The Grand Opening

A Vietnamese-American friend told me recently how much the Vietnamese hate having their country regarded as Third World, an emerging market, or a developing economy. They are a proud people with an impressive culture and a history of upsetting expectations. The Chinese, the French, and the Americans have all been beaten here, and now it’s economic warfare in a global economy.

It’s an exciting place to be these days, but the truth is that Vietnam is a Third World country. In 1994 much of the population was starving and the economy was in the tank. It was at that moment that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam decided to take the pragmatic step of subordinating ideology to experiment with a market driven economy. It was a good decision for the people who energetically have worked their way back to prosperity (of sorts).

But, the new economy, like those in other Third World countries, is not benefiting everyone. There are the have’s and the have-not’s, the nouveau riche and the homeless, and an emerging middle class.

Last night, we were invited to the Grand Opening of the Hard Rock Cafe in Saigon. The event said a lot about the new Vietnam. The venue, in the equally new Intercontinental Hotel, is beautifully done – well designed and appointed with all the bells and whistles. But the Hard Rock Cafe is a tired brand where the clientèle worldwide is more about T-shirts than celebrities and glam. I remember the Hard Rock in London in the ’80’s, but in 2010 I have a hard time with the $15 burger. Nevertheless, for the moment, it works here where nouveau riche is not part of the vocabulary and understatement is not in style.

The inexperienced management, drawn from a local coffee company, put on a terrific event though the stress in the days leading up to it was tangible and not very attractive. Running a coffee business and opening an upscale internationally branded nightspot require different skills. Just because you’re young and know something about the musical tastes of your target audience does not mean you know how to work with the corporate management of an international brand or have the diplomatic skills to deal with vendors, entertainers, wait staff, government regulation, media, publicity, and public relations. The PR guy is in way over his head and the GM is a good guy and a good manager but doesn’t have the right support at the moment.

Still, as I said, the grand opening was a well attended high profile Hollywood preview-style extravaganza complete with red-carpet, beautiful models, young and old hipsters, corporate execs and diplomats. The food and drink was delicious and in abundance. There was never a moment when someone wasn’t offering you something. After the red carpet preview on the mall outside, the vetted and invited crowd was ushered down into the cafe where the entertainment took over. There was a 1980’s US cover band called the American Hitmen, a sensational Vietnamese rocker named Kasim(the best thing on the bill) and American hip-hopper Run DMC, specially imported for the GO.

There is a new no smoking law in Vietnam, but “public places” has not been defined, so restaurants and bars continue to allow it, and I woke up this morning with a scratchy cough and clothes that smelled like an ashtray. I think I’m too old for the hardcore nightclub scene. Maybe next year when “public places” has been expanded to include the Hard Rock.

Vietnam will not be a Third World country for long, but the presence of a Hard Rock Cafe won’t be the reason. We’ll see where both of them are in 10 years. I’m betting on Vietnam.

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