We’re walking through Hanoi’s Old Quarter on a warm spring day, dodging motorbikes on crowded streets, passing cafes and crowded curbside restaurants. The smells, sights and sounds of an endlessly lively Vietnam are constant companions. For miles in all directions, mom & pop t-shirt shops line the streets selling variations on common designs, many inspired by political satire. The shirts range from 60,000 VND (~3 USD) to about 10 USD, the final sale price depending on one’s skill in haggling, ability to establish rapport with the seller, and the extent of one’s Vietnamese. What’s original today will quickly be copied and re-copied until it becomes a jaded afterthought in the public domain.
A dragon lurks in the corner of my eye: black dragon on grey background, a striking image. The shop owner says he’s the only one selling it Hanoi, and after acquiring a new wardrobe during the course of my travels from Saigon to Hanoi, I have no reason to doubt him. Only – it’s a size too small, and I want two custom shirts made with black and red dragons on white background. He assures me he’ll have the shirts printed in just a few minutes, and indeed, 10 minutes later he sells them at a steep profit for $5 each, in time to greet the next group of visitors admiring the shirts hanging in the entrance.
Two weeks in the Land of Smiles was a remarkable lesson in good humor, fine coffee, delicious cuisine, and business savvy. Haggling with Vietnamese merchants was endless fun, in large part because of the opportunities to get to know the beautiful families who greeted us with kindness and generosity.
One eye-opening take-home business lesson as it relates to my team’s work on a 3D-printed e-bike has been the value of 3D printing in quickly putting highly customized products in customers’ hands, the manufacturing industry’s equivalent of a custom-printed t-shirt or a handmade leather wallet. In a time of intense competition in global marketplaces, there is value in custom-made products, and there are those who appreciate their significance – in Vietnam, and in America.