It is a dream of many long-term expats in Saigon to start a business here one day. The question is, what type? In the past, it has been extremely difficult for expats to start any non-restaurant business here. This is because foreigners are generally not able to market to Vietnamese locals effectively. That may be changing, however, with the ongoing emergence of a large middle class in Saigon.
A pivotal instance in my own professional progression came about six months ago, when I came across a local board game cafe called Coffee Talk English. I met the American owner Carl Eranio and his Vietnamese wife Huong, and they told me the story of how their business began. Carl told me that, when he had come to Vietnam five years before, board game culture was simply nowhere to be found. Almost no locals had even heard of board games, and there were definitely no establishments dedicated to getting people together and playing.
He had already developed a love for board games while living in America, and he wanted to do something about the lack of organized players here in Saigon. He decided he would also go one step further, though, by actually introducing the activity to the Saigonese on a large scale. He gathered up a few dozen board games during one of his trips back to the States, and he brought them to the traditional coffee shop that his wife owned. Carl and Huong did some social media marketing to drum up some interest in the “obscure” activity, and they began to hold bi-weekly board game nights. Over the next few months, locals took notice of the developing board game cafe.
Many of them took a shine to board gaming, and word began to spread. More board game cafes began to pop up all over the city, and board game shops were soon established in nearly every district. In the past year or so, board games have become a big business in Saigon. Whereas a few years back you almost certainly would have been met by blank stares if mentioning the concept of board games in a Vietnamese household, most people are now at least familiar with the idea. And Carl took his greatest hobby, something which he had never dreamt he could turn into a business, and cashed in on it. The rapid emergence of board games as a popular hobby is just one instance of a “leisure revolution.”
Vietnam’s middle class is growing at a breakneck pace. It comprised only 12 million of the country’s people in 2012, but it is on track to include 44 million by 2020, according to a study by Nielsen. The rate of growth will only increase from there, and Nielsen forecasts 95 million by 2030. One of the main differences between the Vietnamese masses of yesteryear and the quickly growing Vietnamese middle class is that the latter group has a lot of expendable income. They’re looking for hobbies and other activities to improve the lives of themselves and their families, and leisure activities are one of the best ways to do that.
Vietnam is also the 14th most popular country in the world for expats to settle, according to Internations. Expats often have a hefty expendable income as well, and they tend to seek out these leisure activities too.
The “leisure revolution” is a great thing for Vietnam’s residents, as it allows them to enjoy their lives more and enrich their ties with loved ones. It also signals a great business opportunity, though, especially for expats who grew up around such leisure activities. Now is an opportune time for expats to start a business based around a passion. There are many, many leisure activities out there that are just waiting to be introduced to the Vietnamese public, and they could be very lucrative a few years down the line. Expats willing to take a small risk and invest some money into something they love could see it pay off sooner rather than later.
Every business requires land, planning, and a significant amount of initial capital, of course. Vietnam’s business laws allow foreigners to own 100% of the business (in most cases). However, having a Vietnamese partner on the business name can make things go more smoother when dealing with licensing.
Now is the time to jump on this opportunity for those who can. It’s a chance to turn something you love into your profession, which is, in the end, priceless.
The significance of the “leisure revolution” is not limited to its entrepreneurial implications. It will also come as very good news to expats or tourists in Saigon, as it will create a lot more amusing diversions to keep you entertained in the city. It will hopefully be as good for the city’s tourism scene as it will be for the country’s aspiring business owners.