HO CHI MINH CITY -- On a typical Sunday evening in the heart of Vietnam's financial center, European cars and Japanese motorcycles jostle for parking lots close to restaurants. On offer: high-end sushi, Italian cuisine, craft beers costing five times as much as mass-produced lager, and other foreign fare. Consumers sport iPhones and other premium handsets.
This scene in Ho Chi Minh City reflects what Boston Consulting Group says is Southeast Asia's fastest-growing middle class. According to BCG the "middle and affluent class" earning $714 a month or more in Vietnam will double to 33 million people, about a third of the population, between 2014 and 2020.
Marketing researcher Nielsen estimates that the number of middle-class Vietnamese will reach 44 million by 2020 and 95 million by 2030. Foreign brands such as Samsung Electronics, Starbucks, Dell and others are plowing into the market to capture this growing segment of consumers.
Highlighting the scale of the market, Paul Nguyen, chief executive of Canada-based insurer Manulife, told the Nikkei Asian Review: "The opportunities for life insurers are limitless in Vietnam." Nguyen said Vietnam is the most "under-insured" country in Southeast Asia, with 17 insurances companies offering perks to entice customers.
"The country is under-insured, but a growing life insurance market is attracting foreign players to join the market," said Nguyen. Manulife reported a 69% surge in annualized premium equivalent insurance sales in Vietnam to 1.68 trillion dong ($75.3 million) in 2015 from the previous year.
Anh Nguyen, 25, works for a European organization and the family business. Despite earning $1,000 each month, she lives at home and spends just $2.25 a month on gas for her motor scooter. Nguyen said she considers foreign foods an "investment" along with overseas travel. "I'd say with that amount of money it's not luxury, but I can live comfortably. If I need to travel, it's not a struggle," she said.
But it is not just the urban elite that is contributing to Vietnam's growing middle class. The government has invested in agricultural infrastructure to raise the incomes of rural communities too, said Aparna Bharadwaj, a BCG principal who covers Southeast Asia. Around 66% of Vietnam's 94 million people live in the countryside.
Vietnam's urban-rural parity relative to other countries "comes from conscious government investment in rural development and agricultural development," Bharadwaj said. "That allows the middle class to not be confined just to [metropolitan areas] and large cities but to disperse very rapidly to smaller towns and rural areas."
Since it was devastated by war in the 1960s and 1970s Vietnam has been trying to rebuild its economy and has encouraged foreign investment in export manufacturing since 1987. Foreign direct investment of $22.76 billion last year pushed annual growth in Vietnamese gross domestic product to a five-year record high of 6.7%.
High-value electronics developers such as Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry and Samsung Electronics have ramped up production locally alongside more traditional exporters of clothing and car parts.
With the rise in incomes, Vietnamese are showing a preference for well-known foreign brands. Smartphones made by Apple, Samsung and Sony are preferred to Chinese brands such as Huawei and Oppo due to consumers' perceptions that Chinese products are of lower quality. Consumers also resent Beijing's claims to parts of the South China Sea that Vietnam also claims.
Samsung controlled 35.6% of the market in mobile phones in Vietnam last year, with Apple in second place with 24%, according to research company IDC.
Smartphone vendors market their goods aggressively in Vietnam's first-tier cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, according to IDC. Those with smaller budgets normally offer shop panels, decorations and freebies to local electronics dealers, while companies with more money splurge on advertising, sales promoters and brand ambassadors, IDC said.
Dang Thi Hien, 42, bought a $100 Samsung smartphone. "I really don't like products from China," said the legal aide, who hopes to earn a monthly salary of $5,000 later in her career. Earphones, electronics and cosmetics from South Korea are also popular products for the affluent, she said.
Retailers are rushing in to tap this expanding market. Aeon of Japan recently opened its fourth shopping center in Vietnam, while in another mall signs for Asustek, Dell and Hewlett-Packard point to rigorous competition for computer sales.
Dell said there is a rising consumer preference for more expensive goods. "Vietnam consumers, dominated by the young generation, are savvier with technology, driving high demand for sophisticated technology," said Cuong Thinh Nguyen, a consumer business development manager at Dell's local unit.
Foreign retailers often test the country by opening single stores. For example, Indonesian retailer Mitra Adiperkasa entered Vietnam in September with the opening of its first store outside its home country under a franchise deal with Spain's Zara. The outlet occupies 2,400 sq. meters in Ho Chi Minh City.
Foreign restaurants are also sprouting in the cities because Vietnamese like to be seen spending their money, according to Oscar Mussons, international business advisory associate at the Dezan Shira & Associates consultancy.
"The society works a lot on 'How do I look on the outside,'" Mussons said. "If you go inside a Vietnamese house, they might not have a big bed, or a big table in their living room, but they would have a mobile phone or a motorbike because that's what you can show on the outside."
Japanese cuisine and American fast food chains -- if the restaurants are clean, spacious and well-lit -- are considered high end. McDonald's opened its first three Vietnam stores and the country's first drive-through outlet in 2014, when it was regarded as an iconic restaurant brand.
It hopes to open 100 restaurants in the country by 2024, up from eight at the end of February. Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and Philippine-based Jollibee are also now in the race for Vietnamese pockets. Jollibee opened a fifth outlet in Hanoi in August for a nationwide total of 81.
Some brands also splash out on marketing. South Korean discount chain E-Mart allocated $200 million for stores and the "social development of local communities" in September, Korean and Vietnamese media reported. E-Mart, which has a hypermarket in Ho Chi Minh City, opened a 160 sq. meters toy library and gave 10,000 motorcycle helmets to Vietnamese children in July.
Likewise, Japanese sports brand Mizuno made a marketing push in February when it signed a $50,000 contract with Vietnam's top badminton player, Nguyen Tien Minh, to work as its brand ambassador. Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo picked Vietnamese actress and model Pham Thanh Hang three years ago as a local brand ambassador.
Through online surveys, Nielsen found that consumer confidence in Vietnam was the fifth strongest in the world in the first quarter of 2016. Wealth has increased with a rise in the number of young people and graduates, Nielsen said in May. It noted that 57% of Vietnamese are less than 35 years old and that the number of graduates had grown by 60% over the last decade.
As income grows, demand for premium housing could also expand. Mitsubishi Corp. is hoping to capture that with its partnership with a local real estate firm to develop up to 8,700 middle-income residences near Hanoi.
Bharadwaj said that foreign companies should focus on selling cosmetics, telecommunications gear, high-end dairy goods, hygiene items and "experiences" such as travel. Value for money matters, she said, as do purchases that help entire families. For the newly wealthy, conspicuous consumption is important.
"This is a very family-oriented consumer base," Bharadwaj said. "This you see across the [10-country] Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but you also see it more markedly in Vietnam."