HANOI (VIETNAM NEWS) - A friend led him for a low-key meal at a humble booth in the Central World Mall, in the heart of Bangkok.
Thai Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanavisit and his pal, Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Do Thang Hai, found themselves eating a traditional Vietnamese street dish - Pho (noodles) - on a homely wooden table, served by a Vietnamese chef.
The two officials were enjoying themselves after attending the "Vietnamese Week in Thailand 2019", held by Vietnam's Ministry of Industry and Trade and Thai Central Group, in Bangkok last month. The aim of the event was to promote Vietnamese goods, and further, the image of Vietnam.
They were served by thirty-year-old Vietnamese chef Vu Ngoc Duc, who is one of 45 Vietnamese businesspeople travelling to Bangkok to bring their products to the food-focused event and hoping to fill up the shelves of Thai supermarkets.
Spanning a small patch of the fair's 1,000-sq m exhibition area, Duc's booth was buzzing with hundreds of visitors every day. After just two out of a total of five days, Duc and his team sold a total of more than 500 bowls of Pho, which was an incredible figure.
Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Do Thang Hai told Viet Nam News that Vietnamese agricultural products and foodstuffs, which were thought to face fierce competition when coming to Thailand, have witnessed positive growth over the years.
However, the popularity of Vietnamese food is still modest in Thailand, where there is a rich culinary history and consumers are rather picky when it comes to foreign food.
Last year, bilateral trade between Vietnam and Thailand reached US$17.5 billion. However, Vietnam's exports to Thailand were only one third of Vietnam's imports from Thailand.
In the first eight months of 2019, trade between the two countries reached US$11.9 billion, of which, Vietnam's exports to Thailand were only half of Vietnam's imports from Thailand.
Thanks to increasing collaboration with Thai distributors and retailers, more and more Vietnamese businesses are exporting to the neighbouring country.
The "Vietnamese Week in Thailand 2019" showed the vision and determination of Vietnam's Ministry of Industry and Trade and Central Group in strengthening economic relations, connecting investment and businesses by exchanging products and services, said Thai Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanavisit.
Tops Market, the supermarket chain under Central Group, have imported and distributed Vietnamese food commodities on their shelves across Bangkok for years.
Pimjai Navanukroh, Tops Market General Manager, told Viet Nam News their system had imported about 500 food products of all kinds from Vietnam.
The best sellers were instant Pho and coffee.
"Our imports of Vietnamese food products increase 10 per cent every year. Thai consumers like Vietnamese Pho as it has a similar taste to Thai traditional noodles. Spring rolls also taste good but need changing a little bit to match Thai tastes. Vietnamese dragon fruit is also favoured by Thai consumers as they are sweeter than local dragon fruits," Pimjai said.
At a Tops Market supermarket in Huai Khwang district, a pack of Vietnamese VIFON branded Pho costs 17 baht (S$0.77), a kilogram of Vietnamese dragon fruit goes for 75 baht. Each day, this supermarket sells about 100 to 200 packs of VIFON Pho and 50kg of dragon fruit.
"To penetrate the Thai market, last year we participated in the Vietnamese Week to introduce our products and survey consumers. Attending this event enabled us to approach premium supermarket chains' consumers in Thailand," said Bui Phuong Mai, chairwoman of VIFON.
Chomphunut Engkarawa, a Thai IT technician, told Viet Nam News he liked Vietnamese coffee and cashew nuts.
"Vietnamese coffee has a strong flavour and competitive prices, cashew nuts are sweet and crunchy, I often buy Vietnamese coffee and cashew nuts as gifts for my colleagues," he said.
Returning from the Vietnamese Week, Nguyen Huynh Phu Lam, general director of Hai Binh Cashew Joint Stock Company, said his company had its first consignment of cashew nuts to Thailand.
Thanks to its tie-up with giant Thai distributor Central Group, he said exporting is now easier for his company.
Initially, Hai Binh sold its products at Big C and Go! retail chains in Vietnam through a small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) support programme launched by Central Group in Vietnam, he said.
"SME is a meaningful programme to support small and medium-sized enterprises in Vietnam and to draw Thailand and Vietnam closer in terms of diplomacy and trade.
"When Hai Binh cashew products were introduced to Big C and GO! supermarkets in Vietnam, they were well received for their high quality and eco-friendly design."
Then Hai Binh was selected to participate in the "Vietnamese Week" event for the first time last year. The company signed a deal with Central Group to execute its first export order this year.
Besides Hai Binh, there were also Ba Tu cashew, Thanh Quoc fish sauce, Tinh Nguyen salt, Dat butter, and Dakmark coffee.
Nick Reitmeier, Executive Vice President, Food Halls, International Food and Alcohol Buying, Central Group, told Viet Nam News that branding and design are key factors, besides quality, that Vietnamese companies need to focus on when exporting to Thailand.
"Some brands are well-known in Vietnam, but here you are not recognised, so you must be outstanding to attract customers. You are selling goods to the customers that know nothing about your brands," Reitmeier said.
Some packaging designs would work effectively in Vietnam but they may not work in the international market because of the differences in language, hobbies and styles, Reitmeier added.
"Sometimes, we run into some cases where the products do not have usages on their labels. For example, I bought a pack that looks like rice crackers or corn crackers, but when I opened it, they were uncooked. They need to be fried, but there is no instruction guiding the time or temperature," Reitmeier said.