Until 10 years ago, summers in Vietnam were no different to other times of the year. Except for expats, who used the warmer months to fly long-haul to their native climes, most other people in this country stayed in place. They didn’t have the disposable income to leave town or go on vacation — business ambled on as normal.
But fast forward to 2014 and for day-to-day commerce in the country’s economic heartlands, summers see everything slowing down. The rise in domestic tourism has been a goldmine for the resorts along the Central Vietnam coast or for the tourist spots in the north. As the arrival of foreign tourists slows, so June, July and early August sees them replaced by local travellers, all searching for that annual break.
But go back to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, and life is quiet. So quiet in fact, that it’s a cause for concern.
“We had almost no customers last night,” says one well-known, Saigon-based restaurateur, who himself is using the lull to take a Mediterranean break in southern Europe. “And last night was a Friday. Today our terrace is fully booked for a do. But it’s just so unpredictable right now.”
A Hanoi counterpart echoes his words. “We’ve decreased our budget for the summer,” he explains, “although we’re performing better than we thought. But we’re still not busy.”
And it’s not just restaurants that experience this slowdown. Speak to business owners in other industries, and they too will tell you how quiet it is.
That the major cities in Vietnam seem to shut down for the summer is indicative of a problem experienced by the wider business community. Tet means that February is slow. March sees business pick up again, and by April it’s gathering speed. But almost as soon as momentum has returned, we hit summer — half of June, July and the start of August become write-offs.
With summer over the country goes back into full gear. But as January approaches, once again there is a lull. Business in Vietnam is crammed into a nine-month period.
There is a lot of good to this. As agreed by the EU, life shouldn’t be all about work. In the case of Europe they have created short working weeks — workers now only hit the 35-hour mark. In Vietnam, however, standard working weeks are 48 hours, with many workers not even being able to take off Saturdays. Fortunately this is compensated for by the summer holidays and of course, Tet, where workers get mandatory leave that doesn’t interfere with their vacation allowance.
But it does mean that business in Vietnam tends to stop and start, stutter and pause for breath. And it does mean that it’s difficult to gain momentum.
When times are good and the economy is booming, losing three months a year to holiday periods is not an issue. But when everyone is waiting for a pick-me-up, for many it’s a disaster. — Nick Ross