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In Vietnam, Growing Fears of an Economic Meltdown

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Construction crews got as far as the first floor of what was to be Saigon Residence, a high-end apartment building in the center of Ho Chi Minh City. All that remains today of the abandoned project are piles of moldy bricks, rusting steel rods and a small team of security guards who have transformed the cement foundation into a parking lot for motorcycles.


In Vietnam’s major cities, a once-booming property market has come crashing down. Hundreds of abandoned construction sites are the most obvious signs of a sickly economy.

A senior Vietnamese Communist Party official, speaking in the ornate drawing room of a French colonial building, compared the country’s economic problems to the market crash 15 years ago that flattened many economies in Asia.

“I can say this is the same as the crisis in Thailand in 1997,” said Hua Ngoc Thuan, the vice chairman of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, the city’s top executive body. “Property investors pushed the prices so high. They bought for speculation — not for use.”

Vietnam’s economic problems appear less severe than those of the 1997 financial crisis — the economy is still growing, albeit relatively anemically, at a rate of about 4 percent — but the country’s list of problems continues to grow.

The arrest this week of Nguyen Duc Kien, one of Vietnam’s wealthiest businessmen, set off a 4.8 percent plunge in the country’s stock market index Tuesday, the biggest drop in four years. The charges against Mr. Kien are vague. The state news media said he was accused of illegal business activity.

The opaque way that his case is being handled underlines a key aggravating factor for the country’s woes: The awkward marriage between a secretive Communist Party leadership and a capitalist economy is clouding recovery prospects for the country of 91 million people.

Investors are skeptical of the government’s economic management and question the reliability of statistics. The country’s central bank says borrowers have stopped paying back 1 out of every 10 loans in the banking system, but Fitch Ratings said the percentage of bad loans might be much higher.

If the 1997 crisis was often blamed on “crony capitalism,” Vietnam’s problems could be described as crony capitalism with a communist twist. State-owned companies are stacked with friends and allies of the Communist Party hierarchy.

“The state is being manipulated by people within the state to make money,” said Jonathan Pincus, the dean of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Vietnam.

“Getting the Communist Party out of the management of these companies, that’s what is required,” he said. “I don’t see that on the table.”

Like property bubbles in other parts of the world, investors in Vietnam took advantage of free-flowing credit to construct buildings with the hopes of flipping them for a profit. One key difference is that some of the largest property speculators in Vietnam are state-owned corporations with top connections in the Communist Party and access to cheap money. Those companies are now grappling with unsustainable debt levels, or in the case of Vinashin and Vinalines, two large government conglomerates, flirting with insolvency.

Ho Chi Minh City is still buzzing with energy, swarmed by tourists and plagued by traffic jams — all signs of the city’s economic vitality. But that masks the symptoms of the nationwide economic woes: Young people are finding it harder to find jobs; nearly 20 percent of small and medium-size companies have gone out of business during the past year; and municipal infrastructure projects are being delayed or canceled.

Le Dang Doanh, a prominent economist and a former top official at a government research organization, said he was worried about the timing of the country’s problems, coming just as the global economy is bogged down by debt and Europe grapples with the existential dilemma of the euro.

“The problem in Vietnam is a very, very toxic cocktail from the European debt crisis, the stagnation in the U.S. economy plus a very critical situation in the domestic economy,” Mr. Doanh said. “It’s a very dangerous mixture.”

The private sector is helping keep the economy moving — Vietnam is a major exporter of clothing and footwear to the United States — but foreign money flows have slowed. Commitments by foreign investors were $8 billion for the first half of this year, one-quarter the level during the same period three years ago.

The consequences of Vietnam’s economic problems are far-reaching. The revenues of municipal governments are shrinking across the country because property-transfer fees made up a large chunk of their income. Ho Chi Minh City’s first subway line is now scheduled for completion in 2016, a year later than planned, according to Mr. Thuan, the Ho Chi Minh City senior official.

In the central city of Da Nang, which has thrived during the past decade, officials have been forced to cancel development projects on the outskirts of the city. Tran Van Son, the vice director of the Da Nang Department of Planning and Investment, said he was “very worried” that the city would have to scale back further because tax revenue was lagging even more than projected.

Young people are finding good jobs more elusive. On the outskirts of Hanoi, the capital, Nguyen Duy Huong, the 21-year-old son of rice farmers, spent the early part of the year searching in vain for work in computer repair shops.

“Every place I went to said they were looking for really strong technicians,” Mr. Huong said. “They weren’t taking interns.”

Like many other young people in Vietnam, Mr. Huong lives on the frontier between information technology and the peasant economy. He has worked part-time at a photo-printing shop, using software to whiten faces and remove blemishes, but his family’s main income comes from planting and harvesting rice by hand. In the quest for full-time work, he recently began taking software programming courses run by Reach, a nonprofit organization created by Plan International, a British charity.

The problems facing young people are nothing near the scale of the Spanish and Greek unemployment crises, but finding a job is no longer as automatic as a few years ago.

“Companies have more choices now,” said Nguyen Thi Van Trang, who helps run the training program. “They don’t have to take kids off the street anymore.”

The government has battled the country’s problems with classic macroeconomic tools: tightening the supply of money to choke off double-digit inflation and then slashing interest rates this year to energize the economy.

Yet banks remain very cautious, partly because of the growing number of customers unable to pay back their loans. The supply of credit in the economy is shrinking and consumption is flat; supermarkets, for example, have reported reductions in sales of 20 to 30 percent.

Mr. Doanh, the economist, said Vietnam needed much more than just an injection of money at lower interest rates.

The inefficient state-owned monoliths like Vinashin, which expanded wildly into businesses they were ill-qualified to operate, need to be dismantled, privatized or scaled down, Mr. Doanh said.

“Now is a good time for creative destruction,” he said, referring to the concept of established companies’ being replaced by more innovative competitors.

As in the United States, Vietnam’s return to economic health rides in part on the revival of the real estate market.

There is so much excess supply of office space in Ho Chi Minh City that rents in the most desirable neighborhoods are half the level of three years ago, said Nguyen Duy Lam, the director of Pacific Real, a construction and real estate company.

In the hopes of drawing more foreign buyers, officials in Ho Chi Minh City have submitted a formal proposal to the central government to open up the property market to overseas Vietnamese, according to Mr. Thuan, the Communist Party official.

For now, though, real estate agents like Mr. Lam report that activity is freezing up.

“Everyone wants to sell, but they can’t, even if they lower the price,” Mr. Lam said in an interview on the roof of a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. “There are no customers.”

Mr. Lam is counting on the long-term prospects of the city. As he spoke, a contrasting picture of Vietnam emerged. The dark outlines of an unfinished skyscraper loomed overhead, but another construction site nearby was bucking the trend: On a Sunday evening, lit by floodlights, a crane swung back and forth as workers put up another building destined to fill out the skyline of Ho Chi Minh City.

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