The messages that flashed across the Reddit and Facebook groups were frantic and urgent.
They started appearing right before Christmas, around Dec. 18, on various online message boards dedicated to the Vietnamese electric vehicle startup VinFast. The people who posted them were sounding the alarm about the disappearance of a man in Ho Chi Minh City named Sonnie Tran, a schoolteacher turned critic who had made a name for himself denouncing the automaker and its parent company, Vingroup.
Until then, Tran had been active on Facebook and Facebook Messenger, posting messages about the company’s manufacturing and finances while communicating with close friends and supporters nearly every day. Suddenly, Tran stopped responding to anyone’s messages, which sent his friends into a frenzy. He was gone, and they feared the worst.
“Need to find missing person!!”, a user exclaimed on Reddit, asking for help in searching for Tran. A translation of the post reads: “This morning, we had an appointment to go out for coffee together, but after contacting them again, [he] had disappeared since 7 a.m. and no one knew where… the safety of [Sonnie’s] life is currently the most fragile issue at present.”
A Facebook post asking for leads after Sonnie Tran, pictured, went missing.
Not long after, they made a harrowing claim: three plainclothes police officers allegedly abducted Tran at a coffee shop in broad daylight. According to sources with direct knowledge of the situation—including sources whose identities are being withheld by InsideEVs to protect them from potential retribution—the investigation that resulted was due to Tran’s criticism of VinFast, as he may have run afoul of a broadly defined Vietnamese law critics say is designed to stifle speech against the country or its interests. Subsequently, his phone and computer were confiscated by police during his arrest. (The Vietnamese edition of Voice of America initially reported the news of Tran’s detainment.)
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Furthermore, a Vietnamese court document seen by InsideEVs confirmed that Tran—and another person close to him, a detail that has not been previously reported—was summoned to speak with the Ministry of Public Security “to respond to some content related to Vingroup’s complaint.”
Tran has gained somewhat of a following on Facebook and in the Vietnamese blogging sphere with his criticisms of VinFast and Vingroup. (According to news reports, a number of increasingly vocal critics have emerged in Vietnam who have felt burned over the cars' quality issues.) Tran's posts have made stinging claims on social media sites like Reddit, where he’d investigate certain claims and issue critiques based on less widely known, but publicly available information about the development and quality of VinFast’s products, as well as Vingroup’s business operations.
For example, one of Tran’s most popular posts claims that VinFast’s rapidly developed model line had more outside help than the brand often portrays in its company narrative. Another post alleges Vingroup may be inflating its earnings by essentially moving debt and loans around via companies owned by Vingroup’s founder and the country’s wealthiest man, Pham Nhat Vuong. (Tran hasn't been alone in some of these claims; a number of online posts have asked similar questions.)
It is unclear whether Vingroup initiated the complaint against Tran, or if the Vietnamese government did so on the conglomerate’s behalf. When asked by InsideEVs via email, a VinFast official responded by saying, “For matters within the jurisdiction of the authorities, Vingroup/VinFast, or any other organization or individual, has no right to interfere.”
But when asked if either VinFast or Vingroup had done so previously, the official confirmed they had.
“In the past, VinFast filed a complaint against an individual for sharing false information about a VinFast gasoline model, severely damaging customer confidence and brand reputation,” the official told InsideEVs via email. “Therefore, we made the complaint public following the legal processes and procedures. We also transparently published information on VinFast's official media channels and the mass media. Throughout the process of preparing the case file and filing the complaint, we fully complied with legal guidance and regulations.”
Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore who has studied Vietnamese politics and the state’s influence, told InsideEVs that these outcomes are not unprecedented.
“It's true that [Vietnamese laws] have been employed in various instances to prosecute individuals for ‘abusing freedoms of speech’ to infringe upon the interests of the state,” Giang said. “Most of the cases are related to individuals who criticize the state, but some are also related to businesses. This [law] is indeed vaguely defined, leading to potential misuse against critics.”
Of all the EV startups in 2024, VinFast is among the most ambitious, planning factories in India, North Carolina and beyond. And it is equally crucial to the hopes of Vietnam as a nation, a place still described by the U.S. State Department as an authoritarian one-party country, but one that has embraced capitalism in recent decades and hopes to rise in the world with a fast-growing economy. Vingroup has been widely described as key to Vietnam’s advancement in the world as a purveyor of pharmaceuticals, personal tech devices, education, and now, electric cars.
But as modern as Vietnam is today, expressions of free speech remain highly curtailed, especially when they mean criticism of the state—or things that are important to the state. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, that’s something Tran may have experienced firsthand.
“Being the largest private company in Vietnam, it wouldn't be surprising if Vingroup had the influence to mitigate negative press domestically and could potentially request authority intervention in cases like Sonnie Tran's,” Giang said.
Nonetheless, the accounts out of Vietnam raise questions about an automaker with grand international expansion plans, including with private and public money in the U.S. Those include $1.2 billion in incentives from North Carolina for its EV factory in Chatham County near Raleigh and a potential $1.4 billion federal loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. Moreover, it’s gaining traction from the private sector, recently signing up one U.S. dealer group for stores in Texas, New York, North Carolina and Kansas.
What Tran Alleged
For months, Tran posted on Facebook and other platforms, raising questions about VinFast's finances, claims to the public and methods for has developing vehicles. (Not all of Tran's claims could be independently verified by InsideEVs.)
In particular, Tran posted that financial documents say Indian engineering firm Tata Technologies (a subsidiary of automaker Tata Motors, which owns Jaguar Land Rover) has been significantly more involved in vehicle development than VinFast's "out of nowhere" narrative would indicate. “Recently, Tata's IPO filing in India revealed that they are the turnkey developers of the VF6, 7, 8, 9 car models for VinFast based on Tata's eVMP platform,” Tran wrote.
Tran’s claims are based on public financial documents. In VinFast’s IPO paperwork, the cites Tata Technologies as a key partner. Indeed, Tata Technologies’ own November 2023 IPO documents further substantiate these claims, as it explains the services it offers.
A Tata Technologies financial document explains the work it does for various clients, including Vinfast.
When it comes to the subjects of vehicle architecture development and electrical and electronics design, Tata cites its work with VinFast, claiming that the Vietnamese automaker is one of its biggest customers. (Tata, it should be noted, seems bullish on VinFast's prospects; Tata Technologies CEO Warren Kevin Harris told India's Economic Times in December, "As with many new energy vehicle companies, when they develop vehicles, they shift their focus towards building vehicles and generating recognition and interest in their brand. With VinFast, we would expect a slight dip in revenues over the next 12, 18 months. But that company is positioned for success and we fully expect to be part of that.")
Despite getting help from experienced players, VinFast’s international debut has been a rocky one. Initial media coverage of the brand’s debut was often full of intrigue over this country with essentially no homegrown auto industry. It got its start by making BMW-based internal combustion vehicles, then quickly halted those to focus on its own EV efforts. But more questions have arisen since.
The VF8 was months behind schedule and arrived with an unimpressive electric range and slapdash quality, leading to poor reviews. In August 2023, its initial public offering valued the brand ahead of traditional automakers like General Motors and Ford, only for the stock price to fall 75% by October, partly because so little stock is available to trade, with most of it tied up in companies affiliated with Vingroup founder Vuong.
Meanwhile, Barrons and the Carolina Journal, the newspaper that covers the area where VinFast plans a U.S. factory, reported that most of VinFast’s sales came from the brand selling cars to entities controlled by Vuong. The outlets reported that 7,100 of VinFast’s 13,000 global sales were to a Vietnamese taxi company called Green and Smart Mobility, which is run by Vingroup. The automaker has also dealt with a high degree of staff turnover thus far, according to news reports.
Despite that, the brand is pushing forward with its U.S. expansion plans. It’s diversified away from just using a direct-to-consumer sales model, enlisting a dealer network to sell its vehicles. It plans to expand its lineup outward from the VF8 and missing-in-action VF9 to the compact, subcompact, and microcar segments with the VF7, VF6, and VF3, respectively.
Still, VinFast needs those resources—like the loans and tax breaks promised by both state and federal governments—to continue its expansion plans at a time when many investors and Wall Street analysts fear the EV market is slowing down, or have doubts about up-and-comer startups.
“Vuong may be Vietnam's richest person with strong ties to the previous Vietnamese leadership, but his net worth is only ~$4.5 billion, and much of that is tied up in real estate,” said Tu Le, Managing Director of the automotive consulting firm Sino Auto Insights. Le’s firm studies the automotive industry in Asia, and he himself is a native of Vietnam. “Even if [Vuong] was liquid, his entire bankroll wouldn't have been able to fund Vinfast's expenses and aggressive global expansion.”
Le said VinFast's strategy in the early days was to get products out quickly to foreign markets to try and not only beat China’s automakers but to take advantage of the EV investment frenzy—the one that led to huge valuations for companies like Rivian and NIO.
“Now, VinFast is caught in no man's land,” Le said. “Unless they can raise a lot more capital, they won't have an opportunity to fix those quality issues or roll out the other vehicles they've highlighted at the auto shows, let alone have [its first U.S.-made car] roll off a line in North Carolina.”
In most places, being critical of a company—even one considered crucial to a country’s national interests and standing in the world—on social media will get you ignored and blocked at best, or sued for libel at worst. But VinFast is not like most companies. Under Vietnam’s strict laws around speech, Tran’s posts could result in him and potentially other people facing serious jail time in his home country.
At the heart of Vietnam’s restrictions on freedom of speech is a loosely defined law called Article 331.
Article 331 is a statute in Vietnamese law that allows the government to criminalize anyone who it feels is “abusing freedoms of speech to infringe upon the interests of the state, organizations, and individuals.” It has been used in the past to criminalize anyone critical of Vietnam’s interests.
Amnesty International has been vocal about Article 331, which when coupled with draconian online censorship laws, can prove dangerous for online critics. The group said it recognizes that “a large and growing proportion of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam are imprisoned based on their expression online, with 41% of those recognized by Amnesty International behind bars because of peaceful online speech.”
This is also not the first time that criticisms of Vingroup have yielded trouble for the people who make them back home. In April 2021, Vietnamese YouTuber GogoTV complained about quality issues with his ICE-powered VinFast Lux SA 2.0. Reuters subsequently wrote that the brand reported the YouTuber to the police ”in order to protect [its] reputation and [its] customers,” arguing the complaint was “more than a normal complaint,” and that GogoTV’s claims were untrue.
On Jan. 25, 2022, GogoTV’s lawyer said VinFast’s complaint and the resulting lawsuit had officially been closed. The original video that started the controversy is gone from GogoTV’s channel, albeit reuploaded by an unrelated YouTube account.
The government of Chatham County, the potential home of its future North Carolina plant, told InsideEVs in an email that “The referenced allegations are outside our jurisdiction and therefore, they are not within our purview to provide comment.”
Getting an official comment from VinFast about Tran’s situation stood in stark contrast with how the communications process typically works at nearly all automakers who interface with American media outlets. (When asked if any U.S. officials at the company were aware of the alleged detention of critics in Vietnam, a spokesperson seemingly demurred; “Committed to transparency, we make information readily available through public media, allowing employees to easily stay informed,” they said.)
At CES, an InsideEVs reporter spoke to two people who identified themselves as members of VinFast’s communications team. When asked about the Tran incident, one of the representatives said, “Normally, we don’t have any comments related to social media posts [because] we don’t know the source of information.”
“That’s nothing related to us, actually,” another added. “Because that kind of [person], he seems to be anti-VinFast, but he’s also anti-Vietnamese government. And due to the cybersecurity law in Vietnam, things happen, and it’s nothing related to us.”
In an email exchange with InsideEVs after CES, the company later elaborated further. “According to Vietnamese law, individuals and organizations have the right to file complaints against entities that abuse freedom of speech to tarnish the reputation and honor of others. The relevant authorities were responsible for accepting and resolving such matters. We subsequently decided to no longer pursue the issue,” a VinFast official said, later confirming they were referring to Tran’s case.
Asked how those American customers might view Tran’s experience, a company official added: “We conduct all our activities openly and transparently, complying with the law and our statutory rights. We encourage open communication and believe constructive feedback helps us grow and improve. We welcome feedback from customers and the public.”
Sources close to Tran say he has not had any notification from VinFast or VinGroup that it is no longer pursuing the complaint against him. His confiscated computer and phone are yet to be returned.
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Additional reporting from Patrick George.