When Ha Tran of Ho Chi Minh City shops for food, clothes or electronics, she avoids merchandise she can tell comes from Vietnam’s giant neighbor, China. It might not work, she said, and China is no friend of Vietnam anyway.
“China exports many low-quality products to Vietnam, but we know they don’t export products to other countries around the world (that are) that bad, so we try to avoid the products that are made in China,” said Ha, 24, a design company worker in the Vietnamese financial hub city. Vietnamese prefer to buy stuff from Japan or the West. “We’ve tried (Chinese goods) many times in the past but it turns out like they get broken very easily.”
Political ties between Vietnam and China are another “factor” discouraging purchases, she said.
Ha is hardly a shopping renegade. Consumers around Vietnam typically shun "Made-in-China" purchases to protest what they see as poor-quality goods from a country that already has a record of disputes with their country. The two sides dispute, for example, a tract of territory in the South China Sea east of Vietnam. Competing claims sparked naval battles 1974 and 1988. The two also fought a land border war in the 1970s.
Vietnamese feel China has an unfair upper hand in the maritime dispute by using its larger military to control the contested Paracel Islands.
Consumers make up a growing force in Vietnam, as the Boston Consulting Group forecasts more than a third of the country’s nearly 93 million people to be middle class or higher by 2020. Fast growth in export manufacturing has added to Vietnam’s wealth since 2012 by creating jobs.
“If they find a product that might be the same price, and they find out that one product is Chinese and another product is from Japan, Korea or anywhere else, you know which one they’re going to go for,” said Oscar Mussons, senior associate with the Dezan Shira & Associates business consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City. “Vietnamese people see them not as big brothers, but as rivals.
“This is also because of recent problems, like Chinese are hitting national icons like the islands in the South China Sea,” Mussons said. “For Vietnamese, this is something that cannot be accepted in any way, even through you don’t hear much about or the government doesn’t try to make much publicity about it.”
Vietnamese officials have tried to sideline political disputes with China since anti-Chinese riots of 2014 killed more than 20 people and threatened to scare off investors. China’s go-ahead to construct an oil rig in the disputed sea touched off the rioting.
But Vietnam still counts China as its biggest trade partner. Combined imports and exports came to $25.5 billion in the first four months of the year, according to Vietnamese media reports. Export manufacturers in Vietnam rely as well on China for raw materials.
On top of the political issues, Vietnamese consumers widely suspect China sends lower-quality merchandise to its shelves. Giant Chinese firms, often bigger than Vietnamese counterparts, can send over excess merchandise for sale at low prices because of their production run sizes.
“Generally amongst Vietnamese, China-made products are perceived to be of low quality. Some of this is fact, but some of this is also driven by social media posts and ensuing perceptions,” said Jason Moy, principal with the Boston Consulting Group in Singapore. Lower-income, less educated consumers are particularly prone to those perceptions, he added. “Hence, Chinese products are generally selected when they are the last or only option.”
Trade in shoes, toys and daily necessities along the land border particularly leaves cheap but possibly suspect Chinese goods in Vietnam, where lower-income people buy them for their low prices, said Le Hong Hiep, research fellow with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Goods trucked across the border in some cases have “pushed Vietnamese merchandise out of their traditional markets,” Le said.
An organized boycott against Chinese goods after the riots of 2014 gained little traction because poorer people couldn’t afford merchandise from other places, he said.
Although Chinese smartphones are gaining a solid reputation, Ha said she once bought a made-in-China phone for her mother because it was all they could afford. It broke after “several months,” she said, so the family bought another phone.
Only Chinese thong flip-flops are worth the money, she said, because at about $1 per pair you can afford to scrap and replace a pair after a few uses.
“People are conscious of the kind of low standards, low quality of Chinese products,” Le said. “I think one of the reasons is that many of these products are consumer items and small items, and they are imported by border trade, not through official channels which normally have stricter regulations and inspections to ensure the quality.”
Shoppers with more money prefer Japanese products as top quality, especially ever-popular motor scooters and consumer electronics, Moy said.Korean food and consumer electronics are also gaining favor with consumers, he said.