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International finance : Vietnam’s diaspora returns with attitude

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International finance has its share of gripping personal sagas: the Rothschilds’ role in shaping modern nations, the repeated rise and fall of Portugal’s Espirito Santo family and China’s Cultural Revolution survivors who now run some of the world’s biggest banks.

But few financial centres boast as many compelling individual life stories among their banking ranks as Vietnam’s commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City, the thrusting port city that recent history knows better as Saigon. These stories are those of so-called Viet Kieu, the half million or so foreign-educated returnees to Vietnam from refugee families who fled South Vietnam during the 1970s and 1980s, part of the so-called boat people exodus, as the victorious communists of the north brutally unified the country after winning what they call the Resistance War and what the rest of the world knows as the Vietnam War. This Vietnamese diaspora numbers around five million internationally. They have made prosperous homes in places such as California’s Orange County and Montreal’s south shore, and have transformed once-gritty inner suburbs of Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney. According to data compiled by the Melbourne City Council, the common Vietnamese surname Nguyen is the second-most listed after Smith among telephone subscribers.

Today the Viet Kieu are sprinkled across the country’s young financial markets, running banks, private equity houses, fund managers and securities firms, advising bureaucrats and helping modernize Vietnam’s economy. They are also relatively youthful – 30- and 40-somethings doing important jobs that glass ceilings might have excluded them from in the West so early in their careers. Their influence spreads beyond finance. Viet Kieu populate Vietnam’s entrepreneurial ranks as managers of the nation’s fashionable bars and restaurants, boutique stores and art galleries. They are represented in professions such as architecture, design and medicine, combining Western service standards with local sensibilities. Modern Vietnam’s popular culture is heavily influenced by Viet Kieu; and with the diaspora’s strong cultural emphasis on education, in part imbued by starting-again refugee parents, Viet Kieu also provide a large talent pool for employers and investors in Vietnam. Western-minded, the Viet Kieu blend easily with Vietnam’s burgeoning ‘doi moi generation,’ the 20- to 30-somethings born locally after Vietnam’s transformative adoption in 1986 of economic reforms that tilted the country away from a Marxist command economy to today’s progressive embrace of the free market. Akin to the perestroika reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and China’s ‘open door’ policy of the late 1970s, those reforms were known in Vietnamese as doi moi, meaning to exchange (doi) with an implication of innovation, moi meaning new.

Viet Kieu

More than 30 years on, Vietnam’s doi moi generation don’t bear the same wariness toward banks and technology as do their parents and grandparents, who’ve faced war, corruption, economic collapse, doctrinaire communism and business nationalization. The doi moi generation is more open to foreign trends and fashions, particularly those drawn from the Viet Kieu.

Indeed, such is the penetration of Viet Kieu in corporate Vietnam that an identifying linguistic marker has emerged in common parlance that distinguishes these returnees from locals. Although the diaspora and locals are ethnically Vietnamese, the diaspora returnees are identified by subsets: French-Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American and so on. Vietnamese from a local non-refugee background, even if they’ve been educated abroad, tend to be identified as ‘Vietnamese-Vietnamese’ in day-to-day conversation. The distinction implies a different mindset; the Viet Kieu are seen to be inherently capitalist and carrying little of the ideological baggage of Hanoi’s notionally communist government. Gathered mostly in Saigon, it’s a rare Viet Kieu in Vietnam who doesn’t have a poignant tale of personal sacrifice, of overcoming family distress and dislocation. “Everyone here has a story,” says Vietnamese-Australian investment manager Khanh Vu, who was 18 months old when he fled chaotic Vietnam by boat with his family in the late 1970s for a new life in Sydney. “It is just a given, but no one much talks about it because we’ve all moved on, the country’s moved on and there’s too much exciting stuff going on out there.”

Indeed, almost two generations on from the conflict, Vietnam has changed and so has the attitude towards it of its prosperous diaspora and by local Vietnamese towards the country’s Viet Kieu community. Quan Le, chief partnership officer at investment bank Ho Chi Minh Securities remembers local opposition to Viet Kieu when he first returned to work in Vietnam in 2005 from Los Angeles, where he had been a marketing executive at Disney after fleeing Vietnam as a child. “The first wave of returnees was seen, not unjustifiably in some cases, as arrogant carpetbaggers,” he says. “These were people who were drawn by quick money, quick profits; but as Vietnam progressed, you see more and more professional people coming back here.” Vinh-Tuan Ngo, the French-Vietnamese head of investment banking at Viet Capital Securities, says: “There are other people who come here, who were not very successful in the US or elsewhere and they come here like they are hotshots when they are not hotshots.” Dominic Scriven, an Englishman who runs one of Vietnam’s leading foreign investment firms, Dragon Capital, remembers that Viet Kieu were viewed with suspicion when he first arrived in Vietnam in 1990, soon after the so-called doi moi market reforms that transformed the economy. This was when there were still governments in exile in places like California, drawing support and funds from the diaspora and the US government. Quan Le says that when he was growing up in his adopted home in Orange County in southern California, the “strong anti-communist sentiment” in the area’s Vietnamese community, the biggest in North America, was akin to that in Florida among the anti-Castro community who had fled Cuba after the revolution in 1959.

Diaspora Vietnamese were allowed into Vietnam for family reunions, but their business and social activities were restricted and closely monitored. Indeed, the early days of the doi moi reforms are littered with stories about how get-rich-quick diaspora businessmen pushed the reformist regime too far and came undone in corruption scandals. But around the late 1990s, says Scriven, he first began noticing government ‘welcome home’ booths at airports directed at the Viet Kieu community, with invitations to invest. “I think they realized, pragmatically, that here was a potential pool of money and expertise,” he says. Khanh Vu, deputy managing director of one of Vietnam’s pioneer investors, Vina Capital, says he is “often floored by the ignorance” about Vietnam, including that of Vietnamese living abroad, that it is a war-torn, dangerous country. “That was 1975, more than a generation ago,” he says. “It’s such a forgiving, lets-move-on type of environment.”

‘Make a difference’

Vu’s story is typical of many Viet Kieu. He fled Vietnam on a rickety refugee boat immediately after the war. His father, a pilot for the defeated South Vietnamese government’s air force, captained the boat, which was crammed with hundreds of people, many of them South Vietnam’s business elite and middle class. They made their way to refugee camps in Indonesia and Malaysia, and eventually to Australia. Vu grew up speaking Vietnamese and English, studied commerce at college and got a post-graduation job at Arthur Andersen and then at Australian investment bank Macquarie, which transferred him to New York just as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were imploding in 2008. Vu took a year off and then joined Vina when it opened an office in Singapore, returning to Vietnam in 2013, he says with his parents’ blessing. “They said to me: ‘Go back and make a difference.’” And he is. Vina Capital, founded in 2003 by another Viet Kieu, Canadian returnee Don Lam, is one of the biggest capital market investors in Vietnam, managing a combined $3.5 billion in funds on its own account and for international investors. When Vina Capital was launched, there were just 50 listed companies in the country. Today there are more than 750 and the market capitalization is around $150 billion. Vu’s colleague Andy Ho, Vina’s chief investment officer is Vietnamese-American, an MBA graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who returned to Vietnam 15 years ago with fund manager Prudential, one of the early Western investors in Vietnam’s capital markets. (Prudential today dominates the Vietnamese insurance and investment sector, and the country has been one of the Pru’s most successful diversifications. Indeed, Prudential had a policy of hiring Viet Kieu to its executive ranks through the 1990s and 2000s, and its alumni litter the business and banking ranks in Ho Chi Minh City.)

Ho says Vietnam has long moved away from doctrinaire Marxist-Leninism, and says today’s politicians and bureaucrats are more Western-educated: “Vietnam is probably the most global country in the world, the most free-trade agreements than any other. Vietnamese people are very practical. They just want to make money, to get on with it.” The term Viet Kieu is an ever-so-slightly sensitive point in the offices of Vina Capital, a firm started and largely staffed by, well, Viet Kieu. “They tend to be referred to as Viet Kieu within the first two to three years of their time back here,” says Ho. “Because the way they talk, the way they conduct themselves, it’s pretty obvious. We’ve been here for over 10 years, we are who we are now.” Vu says: “Our brand name is pretty pervasive. The locals follow the smart money, the institutions or folks like ourselves. We kind of look at ourselves as almost ambassadors for the business opportunities here. We make our fair share of home runs and we get struck out occasionally.” An example of how Vina Capital is transforming Vietnam is its backing of startup neobank Timo, which has fast become a favourite for the country’s young urban professional class. It was founded in 2015 by Vina founder Lam. “I was one of the boat people,” says Lam, as he describes his own perilous escape aged 10 across the South China Sea to Hong Kong, one of 270 refugees crammed into a boat built for a fraction of that number. “I was hungry and thirsty all the time.”

That was in 1979. Lam’s family eventually found their way to Canada, where Lam went to school and qualified as a chartered accountant. A job with Coopers & Lybrand took him back to Vietnam in the middle of the 1990s as the market reforms gathered momentum. “My family thought I was crazy to go back,” he says. In 2003, Lam founded Vina Capital. Lam says his inspiration for Timo was the parallel between banking in eastern Europe and Vietnam: both regions had emerged from communism, but their legacy banks were still burdened by what he describes as the “appalling service mentality” of state-imposed bureaucracy. “I hate going to the bank,” says Lam, “and I think a lot of Vietnamese hate that experience too. That created an opportunity in Vietnam.” His colleague Vu says: “This private (equity) approach to investment still has relevance here. You come to a market like Vietnam and there are places you can invest that are like a rollercoaster. It’s a great ride and it’s up and down. If you’ve got the stomach for that, fantastic, to enjoy the volatility then great, do it. “What we deliver for clients is more like an airplane, slow take off but smoother, evening out the turbulence. We like charts that go from the bottom left to the top right, a straight line. Our average return is approximately 30%,” says Vu. He claims Vina has “had more trade sales, in mergers and acquisitions, than any fund in southeast Asia in the last five years.”

Giving back

Across town at investment bank Viet Capital Securities (VCS), Ngo says his refugee passage to Thailand on a boat in 1979 at the age of six is one of his first memories. After a succession of refugee camps, Ngo eventually made it to France, where he was raised by a foster family, albeit “in a very bad neighbourhood, very bad banlieue,” which he says built his character. “I’m very Vietnamese,” Ngo says. “But I’m extremely French too. I had to re-learn everything when I came back.” Ngo studied at France’s management school Ecole Supérieure de Commerce in Grenoble, then completed an MBA at Wharton. That pedigree took him to Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse as a specialist in distressed debt and bankruptcy, especially in the so-called Pigs (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) economies that were battered in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. During Nicolas Sarkozy’s term as French president, Ngo joined the Fonds Stratégique d’Investissement, the briefly operational French sovereign fund that was subsumed into the state fund Bpifrance in 2013 after Sarkozy left office. “I cut my salary by a factor of 10,” Ngo says of his time in government. Then he retired, aged 39. “I was too young,” Ngo says, “and that’s exactly why I am back.” Asked why Vietnam, Ngo says: “When you are lucky to have a decent education and get some skills, you have to give back a bit. Strangely, I always knew I would come back.” Ngo says his experience with the French sovereign stands him in good stead in Vietnam, where the government is preparing part of its lumbering state-owned sector, which according to some estimates accounts for up to half the economy, for privatization. “A few state companies are very good,” says Ngo, “but 90% are not so good. Even if you buy it, it would take you ages to fix it.” Today, Ngo runs the 25-strong investment bank team at VCS, a firm founded and owned by so-called Vietnamese-Vietnamese, notably its chief executive To Hai. “Here I do pure straight investment banking – capital raising, block trading, M&A,” Ngo says. VCS is one of Vietnam’s better-connected houses, as its recent deal flow suggests. The firm handled the IPOs for privately owned budget airline Vietjet and local banks VP Bank and the state’s Techcombank. Ngo says: “The business model we have here was exactly what we had at Goldman 20 years ago.”

Extraordinary journey

At leading brokerage Ho Chi Minh City Securities Corporation, its managing director of corporate finance, Pham Ngoc Bich, takes time to reflect on his own extraordinary journey back to Vietnam. Born in the highlands city of Da Lat, Bich was educated at the prestigious Lycée Yersin in the city, and grew up speaking French and Vietnamese at home. Isolated Da Lat was comparatively untouched by the war, but he remembers as a 12-year-old in 1968 hiding with his parents in the closets of his family home as the Viet Cong attacked the city during the Tet offensive: “We were young, we were not afraid of anything.”

In 1974, the 16-year-old Bich won a South Vietnamese government scholarship to study engineering at the Polytechnique Montreal in Canada. “But a year after, no more South Vietnam,” says Bich. His South Vietnamese sponsors fell to Northern forces while he was in Montreal, Bich watching the endgame on television. “I could not come back,” he says. “I had to work as a busboy and a waiter, whatever I could.” Bich was abandoned, with the rest of his bourgeois family back home and facing ‘re-education’ as Hanoi’s doctrinaire communists imposed control on the defeated south. Common to many Vietnamese families, there are contradictions. He has uncles and cousins on his father’s side that fought for the US-backed South Vietnamese. On his mother’s side, he has uncles who fought for the victorious north. He says he lost four uncles during the war, two on each side. Holding down multiple part-time jobs in Montreal, alongside his engineering studies, Bich then worked to sponsor his family to leave Vietnam, eventually bringing 15 relatives to Canada. “It took me 10 years,” he remembers. “I didn’t have enough money to bring all of them at once.” Trained as an engineer, Bich says he fell into banking in the 1980s after losing money on the New York stock market: “I wanted to know why, so I decided to do an MBA in Montreal. Then I switched into banking and have been in it ever since.” Bich started at Bank of Nova Scotia in 1983, as an assistant manager of a branch in downtown Montreal. But a drive for deal-making saw him promoted to ScotiaBank’s corporate team. Later came a stint at the Montreal derivatives exchange before he joined the CIBC-linked fund manager TAL Asset Management. In 1998 he was sent to Hong Kong to start a China-oriented fund management joint venture between TAL/CIBC and Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Holdings. As “the only Vietnamese in the group,” Bich says in Hong Kong he learned Mandarin and Cantonese, which linguistically overlap with his native Vietnamese. Vietnam wasn’t on Bich’s professional radar, but while he was in Hong Kong, the Hanoi government accelerated the opening up of its economy. Vietnam was the new frontier and, Bich says, “my phone was hot. They were looking for bankers and fund managers, and there were no people.” A chance meeting in Hong Kong with Scriven from Dragon Capital got Bich thinking about returning and by 2007 he did, joining British insurance group Prudential’s fund management arm. Bich says the attitude towards Vietnam by its overseas community – and equally by Vietnamese toward the Viet Kieu – began changing in the late 2000s. When he returned in 2007, he says Hanoi still officially referred to the US government as “the enemy,” even after the US trade embargo was lifted in 1994 and diplomatic relations established a year later. Nowadays Bich says the US is considered a good friend by Hanoi, illustrated by Hanoi hosting the US/North Korea rapprochement summit in 2019. It also holds that Vietnam’s historic wariness of neighbouring China allows the US strategic room to move. A veteran China operator, Bich says that the axiom one often hears in Hong Kong that China’s ruling communist party is less a political party than a chamber of commerce applies equally in pragmatic Vietnam. Although China is Vietnam’s biggest importer, Hanoi keeps a diplomatic distance from Beijing and hasn’t, for example, been an enthusiastic supporter of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. “The conservative factions are getting older and older, and the younger generation are very business-oriented, very practical,” he says. “There is a change happening.” Still, Bich says none of his Canadian-based family are keen to return to Vietnam. As for his teenage lycee classmates, he is the only one to do so. “They are all in France, Australia, the US.” He says various family members, some of whom endured communist ‘re-education’ after 1975, have often asked him: “‘Why are you in Vietnam, why do you go back and work with the communists?’ I say: ‘Communists or no communists, now they are normal people.’ No one wants to come back here and ride a motorcycle to work,” says Bich. “Me, I don’t mind.” Bich is looking forward to Vietnam’s expected upgrade on international market indices and economic measures from frontier market to emerging market. “A lot of money will then flow into Vietnam,” he says. He expects that within the next five years the state’s cap on foreign ownership of public companies will be raised or even scrapped. But with his still-reluctant family in Canada pursuing careers, Euromoney asks Bich if he has any regrets about returning to Vietnam. “Yes,” he says. “I should have returned to Vietnam earlier. I would be very wealthy.”

By Eric Ellis – Euromoney – April 6 , 2020

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