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Greg Heberlein goes to Vietnam, finds American companies

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Financial commentator Greg Heberlein has just returned from a vacation in Vietnam and Cambodia. While there, he couldn't help but notice how westernized the Southeast Asian economy is becoming.

Greg was struck by the visibility of American companies. Fast food is the most obvious example. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coke, Pepsi, Burger King, Baskin-Robbins, and Pizza Hut, among others, are all over Southeast Asia.

And now, Starbucks is in. The Seattle-based coffee titan opened its first store in Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, a couple of months ago. 

One of his co-travelers dropped in during a weekday afternoon. She said Starbucks was packed with young people, drinking coffee products and accessing the Internet with abandon.

It's not just fast food. Corporations with subsidiaries in Southeast Asia include General Electric, Dell, Visa, Federal Express, Proctor & Gamble, and Wells Fargo.

The U.S. and Vietnam reopened their nations to each other in 1995. The American presence there has boomed in recent years.

All sorts of American products can be found in Southeast Asia. Pharmaceuticals and many grocery-store products are American. You see M&Ms and Pringles everywhere.

Prices for such products are reduced significantly, by as much as a third or more. After all, a farm worker nets about $2.50 a week. U.S. companies making products in the region are able to take advantage of cheaper labor, and are willing to expand their reach on narrower margins.

The U.S. financial collapse in 2008 had a worldwide impact. Developing countries were among the hardest hit.

In Hanoi, Danang, Nha Trang, Hue, Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere, large corporate buildings are in various states of construction. Cranes hang aside or atop unfinished office and residential structures.

But at most sites, you see no workers. Building has stalled. Worldwide investment in less developed countries has dried up, awaiting better economic times. In Cambodia, near the world’s largest ancient temple complex Angkor Wat, a Hyatt Hotel was to open in February. That has been delayed until late autumn, at least.

For the tourist, money dealings are interesting. ATMs are everywhere, even in remote areas. And they disgorge U.S. dollars. (Don’t forget that most credit-card companies affix a surcharge on overseas withdrawals. And don’t forget to notify all financial institutions, including PayPal, with travel details beforehand so they won’t suspend your transaction.)

Cash transactions are a little different in Southeast Asia. First, dollars are accepted everywhere, except perhaps for roadside purveyors of food and similar items. But often the change will be in local currency.

Cambodia is the only country in the world that recognizes American currency as official along with its own currency. Still, you usually get change in Cambodian money. But these countries prefer crisp or infrequently used bills. A $20 bill with only a slight tear was refused by one hotelier.

Greg noticed no antipathy to Americans in Vietnam. A meeting with two retired Vietnam soldiers was illustrative. When asked what the tourists could take home, a former Viet Cong major said the country bears no grudges, that he hoped tourists will feel good about their visit and let others know back home.

Dave Meyer has been anchoring KNKX news shows since 1987. He grew up along the shores of Hood Canal near Belfair and graduated from Washington State University with degrees in communications and psychology.
Greg Heberlein spent 32 years at The Seattle Times. In 12 years in the Sports Department, he was the only reporter to cover every game in the Seattle SuperSonics' championship season. Towards the end of his 20 years in the Business Department, an award was established to honor the Northwest's top business columnist. He won in each of the first three years and shortly after, wisely took early retirement.