Tom Peng would be thrilled to drive his brand-new VinFast electric vehicle, if only it held a charge.
In late December, Peng, a Taiwanese-Canadian YouTuber and entrepreneur, was out of town on business. But by the time he returned home to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, his sleek, newly purchased VF 8 wouldn’t start. The battery had plummeted to 1%, down from 82% when he’d left it four days earlier.
One call to VinFast’s help line had a turquoise van speeding to Peng’s door, carrying a mobile charging station. The car wouldn’t move. Eventually, it had to be towed to a service center, where staff told him that new components were to be installed and retested.
“It’s going to take a while,” Peng told Rest of World in December, resignedly. It took more than two weeks for the car to be returned — and at the time of publishing it was stuck at the garage again, undergoing an update to the assisted driving system.
In the EV world, VinFast’s cars have been something of a puzzle. They’re made in Vietnam, by a brand U.S. consumers have never heard of, which in 2021 abruptly declared itself an international player with a suite of luxury EVs, a North Carolina factory in the works, and a planned U.S. public stock offering. On December 20, 999 of VinFast’s cars arrived in California, marking the first time Vietnamese-made vehicles had ever been exported to the U.S.
In Vietnam, though, some of that mystery has lifted. Customers have been in the VF 8’s imitation-leather driver’s seat since September 2022. There, the rollout has been plagued with software faults, from stalled batteries to temperature regulation issues — even if, drivers say, the basic product feels sound.
In a January interview with VinFast Global’s CEO, Lê Thị Thu Thuỷ, she countered that the cycle of software errors and feedback were part of the process. Yet even while the company has a reputation for speedy fixes and improving on the go, its learning curve is unbelievably steep, several former employees told Rest of World.
“Given my experience with the domestic Vietnam version of the car, I’m very worried,” Peng said. “Because the average American buyer, they don’t have patriotic sentiments about Vietnam. They’re not going to protect the brand just because it’s a Vietnamese car.”
VinFast is owned by Vingroup — a wealthy conglomerate, run by Vietnam’s richest man, whose power and speed of execution are unrivaled in the country. Founded in 2017, VinFast unveiled two combustion engine models at the 2018 Paris Motor Show, in the star-powered presence of David Beckham and Miss Vietnam, Trân Tiểu Vy. Just five years later, in January 2022, the company announced it was going fully electric, following the successful release of domestic e-scooter and bus EV projects. It continued to move at breakneck speed, announcing another five EV models last year.
750,000 Vinfast’s global annual sales target for EVs by 2026 — a figure Tesla took 17 years to achieve.
VinFast has had a head start in Vietnam. Competitors largely delayed sales plans due to tepid demand, with Audi and Mercedes releasing EVs there in October 2022. VinFast itself sold just 85 EVs in 2021, rising to 7,080 over 2022.
In Vietnam, around 3,000 VF 8s were delivered between September and December, to a pioneering group of customers willing to pay $42,000 — less than the cost of a comparable gas-powered vehicle. Peng is one of them.
Having driven about 1,000 kilometers, he says that, fundamentally, the car works. “It’s actually a very stable car, a good-handling car. It’s very fast-accelerating. So all the mechanical parts of the car, I think, are very, very well designed,” said Peng.
Since receiving his blue VF 8 Plus in November, he’d driven the car every day — “except when it’s in the service center,” he added, which has now happened three times. (With the VinFast at the garage, he isn’t stranded: He also owns a Bentley and a Mercedes.)
The biggest issue, Peng said, lies with software errors that can cause the vehicle to stop responding, sometimes even mid-drive. The car’s stalling issue has been widespread enough to inspire memes, jokes and DIY solutions on Vietnamese Facebook groups for VF 8 owners.
“I met this guy in the middle of the road while driving,” wrote one user, posting a photo of a VinFast car being precariously fixed on the side of a road filled with towering trucks.
VF forum users joke that the most important tool for any VinFast EV driver is a 10-millimeter wrench to reset the 12v battery. Enterprising third-party sellers even offer an easy-to-use switch version of the wrench, e-commerce listings for which are obligingly shared among drivers in the forums.
Nguyễn Ngọc Hoàng Ân, a business manager, had a particularly uncomfortable issue. Due to a loose fuse pin, his VF 8’s software was convinced it was winter, and would only allow the air-conditioning system to blast heating — amid daytime temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius. Ân, an administrator of a Zalo group of nearly 150 V F8 owners in southern Vietnam, told Rest of World that VinFast was quick to respond to his complaint, in keeping with a long-standing Vingroup reputation for good customer service. It took 11 days for the car to be fixed, but it’s been running smoothly since.
Internationally, both VinFast’s PR and production methods have sowed confusion. In late 2022, journalists were treated to an extravagant, baffling display. On an all-expenses-paid press junket to Vietnam, VinFast guides extolled the merits of the VF series, taking their charges on chartered planes to Vingroup-owned island resorts. One U.S. journalist, writing for the automotive industry news site Jalopnik, called it the “most bizarre experience of my life.”
Interviews with four former VinFast employees indicate the company is determined to go big or go home, and is churning out new cars at an unprecedented rate to make good on that commitment.
“They wanted to impress the world with different models, saying that within three years [they] could make five different cars,” a former VinFast engineer, who worked on the VF 8, told Rest of World. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to still being employed in the automotive industry. “The established companies might launch two or three cars, but those … will [be of a similar design to] their older cars. But VinFast doesn’t have any [prior] streak like that.”
VinFast CEO Lê Thị Thu Thuỷ told Rest of World that VinFast intended to overcome its short history and low profile by putting the EVs directly in the hands of overseas consumers. “We have to let consumers test the car, need to go directly to each consumer and convince [them], one by one.”
“This is the way that VinFast has chosen. Perhaps it will be a little more difficult,” she acknowledged.
Responding to questions about whether the car was ready for use, “many” software errors in the VF 8s had been addressed in the slightly varied model shipped to the U.S., Thuy added. “It’s not that we don’t test [the software], but not everything comes out during testing,” she said. “Often it has to be put in the hands of consumers, under specific circumstances, then some errors will suddenly emerge. I think it will take some time, a few months, but not too long.”
What VinFast lacks in experience, it makes up for with hard work — and a lot of cash. Three ex-employees confirmed to Rest of World that they or their colleagues underwent grueling work hours, sometimes exceeding 60 hours a week. Whatever the company couldn’t do itself, former employees also said, it outsourced to leading names in the industry.
After the major engineering for the VF 8s had been done in-house, the entire package was sent to outside suppliers for revisions, said the former engineer. Work on the autonomous driving feature was completed in partnership with other automakers. And VF 8’s sleek and expensive-looking design is credited to Pininfarina, an Italian studio whose clients include Ferrari and Maserati.
It has been a costly endeavor. VinFast’s accumulated losses as of September 2022 stood at $4.68 billion, while the company’s revenue in the first nine months of 2022 was $439 million. With the IPO, the company is reportedly hoping to raise $2 billion, with a valuation of about $60 billion.
Other bold plans include a $4 billion manufacturing plant in North Carolina — feted by U.S. President Joe Biden on Twitter — and a global sales target of 750,000 EVs annually by 2026. It had taken Tesla more than 17 years to achieve such sales figures. According to VinFast, the company has received around 60,000 orders globally for its VF 8 and VF 9 models.
“VinFast has an aggressive plan, but they also need patience,” Stephanie Brinley, associate director of automotive analysis at S&P Global Mobility, told Rest of World. “Outside of Vietnam, the brand is unfamiliar to consumers. And there are many other startup and traditional OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] pushing EVs in the same time period … [VinFast] will have to be ready to adjust if consumers in the U.S., or any other market, do not take to it as expected.”
Ân was impatient as he waited for his VF 8 to be repaired, but he didn’t lose faith in the brand, having witnessed the rapid rise of Vingroup and VinFast. He followed the reviews of the company’s first EV, the VF e34, closely on social media. After roughly a year, the company had resolved most, if not all, the issues with the model.
In Ân’s Zalo group for VF 8 owners, roughly 8 out of 10 members are satisfied with the car, he told Rest of World. “We bought the Vin car believing it would be improved with time,” he said.
Peng, who also owns the earlier VF e34, echoed An’s words. His VF e34 went through six months of repairs and software updates before it was bug-free.
Online — everywhere from the comments on Peng’s YouTube videos to VF 8-oriented Facebook groups with thousands of members — car owners debate whether the blame for these glitches lies with VinFast or with drivers still getting used to the vehicle.
One easy fix for minor software errors, noted one tolerant Facebook group member, is to turn off the car, get out and move 7 meters away, wait for 3 minutes, and then return to the car. “I think there are errors not worth complaining about in the group,” the user said. “I know that we’re guinea pigs, so please be gentle so we can grow with Vin[Fast] so the country can develop even stronger.”