Vietnam: get connected to get ahead

Iam seated on the back of a motorcycle, holding tightly to the waist of Tien Nguyen, a weathered 40-year-old Vietnamese scrap trader with 20 years of experience in the sweaty, cramped markets of Ho Chi Minh City. All around us, other motorcycles bob and weave through the packed boulevards of the bustling city, somehow never colliding. Mr Tien turns down alleys, emerges onto new boulevards, warns me to hold my nose as we approach a drainage ditch, and then emerges into a muddy, unpaved industrial zone lined by small-scale manufacturers and countless little sheds containing scales and piles of scrap metal, paper and plastic.  Traffic thins, but not the hazards: pond-sized puddles fill the mud streets, and Mr Tien either drives directly through them or skirts the edges.  Mr Tien and I met via email, and after a brief breakfast at the Sheraton, he agreed to show me the reality of Ho Chi Minh City’s scrap world. It is a small-scale industry and ‘dirty, but big, big money’. 

I told Mr Tien that I had the sense that - despite its abundance of even cheaper labour - the large processing operations that dominate China’s market are not yet a reality in Vietnam. Mr Tien wanted me to understand that, despite the decentralised nature of the business in Vietnam, the country’s small-scale traders have a nearly insatiable demand for high volumes of material.  Case in point: Mr Tien himself. Part of the reason that he agreed to take me on this death-defying ride is that he hopes the resulting publicity might lead to overseas partnerships. Repeatedly, he assures me that he could easily sell 1000 tonnes of ferrous scrap daily into the chaos that is Ho Chi Minh City’s scrap market. ‘If I have a scrap sample, all I need to do is make one phone call and all the people come running,’ he says.

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