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How Saigon Becomes a Maker City

It all started with a tweet from a reader of MakingSociety, Hubert Delorme.

Vietnam has a booming maker scene? I decided to change my travel plans and go to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) instead of Chiang Mai. I ended spending one month in Saigon as part of my quest to meet makers pro around the world.

And indeed, what a great city. Ho Chi Minh is a 7 million people town. And it seems that everyone there is a maker.

The city reminded me that “We are makers” as said Dale Dougherty.

Living in the Moment

One of the many things that makes the Vietnamese culture special is: immediacy.

Saigon is a city where companies born and die everyday. As Workin’Asia co-founder and long-term expatriate Jeremy Odoux told me: a new restaurant or store can open over night. Regulations are low, investments are fast and construction workers work days and nights. As he experienced it himself on a previous project, business ideas get stolen in a whim. There is no certainty and contracts are easily broken.

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Welcome to Ho Chi Minh! Image: CC BY SA Colin Cox

Vietnam has been a war zone all its life, first with the French colonials, then the Americans. For the first time in history, Vietnam now knows a time of peace and freedom.

But Vietnamese are still used to not planning too far ahead. There is no “savings” culture and people live in the present. As a result, Vietnamese don’t hesitate to spend major personal money on a business project or to help a family member gets his company off the ground.

The Support System

Immediacy combined with community support is an agent of change.

During our month in Saigon, we met Bamboo and her family. Born and raised in Saigon, she is a young and active manager in a store. Her dad has been working in a factory one hour away from Saigon all his life. The whole family lives together in a big house covered with pink flowers and trees.

Bamboo’s little brother had the idea of opening a clothing store.

The family invested in his project and transformed the entrance and living-room of the house into a store. One wall got covered with street art style painting and a big sign saying “Follow Me” was hung on the door. The business didn’t take off, but the painting is still here. And the family is happy to have given it a try.

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We shared a great lunch with this friendly family. Image: CC BY SA MakingSociety

 

The Outstanding Internet Infrastructure

In Vietnam, 3G costs close to nothing and high-speed WiFi is literally everywhere. It’s a dream place for the avid Internet surfer.

Every 60 foot or so, you’ll find cafes offering free WiFi and plugs. Most of time, no silly member registration is required. WiFi password comes with your menu.

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Your host being happily surprised by the fast WiFi at NEST, working cafe in Saigon. Image: CC BY SA Colin Cox

As mentioned by locals, it’s common in Vietnam to work from cafes. It could be one of the positive consequence of the massive outsourcing of Vietnamese tech talents that has been going on for years now.

Coming from San Francisco or Paris, you’ll be amazed (and feel ashamed) at how WiFi is a commodity in South East Asia.

Bootstrapping Entrepreneurs

More and more entrepreneurs move temporarily to Ho Chi Minh City to bootstrap business projects. The city combines low cost of living, great infrastructure and a network of like-minded tech professionals.

Most people I met there were working on software-related projects, sometimes targeting the Vietnamese or Asian market but most of the time with international ambitions.

One of the hubs of these bootstrapping entrepreneurs is WORK, a cafe and co-working space – with a pool ! – located in District 3. This is also where I met Jacob Gadikian who develops Fenix, an open source hardware repurposable MiniPC with an exciting vision.

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Compiling kernel at WORK Saigon on a sunny afternoon. Image: CC BY SA MakingSociety.com

 

The team of 2 has been traveling from the United States to Asia, from China to Vietnam, and is now based in Hanoi. Their project includes the development of an open source hardware product but not only. They are designing a process to enable fair contribution and redistribution.

In other words, the idea is to make it easy for people to contribute to the core of the project, and get value back from their work, depending on how much they participated to the project. Sensorica is a source of inspiration for the Fenix team.

Being in Vietnam is helpful to meet suppliers and manufacturers but also had its limitations. The lack of proper hackerspace is one of them.

But this could be changing.

The Birth of Maker Spaces in Saigon

There are no fully functional maker space in Ho Chi Minh City for the moment but the coming months should see a change.

I got to visit FabLab Saigon, which is still in its infancy. Hoang Anh and Quynh Huong are both French and Vietnamese. They moved to Vietnam a year ago and are now opening FabLab Saigon.

The space is the former house of Hoang Anh’s family, which doesn’t use it anymore. It’s a 3-floor building with a big garage, two terraces. The coming months should see a lot of changes at FabLab Saigon. The team plans on transforming the space into a full-on makerspace.

The garage, already equipped with a 3D printer and tools, hosts events and welcome early members working on their projects. On the first floor, a cafe will open its doors, along with a spacious working space. The second and third floors will host hardware and design companies. The large and bright terrace at the top will welcome urban gardening and aquaponics projects.

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A glimpse of FabLab Saigon, a maker space in progress. Image: CC by SA MakingSociety.com

 

The current challenge for FabLab Saigon is to gather the community and truly become a living hub for the makers of Saigon. Regular events are organized in the space and everyone is invited to get involved and collaborate to the creation of the space.

Hoang-Anh, the co-founder of FabLab Saigon, is an experienced consultant in holacracy. Maybe you heard of Zappos business model? She helps companies get ride of their slow managerial hierarchy.

Self-management, deconstructed organizations and social innovations are some of the core values behind this exciting new maker space.

The Fast-Growing 3D Printing Community

3D printing is a good example of how a handful of passionate people is able to create an impact. A community of 3D printing actors is slowly taking shape. 3D Maker VN has been a key player in the desktop 3D printing scene of the city. The team develops its own 3D printer and offers 3D printing services.

Young hardware companies such as Loga3DTaotac or 3D Printer VN are also active in the desktop 3D printing space.

The first 3D Printing Meetup HCM started while I was there, and I got the chance to give a talk about 3D printing opportunities for hardware entrepreneurs. The event was packed and I liked how the crowd was a great mix of amateurs, students and teachers in engineering and design, entrepreneurs and specialists.

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The first 3D Printing Meetup Ho Chi Minh City was a success. Image: CC BY SA MakingSociety.com

 

Behind the meetup stands Hubert Delorme, who is now a friend, along with Nicolas Embleton, engineer and entrepreneur who has been living in Vietnam for many years. Meetups are hosted at Officience, an interesting outsourcing company experimenting with holacracy.

 

This month was just a glimpse of what’s going on here. Exciting times for Vietnam and its maker scene!

More resources:

Put Saigon and Vietnam on your maker map!

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2 Comments

  • Very exciting. Thanks for sharing this. Especially interesting is the mention of Zappos and self management in context od makerspaces.

  • It was a great moment.
    I really appreciate your article, and hope your world trip will continue with other big surprises !

    Take care
    Mathmath&Colin

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