still need to invest a lot in terms of training (our workers)," said Le, who said he is seeking a license to set up a private university focusing on software engineering.
Vietnam already has some 45 information technology training centers around the country, graduating some 35,000 students a year, but that still leaves the country short of its demand, said Binh. FPT has gotten approval from the prime minister to set up a university for software programmers that will also develop their language skills, he said.
"I think any big giant, to maintain a leading position in the world, has to be in China, but it should also have its eggs in another basket," Binh said. "Vietnam is the other basket."