Vietnam’s ambition to develop a strong maritime industry, exploiting its extensive coastline and strategic location, has taken a hit because of the near collapse of Vinashin, the heavily indebted state-owned shipbuilder that was meant to be a national champion.
But while industrial shipbuilding may be passé, some investors believe that Vietnam has the potential to develop a yacht industry, capitalising on the emergence of a new class of wealthy business owners.
There are currently only two “serious” luxury yachts in Vietnam, according to Ruurd van Putten, a Dutchman who is trying to develop the industry from his base in the resort city of Nha Trang, south-west Vietnam.
He hopes that, as people get richer and more marinas are built, Vietnam will start to follow China, South Korea and Thailand, where the market for yachts is expanding rapidly.
“People in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are buying holiday villas in places like Nha Trang and Danang and they are potential yacht owners,” he said. “After they’ve bought a big house and a big car, what’s next? We hope it’s a big yacht.”
In addition to setting up his own boat charter company in Nha Trang, van Putten is an agent for Northrop and Johnson, a super-yacht broker, and is working as a consultant on the construction of Vietnam’s first marina, which is part of Diamond Island, a high-end residential development in Ho Chi Minh City.
Van Putten said that construction of the Diamond Island marina will start by the end of this year and other marinas are planned at Halong Bay, in north Vietnam, in Danang, in central Vietnam, in Nha Trang and Mui Ne, another resort town in southern Vietnam.
With only two luxury yachts permanently based in the country, cynics might wonder why Vietnam needs all these marinas and whether they will ever, in fact, be built.
Van Putten believes it is a “chicken and egg” question. “Without the appropriate facilities, you aren’t going to have the yachts,” he said.
Many wealthy Vietnamese like to show off and sellers of designer handbags, luxury cars and the jewel-encrusted Vertu phones produced by a Nokia subsidiary have found Vietnam to be a thriving market.
But the yacht industry is likely to find the going rather tougher because Vietnam’s influential securocrats remain nervous about all offshore maritime activities, which they believe have the potential to impact on national defence.
For example, the owner of a yacht travelling from Hong Kong to Koh Samui, Thailand, last year was arrested and fined in Quang Ngai province after the boat came close to shore because of steering problems, according to a person familiar with the matter. The boat had permission to dock at Nha Trang but not in Quang Ngai and the Vietnamese coast guard chose to disregard the international convention that boats in difficulty should be allowed to come into shore.
But, say the optimists, bureaucracy and government restrictions should not get in the way of those who have managed to amass wealth in Vietnam as they must already be experts at weaving their way through the country’s complex legal and political system.