HANOI, Vietnam — “Let me explain how a startup works,” said Csaba Bundik, executive director of the European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. In an unheated room in the unfinished part of a shopping mall, about 70 young Vietnamese in puffy winter coats took notes on smartphones. “You start with an idea. But you have to show that it’s not just a brilliant idea—it’s a brilliant business.”
I’d come to Indochina Plaza, one of the newest malls in Hanoi, on a Saturday morning to attend Vietnam’s first startup fair. Despite the lack of heating and bare ceiling pipes, the room was filled with aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to connect with investors. The woman next to me carried a stack of papers: her business plan, she explained, eyes anxiously scanning my scribbled notes. “What’s your idea?” she asked me.
When it comes to high-tech breakthroughs, Silicon Valley has long been the dominant model for the rest of the world. But as the pace of American innovation slows, Asia is ramping up its own tech industry. Following the lead of China, Japan, and the “Asian tigers,” Vietnam recently launched the ambitious Silicon Valley Project: a comprehensive plan to transform the country from a top producer of electronic components to a major player in the global digital economy. Sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the project aims to launch internationally competitive technology firms and eventually turn one of the country’s major cities—either Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Da Nang—into a tech hub...