With a shape that resembles an ‘S’ and bordering Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam is a chaotic, warm and an unquestionably exciting country to visit! But the most dominant impression this trip to Vietnam left me and my peers with was just how amazing the food was. Literally, someone had to ‘bahn mi’ from eating so much! Everything—and I mean everything—tasted amazing, and was extremely, ridiculously, affordable. Through my SMU-X Overseas trip just this May, I have learnt a lot about Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and forged friendships that I know will last me a lifetime.
A Taste of Ho Chi Minh City
Map of Vietnam
Upon arriving, the most common remark that was tossed around was how hot HCMC was. Just an hour and a half away from Singapore, we should have expected the heat and humidity. However, as typical Singaporeans, we always assume that going overseas equates to a cooler climate. Fortunately, this “warmth” did not just apply to the weather, but to the people as well. Everyone we met in HCMC—from the ladies yelling ‘4G Data! Sim Card!’ at the airport, to the bus drivers and helpers who helped us lug our suitcases in and out of the bus and up and down the staircases—were very friendly, warm, and eager to help. Despite the rougher quality-of-life they experience, the Vietnamese have so much warmth and kindness to give. I also really appreciate how they manage to work things out despite the lack of efficient systems. This is most obvious when it comes to their road traffic system. Despite the absence of rules and traffic enforcement, the motorcyclists know how to expertly manoeuvre around other crisscrossing motorcycles and larger vehicles. It was my first time in Vietnam, so I was so excited to finally witness the chaotically gloriousVietnam traffic. Even as I write this now, I can feel myself grinning from ear to ear. I loved it.
To better assist us in dealing with our projects, our Professor kindly arranged for us to meet some local buddies from the Vietnam National University – International University. Our class was arranged in groups of 5 to 6 students, and for each group, we were paired up with two local Vietnamese students. Even on our first day of meeting them there wasn’t a hint of awkwardness, but rather, an immediate sense of ease and anticipation because of how open, outgoing, and friendly they were.
After a short introduction to their university and a guided tour of their campus, they showed us a traditional Vietnamese dance and we had some laughs trying it out together with them. Of all the groups in my class that attempted the dance (myself included, and I’m a dancer!), it was, surprisingly, three of our Singaporean guys who absolutely stole the show. Perfect execution, skill and technique. I say, if any of the SMU dance CCAs are lacking male performers, these are the ones to look out for!
Making Friends and Memories
On our first night in HCMC, we had dinner at a local restaurant in a shophouse. We easily spent three hours dining because the food and the relaxing vibes of being in Vietnam were just too good not to totally soak in. From seafood to a variety of pork and beef dishes, spicy variations to coconut inspired and milky dishes, the Vietnamese food completely blew my mind.
After thoroughly enjoying our first dinner, and our first day getting to know some locals, it was time to focus and fully immerse ourselves in the more serious aspect of the trip. Our SMU-X Overseas trip aimed to create a brand story for our client, KFC Vietnam, through insights acquired firsthand in Vietnam, and through secondary and primary research. So yes, we were able to visit the KFC office, but no we did not get to have a free flow of fried chicken (the place really smelled amazing though!).
Besides visiting our client and friends, our Professor also arranged for us to have daily company visits. The nature of each company we visited was different and so that gave us unique insights into the business culture of HCMC, the culture and personality of the Vietnamese, and gave our trip an extra touch of authenticity because we were, in a way, being mentored by local professionals and experts. A number of our company visits were to companies helmed by SMU alumni. This gave us an idea of the diversity and variety of routes we could take after graduation. This was especially useful because a large proportion of our class consisted of final year students. Our alumni gave us advice on what to do after graduation and how to succeed and stay determined in the competitive world of entrepreneurship. On top of that, we even had an Alumni dinner at a speakeasy restaurant. The dinner allowed us to get close with our seniors who now live in Vietnam. I met one who is studying to be a professional emcee, another who is pursuing further education, one who is married and with kids, and another who is currently lecturing in a university. It was very inspiring to see former SMU students happy and successful. To a final year student like myself, a session like that made me more confident in taking the plunge after graduation.
During our company visits, two companies really stood out to me personally—they were Kova and CapitaLand. Kova is a paint manufacturing firm that specialises in science-based formulas. It is a family business that has an amazing legacy and story. I enjoyed the visit to Kova very much because it felt like the most local and immersive experience. Our speakers were very knowledgeable about their topics, and they gave us very helpful snapshots of the Vietnamese market. Furthermore, we were even allowed to enter the laboratory and see samples of their signature products. This was really fun for us. I mean, come on, have you ever heard of bulletproof paint? It was very cool! More so than just a laboratory, Kova also has an in-house restaurant, where we (again!) ate some amazing Vietnamese food. They served the best pho I had on this trip.
CapitaLand was a great company to visit as well. We visited their newly opened executive condominium and service apartment in District II. Our speakers were able to show us CapitaLand’s developments in Vietnam and gave us insights on their growing economy, and the rising purchasing power and spending habits of the Vietnamese. After a thoughtful brief and introduction, they showed us a cheeky promotional video that was very much welcomed at 9:30 am. This was followed by a tour of some show flats of their new units and facilities, which my class thoroughly enjoyed as well.
Of course, no trip to a new country would be complete without gaining a deeper understanding of their history. Our second weekend was spent visiting the War Remnants Museum to learn about the atrocities and war crimes that the Vietnamese suffered. The trip also taught us more about the leader Ho Chi Minh and how he facilitated the union of South and North Vietnam.
When it came to shopping, we overcame the tourist trap that is Ben Thanh Market (although it is really only a tourist trap for clothes items. Souvenirs and coffee definitely go very cheap there), and discovered the locals’ go-to place, Taka Plaza. While we had initially believed that 300,000 VND for a massage was worth it, by day 10 of our trip we realised that you could easily get a full spa treatment for the same price! Another surprising find was the ‘amazingness’ of fried pho. Push-cart aunties don’t just sell bahn mi and pho, they also sell fried pho which honestly blew our minds. And another fun-fact or cool find? The famous and iconic HCMC postal office which has seven layers of paint on it—Kova Paint, if I may add!
Sadly, by the time my friends and I had started confidently pronouncing a local chain like ‘Phuc Long’, it also signalled the impending end of our very fun trip. But before that, we still had the final task of presenting our brand storyboards to KFC Vietnam.
A Story About Our Story
The brief for our project basically required us to create a brand story storyboard for KFC Vietnam. The current challenge for KFC Vietnam is differentiating themselves from the other fast-food providers and remaining relevant and competitive in the market. The Vietnamese food scene is a very competitive one because of the locals’ marked preference for street food and local food. This makes it difficult for foreign food, especially western food, to attract the loyalty and patronage of the Vietnamese. This was exacerbated by the fact that local food is extremely cheap compared to fast food. To help KFC with their goal of being the fast food of choice in the Vietnam market, we were tasked with creating a brand story for them. We believed that creating a story that the locals could relate to was the only way to imbue the KFC brand in the hearts of the Vietnamese. While we cannot change their taste buds nor drive prices as low as street food prices, by establishing KFC through a brand story we hope to make them the preferred choice in the market.
The required deliverable was a storyboard. With our Professor granting us full creative independence, all five groups in my class had prepared something different. From storyboards with accompanying music to a mock-video of our campaign, our class had it all covered. Each group approached the project in roughly the same way at the start. We began with secondary research in Singapore to better understand the Vietnamese market. Our classes in Singapore focused on teaching us more about storytelling, the media in Vietnam, and their relevant laws. In Vietnam, we utilised the presence of our Vietnamese buddies and conducted primary research. By visiting KFC outlets, each group conducted primary research in slightly different ways. Our group chose to interview locals individually, some groups interviewed KFC staff and managers, while others conducted surveys and group interviews with KFC patrons. Some of the other groups also interviewed locals patronising competing fast-food brands to get a more unbiased response on how KFC is viewed by non-patrons.
Our Vietnamese friends helped us a lot by aiding us in overcoming the language barrier. And because they were locals, it was a lot less intimidating to approach the Vietnamese. I believe it also made it easier for our responders to warm up towards us; otherwise, it would seem intrusive for non-Vietnamese speaking foreigners to start hounding KFC visitors who were enjoying their meals. In the end, my group concluded on three main insights.
Firstly, the Vietnamese loved to dine outdoors. People-watching is simply part of their culture, hence the huge preference for street food. In fact, many locals said it was ‘inconvenient’ to have to enter a shop like KFC just to eat. This also led us to understand why the window seats of restaurants were constantly occupied. Even inside, they still prefer to people-watch.
Secondly, we discovered that dining at fast-food restaurants is considered a special activity for Vietnamese. Unlike for us here in Singapore, where fast-food chains are our go-to places for a quick meal or as a takeaway option. For them, since it is a lot pricier than their typical food, they treated fast-food chains as restaurants or as a treat during outings. Typically, they spend around two hours in KFC and enjoy having long conversations over their meals. Fun fact: Because there are so many conversations ongoing at any one time, you would not find any youngsters studying in Vietnamese food places!
And finally, one insight which we shared with all the other groups was that the locals assign a sense of nostalgia to KFC. KFC was the first fast-food chain to enter the Vietnamese market in 1997, and due to this, it already exists in the minds of many today. Today, those born around the time that KFC had entered the Vietnam market make up a bulk of the population that is showing changes in tastes and preferences, and are beginning to earn their own income. Thus, making this group a perfect primary audience for KCF Vietnam.
With the insights that my group had compiled, we believed that KFC needed a brand story that emphasised its role as a long-standing fast-food chain—one that has been around from the start, and will continue to be around. My group created three mock videos emphasizing KFC’s role as the perfect date place. We tried to be cheeky, funny, but mostly sincere and endearing. With the help of our Vietnamese friends as our main actors and a cameo by one of our own Singapore students, we hope our video below manages to bring a smile to your face.
Being a Social Sciences undergraduate, I was honestly quite nervous with presenting this. I’m not as experienced as my classmates in delivering business pitches to real clients, but I’m happy to have taken a step out of my comfort zone with such a supportive class, capable group, and a very pleasant and helpful client. It taught me how to view the world through a different lens and inspired me to be more business-centric in thought. Of course, I am also extremely proud of my team’s effort and work.
Finally, this SMU-X Overseas trip allowed me to help a client solve a real-world issue, while gaining insights not just from research and academia, but also through friendships and relationships formed. The trip was immersive and educational, but also enriching both culturally and personally. It has definitely one of my most enjoyable experiences in university, and I hope everyone else takes a chance and signs up for a SMU-X Overseas trip at least once before they graduate.