HANOI, Vietnam — The white-washed house on a back street of Hanoi is a world apart from Silicon Valley. But its occupants have much in common with their counterparts in Northern California.
On the upper floors of the restored mansion, a dozen computers are crammed together on desktops. Vietnamese programmers are poring over details of software in development. The only noise is the soft clicking of computer mice used to shuttle blinking dots around their screens.
This is the humble research and development division of 3C Co., a privately owned computer firm that is the largest software developer in Vietnam. While such companies proliferate like wildflowers in the United States, 3C is a rare animal in a country that has few working telephones, let alone mainframe computers.
For one thing, it is unusual to find a private company in northern Vietnam engaged in foreign trade, which until recently had been the exclusive province of the government. No businessman in the West has ever had to improvise like the managers of 3C.
The company's largest revenue source has been the sale of personal computers to the Soviet Union. 3C, with annual turnover of about $70 million, bought the computers in Singapore and exported them to firms in Moscow. Since January, however, the Soviets have had no hard currency with which to pay for the machines.
So, explained General Manager Bui Huy Hung, 3C was forced to accept payment in the form of six tons of thread. He has been out trying to unload the thread on the local market.
Meanwhile, the company is moving quickly out of the import-export of hardware into development of software, the coded programs that tell a computer what tasks to perform.
Hung, a relaxed executive who sports a Bull computer Windbreaker, said the company invested $125,000 in software research last year and plans to make the same investment this year, mainly to buy hardware in Taiwan. "This is a big risk to take for a Vietnamese company," he said.
So far, 3C has developed two programs that are selling "in very small quantities" in France and Germany.
The first, called TINCO, is a mathematics toolbox for engineers and scientists. It has the advantage of what designers call "natural expression," meaning that complicated formulas appear on the screen as they would on a piece of paper--for ease of understanding.
The other program is called Personnel Image Database System, which uses multimedia to mate photographs and data electronically, ideal for a company's personnel department or a security system.
3C is also marketing a program called ADOR, developed by Hanoi's Institute of Computer Science, a government academic organization. ADOR is a character-reading program that permits the user to scan a text, then "read" it electronically into a computer.
While none of the programs is particularly novel--equivalents of all three exist in the West--3C is hoping to capitalize on its low costs to become competitive. For example, Hung said, ADOR was selling for less than $150, a third of the cost of similar Western programs.
"No other firm can compete with our prices or the customized service we offer," asserted Tran Viet Trung, the company's deputy director for software development. The company also has cornered the market in its fields in programs using the Russian alphabet.
At the moment, Hung has the pick of Vietnam's best academic minds. Since university mathematics professors earn $10 a month in Vietnam, many are understandably keen to supplement their incomes by moonlighting for 3C, which pays sumptuous salaries of up to $25 a week.
Still, the company is facing major hurdles. Hung said his company lacks sufficient marketing know-how to sell its programs in the West and has been looking for French and German partners. (U.S. firms are barred by law from doing business in Vietnam.)
He said most Vietnamese programmers are unaccustomed to writing down their thoughts, preferring to carry them in their heads. The result is that the company has little documentation to show prospective clients.
Another major hassle, familiar to software developers worldwide, is the problem of theft of ideas. When Hung first asked the government to issue a copyright for a program, the chairman of the Vietnamese Committee for Sciences responded that he had had no experience with such a request and was unable to comply. "There is no law to protect us in Vietnam," Hung said.
As a stopgap measure, 3C now sends a team of engineers to every customer that buys its software and installs the program using an elaborate code, so that it cannot be copied. Its research staff is developing a "hardware lock" that can be sold with the software. The software then would work only on a computer with such a lock.
"In two years, we expect software to constitute the biggest part of our business," Hung said.
As a visitor left 3C's office, he spied an employee playing a computer game instead of working on a program. The game was called "Top 10 Comrades."