One of the beautiful things about traveling in a country formerly colonized by the French is that you’re never left wanting for a good pastry. Say what you will about the oppression of colonialism and the tragedy of ethnocentrism—you’ll get no argument from me there, viva la revolucion and so forth—but the introduction of the French culinary tradition to the venerable and already sophisticated cuisine of Vietnam was nothing short of magic.
I’ve heard it rumored that Uncle Ho himself worked under the renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier during his sojourn in Paris, and I really want to believe it. As it happens (at least in my imagination), I am enjoying the fruits of that transcendent meeting of the minds quite literally for breakfast yet again this morning. Congee, steamed shrimp dumplings, and an array of odd-looking tropical fruit lead quite nicely into a plate of charcuterie and a mouthful or two of croissant, chased, of course, by the best coffee in the world. Not a bad way to start the day at all, and a fitting metaphor for the business climate here in Vietnam, especially in regards to the companies we’re visiting today. To wit: how do two seemingly contradictory views of the world (east vs west) coexist in a business setting?
First on the docket, Baker and McKenzie, a U.S. law firm with a strong international presence, specializing in Intellectual Property. Their office is centrally located in downtown Saigon, about 15 minutes by foot from the hotel, high enough up in a gleaming new office building to afford a nice view of the city. Our host is a lawyer from the states and we have the central office in Hanoi on a video conference line.
The discussion of IP law is lively and particularly relevant to this group of students and faculty, most of whom have already procured some form of counterfeit product at the Ben Thanh market (Jack’s stack of DVD’s is purely evidentiary, by the way). Our central point of interest is the concept of trademark violation, and how counterfeiters circumvent the law in this regard. Our hosts do a wonderful job of explaining the ways in which counterfeit manufacturers operate. After visiting Sprinta yesterday, it’s become apparent to me that quality manufacturers like Sprinta and brands such as North Face truly do offer superior products. Protecting the reputation of these brands and ensuring that consumers get what they pay for is crucial.
After describing counterfeit operations, our hosts detail the methods available to law firms representing aggrieved clients. Resolution through the courts—whether civil or criminal—is an option, but it seems that in Vietnam, administrative resolution is most effective. This entails law firms working in concert with the proper authorities to organize raids and seizures and to then place offending businesses on notice. To all of us Americans, who are acclimated to the litigiousness of American IP law, this seems like an ineffectual solution, dependant on too many parties working in tandem. But this is a different culture, and the importance of IP law is a fairly new concept.
After Baker and Mckenzie, we enjoy a brief lunch and then head over to a little local company called GE. In a nutshell, GE does big infrastructure projects. Health care, engine manufacturing, power, oil and gas development, and airport security are a few of GE’s focuses on a global scale. In Vietnam, they concentrate on oil and gas development and power. We’re met by a house attorney from their office in Hong Kong and two sales reps from the oil and gas division and the power division respectively. We talk about GE’s mission in Vietnam and about the pitfalls of working in a country as dependant on central government as Vietnam. To a company like GE, interference and red tape is anathema; GE made its name by being flexible, dynamic and fast. As such, we’re assured that GE keeps a healthy distance from projects that see a heavy governmental influence, which is pretty tough in a communist country. Nevertheless, they seem optimistic about Vietnam’s chances in a general sense, and I tend to agree, despite the prognostications from the expat panel last night. In my estimation, any people as resilient as the Vietnamese will find a way, even if it takes a little work (or a lot).
For dinner, Jess from Theodore Alexander is gracious enough to host the whole lot of us at his house in South Saigon. We enjoy yet another sumptuous meal replete with regional favorites such as prawn and green papaya salad, braised pork belly, deep-fried soft shell crab, and sour prawn soup. It is a fitting conclusion to what has become, for many of us, a culinary decathlon of sorts, and a testament to the strength of the relationships that the Elon faculty has cultivated over the years. It’s also another chance to enjoy the fruits of that complex marriage between east and west.
In this colonial mansion, which can only be described as palatial, we’ve reached an easy peace with our cultural differences. I’d like to think that Uncle Ho and Grandpa Auguste did the same so many years ago, and that our future business and legal constituents will as well.
Written by: Brian Adam