The time it takes to get from Tan Son Nhat Airport to downtown Saigon is 25 minutes (motorbike) and 40 minutes (car or taxi). The equivalent journey from Noi Bai to Central Hanoi by car is 40 minutes. If you’re in Hanoi’s West Lake area, then a quick saunter down to the Old Quarter will take under 15 minutes. Saigon’s An Phu to downtown is 20 minutes by car, about the same as it takes from Phu My Hung in District 7.
These are all commute times in Vietnam’s two biggest cities. They are short here, even without a completed metro system and designated bus lanes. In Vietnam’s ‘minor’ cities, travel time is even shorter.
Head to this planet’s most ‘successful’ metropolises — let’s say London and New York — and commutes take up a far larger part of the working day. We all have stories. At one time my father was spending three hours a day on trains to get from South London to his office in Islington. Our deputy editor, Ed Weinberg, remembers a period where his mother spent six hours a day travelling between New Jersey and her work in Brooklyn, New York.
Travel time eats into personal productivity. It translates into time to kill, moments when we could be doing something else, something more productive. It’s time where both individual and national output are lost. Imagine if there was no such thing as a commute. We would have far more time for both work and play.
Western Red Tape
Such time savings peculiar to Vietnam can be found in other areas, most notably communication. Here, everyone’s mobile number and email address is on their business card. Email signatures even include Skype addresses. This country has embraced the digital age at full throttle and people take advantage of it. Aided by free Wi-Fi at every turn — except for when the internet cables go down somewhere in the East Sea — communication is necessarily fast.
But head to those ‘developed’ countries overseas and communication is unerringly slow. Locked in a business environment more suited to the 20th century, embracing technology has been a struggle.
For example, my doctor in London won’t give me his email address, let alone his mobile phone number. He says it's due to legal reasons. To get in touch with him I have to go through his receptionists who have been taught to block at every turn.
Our family lawyer reluctantly gave me his mobile phone number — I don’t use it because mobiles in the UK are for personal, private use. Instead I go through his office’s landline. If he’s busy, I hope to get a call back.
Yet if I want to contact the head person of a company in Vietnam, I can always search out their mobile number. It takes time, but with a few calls I can get there. In London I’ll be lucky if I can get past the receptionist. And even if friends have the contacts I need, there is a reluctance to give out such personal information. The obsession with privacy prevents communication — Vietnam just doesn’t have the same hang-ups. And if I get an email address, the response will take around five days. Slow or preventative communication is not good for a country only just poking its head above recession.
There are a number of factors that create economic growth, and one of them is an increase in productivity. In communication and commute times — factors which affect individual productivity — Vietnam has a distinct advantage over its rivals elsewhere. Yes, red tape can slow things down, but on a day-to-day basis, getting things done is relatively easy.
Vietnam is often knocked for its shortcomings. But by leapfrogging onto the technological advances of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and by not being bogged down by the more established and bureaucratic working routines of the developed world, this country is at an advantage. It’s an advantage that will see it do well over the coming years. — Nick Ross