It is not uncommon for Vietnamese Americans to return to Vietnam to start a business in their twenties or thirties. For many, this return to the motherland is more than just a chance at a new career, it is a chance to find the true meaning in life.
Tony Ngo and Don Le are known for founding Everest Education, an institute in Ho Chi Minh City which offers math and English enrichment courses, test preparation, college admissions consulting, and private tutoring to students from grades 1 to 12.
Born and raised in California, with an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Stanford University, Tony’s first visit to Vietnam was in the summer of 2007 for an internship at TPG Capital.
“After graduating, I had many questions about the culture, the market, and the transformation happening in Vietnam. I wondered if I could contribute anything,” Tony shared during a phone interview with Tuoi Tre News.
“Seven years later, I decided that if I didn’t do a summer internship in Vietnam, I would never do.”
|Tony Ngo is seen in a photo he provided Tuoi Tre News.|
Tony’s business partner, Don Le, also a graduate of Stanford University, worked in management consulting in the U.S. for a few years before he started looking for “something different.”
Don met Tony who asked what the former thought about moving to Vietnam, and that encounter became a turning point in Don’s life.
“There were a lot of different reasons [why I moved to Vietnam]. I am a Vietnamese-American and I knew very little about being Vietnamese, and frankly, I didn’t grow up around a lot of Vietnamese people,” he explained.
“A part of my decision to come to Vietnam was the fact that I had never lived abroad, and that was something that I had always wanted to do as a Vietnamese American.
“From a professional standpoint, it seemed like a great opportunity as well, so I figured out I would try it out for one or two years.
“The worst thing that could have happened was that I would have to go back to the U.S. and find another job.”
In 2007, at the age of 26, Don decided to visit Vietnam as a “test” of stepping out of his comfort zone.
Meanwhile, from 2008 to 2015, Tony began investing strongly in Vietnam and other Asian markets.
While working in China, Tony noticed how much opportunity there was in the education industry for companies focused on learning quality and academic models that were not yet available in Vietnam.
He then flew from Beijing to Ho Chi Minh City to meet with Don in a café on Le Loi Street in District 1. It was there that the duo decided to launch their own education center.
In the summer of 2011, Tony and Don rented a small room in District 1 and began running free weekend classes for their friend’s children.
Those small weekend classes eventually developed into Everest Education, which now boasts four centers across the southern metropolis.
Don still vividly remembers the moment he decided he would stay in Vietnam forever.
It was after he had lived in the country for nearly five years and returned home to the U.S. to visit family.
Upon his return to Vietnam, he saw the country from the plane’s window and thought to himself, “I’m home.”
According to Don, the best thing about Ho Chi Minh City is the dynamism, change, and constant improvement. It gives him the desire to improve himself each and every day.
He said that part of his success is owed to the many good people he met when he first arrived in Vietnam, many of whom “allowed” him to make mistakes because they understood that he came here with good intentions.
After 15 years of living in his homeland, Don said Vietnam has given him a deeper understanding of his own identity.
‘I am John and Hung’
John Hung Tran made the decision to spend his life in Vietnam after participating in a cultural exchange program at Hanoi University in 2010.
During his 10 years in Vietnam, he has worked as a TV presenter, English instructor, and journalist.
Now, at 33 years old, he serves as the general director of a corporation that invests in start-ups and technology, as well as connects investors with foreign businesses.
A decade ago, John was in his last year as a psychology major in the U.S. when he decided to make his first visit to Vietnam.
“My mother used to translate stories my grandmother would tell us about Vietnam and about Vietnamese people loving and helping each other in wartime,” he recalled.
“Those stories touched me and left a serious impression.”
Born and raised in the U.S., John grew up not being able to speak Vietnamese. In fact, he could not even point to the country on the world map.
After the exchange program in Hanoi, he returned to America to prepare for a job in finance, but before officially starting work he decided to come to Vietnam once more to visit friends.
That trip was a turning point in his life.
During his holiday in Vietnam, John was asked to host a travel experience TV show. He chose to take the job and stay in Vietnam.
Just a year into his time in the Southeast Asian country, he realized he found a clearer connection with the country.
“Someone told me that I was born and raised in a foreign country, so no matter how long I lived, I would never be a real Vietnamese,” he recalled.
“However, I saw that each region of Vietnam has different cultural characteristics, so how could anyone truly know what makes a ‘real Vietnamese’?
“I decided to travel across Vietnam to find the answer and learn about my origins.”
|A supplied photo shows John Hung Tran as he met with children at a free English class in the northern province of Thanh Hoa during his walking trip across Vietnam in 2012.|
In the summer of 2012, John embarked on a 90-day walk from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City as part of a mission to find his “Vietnamese self.” When he departed, he was penniless.
“I asked locals if I could stay at their houses. I worked with them, which often meant waking up at 4:00 am to harvest rice or heading out to sea at 5:00 am to fish with them,” he said.
He was impressed by the people he met during his journey.
“I was supported and helped by so many people. It reminded me of the stories my grandmother told me.
“I visited many houses and everyone was always willing to open their door for me, a stranger.
“They didn’t know anything about me. They didn’t know if I was a bad person.”
John documented his trip in a book titled “John Di Tim Hung (John Looks for Hung).”
The book helped him convince his parents and grandmother of his decision to live in Vietnam.
“After 40 years, my grandmother eventually returned to Vietnam and felt very emotional when she finally reunited with her old acquaintances,” he said.
“Many elderly people have texted me to say that they were touched by my story and were inspired to return to Vietnam, their homeland.”
Now John, who decided to stay in Vietnam for a long time, said he is both John and Hung – both Vietnamese and American.
Painting simple things beautifully a challenge
More than 50 watercolor paintings by artist Hong Quan were exhibited in Ho Chi Minh City this month. Looking at the paintings, visitors could feel like they have been transported back to their own hometowns, as the artworks depict everyday life in all three regions of Vietnam.
The event at Hawaii Art Space at 5A/2 Tran Phu Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City is the fourth exhibition of watercolors by Hong Quan.
The paintings were on display for art-loving visitors until August 15.
The artist’s three previous exhibitions were titled Sông nước miền Tây (Mekong Delta Rivers) in 2019, Những gì yêu thương nhất (The Most Affectionate) in 2022, and Ngày nắng (Sunny Days) in 2023.
Gentle and delicate works of art
Hong Quan’s paintings give an impression of peaceful, friendly, and very affectionate things.
He depicts universal and simple matters in nature, society, and people’s lives.
The familiar and nostalgic feelings that the watercolors evoke in visitors seem to free them from their everyday worries and to return them to their hometowns for a while.
|‘Nhà và ghe trên sông Hậu’ (Houses and Boats on the Hau River) by artist Hong Quan|
In the painting Nhà và ghe trên sông Hậu (Houses and Boats on the Hau River), visitors see familiar images of the Mekong Delta region.
In Vùng biển xanh (Blue Sea), they see fishermen chatting after returning from fishing trips.
They can also enjoy the scenery of fresh green nature in Mùa mận chín (The Season of Ripe Plums) and Ngày nắng đẹp (Beautiful Sunny Day).
In addition, the artist displayed a painting recalling the terrible days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but from a positive point of view in Nhà thuốc thời COVID-19 (The Pharmacy in the COVID-19 Pandemic).
Indeed, it is a challenge to draw simple things beautifully.
As an artist who was formally trained to draw with oil paints, Hong Quan took advantage of his strong ability in descriptive geometry when he switched to painting with watercolors.
Thanks to this strength, he can express his feelings and emotions in a delicate way.
An old saying goes that you learn more about an artist by looking at his paintings.
Hong Quan’s paintings immerse visitors in an endearing, affordable, friendly, and generous world, all considered a popular view of people in the southern part of Vietnam.
A very realistic description of life, Hong Quan’s paintings are full of positive energy, without negative feelings, as is often the case with other artists on such subjects.
Bucking the trend to find simple beauty
Nguyen Trung Tin, vice-president of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association in charge of the southern region, said Hong Quan has brought visitors back to the values of the old days through his own view of the simple beauty of life against the backdrop of new movements in painting.
|Artist Hong Quan stands in front of his watercolors at the exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Huynh Vy / Tuoi Tre|
It is his own style of art, which can be seen as a decision against popular trends, which captured the attention of visitors through the way he expresses his thoughts and souls via a simple but thorough painting approach.
“I especially admire artist Hong Quan for his diligence, concentration, and meticulous skill. He has traveled to so many places and led a life of interesting change,” Tin said on the opening day of the exhibition.
“His watercolors are like a travel blog in which he records his impressions and emotions during his visits to different places in the country.”
Tin believed that although Hong Quan uses watercolors as his painting material, he does not paint quickly or hastily.
On the contrary, he paints slowly and carefully, with each stroke and layer of color, just as he used to do with oil paintings.
Perhaps this will allow Hong Quan to establish a different style in Ho Chi Minh City, where watercolor painting has mushroomed in recent years.
|A visitor looks at a painting at Hong Quan’s exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Huynh Vy / Tuoi Tre|
The new Hawaii Art Space exhibition center was opened in the hope of becoming a meeting place for artists and art collectors in Vietnam.
“We are trying to help young and new artists to show their artworks to the public,” said Minh Tram, a representative of Hawaii Art Space.
“In the future, we hope the center will become a haunt of culture and creative enthusiasts, especially the younger generation.”
|‘Ngày nắng lên’ (Sunny Day) by artist Hong Quan|
Young woman weaves brighter future
By Lương Thu Hương
Like many Hrê ethnic youths in Teng Village in the central province of Quảng Ngãi, Phạm Thị Y Hòa is overwhelmed with pride when she wears the distinctive traditional brocade costume of her ethnic group.
The 31-year-old’s social media feeds are constantly updated with photos of the Teng handloom weaving craft, which has been recognised as a national intangible heritage since 2019.
Besides traditional products like clothing, scarves or shawls, Hòa has also woven contemporary goods like handbags, ties, áo dài (traditional Vietnamese long dress) and wedding dresses, helping more customers learn about the Hrê’s unique craft and inspiring locals to take part in preserving their ancient heritage.
“When I create a new product, I usually share it on my personal page to receive feedback and suggestions from friends and customers. It is also a way for me to improve my work and meet the market demand,” she said.
Hòa’s and other Teng villagers’ efforts to promote their ancient craft have paid off, even going beyond borders. At the EXPO 2020 in Dubai, UAE, two of their handloom fabric products were showcased in the VIP area, together with 13 representative products of 10 other ethnic minorities from Việt Nam.
Hrê brocade appeared in an impressive fashion show within the international exhibition. Five creations by renowned fashion designers Lý Quý Khánh and Chula were meticulously woven by Hòa’s talented hands, impressing many fashionistas attending.
“After receiving orders to create the handloom fabric for the designers, I was overjoyed and determined to carry out the task,” Hòa told Việt Nam News.
“It was my first opportunity to receive an order from renowned fashion designers and to showcase my works at such a big international event. I did my best so that my artisanal fabrics – the heritage of the Hrê people – would be present at the expo.”
She said the designers requested that typical Hrê patterns account for half of the fabric used for their designs at the fair, which demanded extreme care. She can only weave around 20cm of fabric a day, so it took nearly two months to complete.
Hòa has been able to weave since the age of 14. As a 9th grader, she earned pocket money from creating her first complete products and selling them to residents in Ba Tơ District where she lived.
Growing up, Hòa realised that the ancient weaving craft of her ethnic group, despite its unique beauty, was not widely known and losing interest from consumers, particularly the young people, due to its low price. She decided to return to her hometown in 2018, after studying away from home, to focus on commercialising Hrê traditional fabrics.
“I aimed to raise awareness about Hrê handloom fabric, and preserve the weaving craft as an indispensable cultural aspect of our lives and also as a source of income both for me and my community,” she said.
According to Hòa, the handloom fabrics of different ethnic groups often share vibrant and eye-catching colours, but the unique characteristic of Hrê fabric is undoubtedly the traditional colour palette, which consists of three main colours: white, red and black.
“However, Hrê fabric has incorporated a variety of colours these days. This is due to customers’ preferences and the influence of modern trends. Nevertheless, the dominant three colours are still preserved, and the weaving techniques remain unchanged,” she added.
At first, Hòa encountered many difficulties in the preservation of her ethnic group’s identity and cultural heritage.
“I had to re-explore everything about the craft, starting from the source of materials. The Hrê used to use cotton fibres, and now they have replaced them with synthetic fibres. I had to research and find the lowest possible price to reduce costs, the issue that most local weavers are concerned with,” she said.
“The next issue is finding the market, or more precisely, understanding the needs of customers within and outside my community. I have to understand what they like, what they need, and what is the most reasonable price to entice them.
“Finally, it is about teaching the skills so that the weavers can understand and become familiar with innovative products and have colours that are more suitable for current trends.”
Hòa is one of the first Teng villagers to promote their products on social media and e-commerce websites instead of passively waiting for customers. She has also actively introduced the craft at many trade fairs and conferences in Quảng Ngãi and beyond.
Thanks to Hòa’s keen mindset, the handloom fabric items woven by Teng villagers have gradually won much favour from customers.
Hòa’s products have not only been sold in Quảng Ngãi but in many other provinces and cities throughout the country. Moreover, they have been selected by the Provincial People’s Committee as local souvenirs for distinguished guests, and travelled to many countries worldwide, including Switzerland, Italy, the UK and Germany.
Hòa is nurturing a plan to build a stilt house of her own where she will exhibit Hrê cultural heritage to all visitors to Teng Village. VNS
Vietnamese workers’ lives in lay-offs: Surviving a week on $4
One day in early August, an unusual silence reigned over Alley 58 on Street 5 in Tan Tao District, Binh Tan, known as the ‘rental housing center’ in Ho Chi Minh City.
Many workers had to return the lodging to the homeowners after they were laid off.
Notices about rooms for rent were posted more densely accordingly.
However, in the eyes of the workers who stay, there are great concerns.
In recent months, their working hours have been cut and they have no chance to work overtime to earn more money.
Trying to make ends meet
Nguyen Thi Thao, 35, from the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, sits sadly on a row of stone chairs outside a room for rent and says that in all the 17 years she has been a worker, she has never received wages as low as they are at the moment.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of overtime hours she works has gradually reduced.
As an employee of PouYuen Company, a Nike and Adidas shoe supplier in Binh Tan District, Thao no longer has the opportunity to work extra hours. In addition, Fridays and Saturdays are now days off.
Although she is still employed, Thao is really worried about her eight-year-old child’s school fees and other needs in light of the reduced and uncertain salary.
According to tenants who live nearby, there have been many going-away parties recently, as many workers have had to return their rooms after being laid off time and again.
In an effort to avoid returning to their hometowns, many unemployed workers have had to find alternative jobs, such as working on construction sites or as waiters in restaurants and the like.
Not only workers but also merchants and lottery sellers are struggling because they cannot sell as much as they used to.
“In the past, the demand for rental housing here was so great that many people could not find a vacant room. But many sit empty now,” Thao says, looking at the row of rental rooms where she lives.
Thao shares the difficult living conditions with Tran Van Hoa, 55, who dwells in the same alley as her.
Hoa’s workshop was closed on May 20, leaving more than 70 percent of the workers jobless, while the remaining 30 percent were transferred to another workshop, he said.
Hoa is still lucky to keep his job, but he can only work four days a week because the working hours have been cut.
“There is not even enough work for the workers during normal hours anymore, let alone asking them to work overtime,” Hoa said, adding that his wife, who works at the same company, has run into trouble as well.
The couple left the north-central province of Thanh Hoa for Ho Chi Minh City to find work when they were young.
After working for PouYuen Vietnam Company Limited for over 15 years, they spend all the rest of their salary after deducting living expenses on their three children’s education.
While about ten years ago, working as a laborer only made Hoa physically tired, now he also lives in worry and anxiety because he fears losing his job one day and cannot predict his total monthly income either.
|Thuy Linh saves every penny to send money to her mother, who lives in her hometown, to pay for her children’s school fees. Photo: Dieu Qui / Tuoi Tre|
US$4.2 to survive for a week
Living far from Hoa in Alley 44 on Bui Van Ba Street in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City, 26-year-old Thuy Linh from the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang and her husband scrape a living.
Linh is employed by a firm that manufactures fans for export at Tan Thuan Export Processing Zone in Tan Thuan Dong Ward, District 7.
Since the beginning of July, she has been coming home from work every day around 5:00 pm since her company is lacking in new orders.
In past months, she worked overtime until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.
Linh is even luckier than her husband, who has been out of work since the beginning of the year and has not been able to earn enough income for himself.
He was rejected after applying for a job several times since then, as many companies have to downsize their staff.
He got a gig but had to quit it after two months as the employer recommended postponing payments, citing an ‘extremely difficult situation.’
Linh is now the breadwinner of the family and bears all the financial burdens, including rent for the house, living expenses, and money sent to their hometown to raise their children.
The woman said if she works extra shifts, including Sundays, she can earn about VND11 million ($462) a month; otherwise, she receives the basic salary of VND5.5 million ($231) and a few hundred Vietnamese dong in allowances.
After paying the rent, she puts aside only VND1 million ($42) to cover all living expenses in one month.
She sends the rest of the earnings to her mother, who lives in her hometown and takes care of her children.
Next year, Linh’s oldest child will start preschool and she needs to prepare to pay for the child’s tuition.
Last month, Linh and some other staff were transferred to work in a workshop in Long An Province, outside Ho Chi Minh City.
Thanks to her two hours of overtime every day, she was able to earn VND7.2 million ($302).
Unfortunately, she could only receive the basic salary together with a small allowance this month and had less than VND1 million for a month.
Linh said she can only spend VND100,000 ($4.2) a week at the moment.
“I still prepare meals at home to take to the workshop, but I choose cheaper food, reduce meat and fish, and eat less. I bought the rice variety whose price is VND11,000 [$0.46] per kilogram. Sometimes I ate instant noodles because I ran out of rice,” Linh said.
“I carry a small bag of tea to make water that I can drink throughout the day without having to buy the water outside. I do not eat snacks during the day either.”
Data from the latest survey conducted by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor showed that 2.2 percent of Vietnamese workers have never heard of buying formula milk for their children.
Linh is one of them.
Her husband is jobless and cannot earn money. Their second daughter has had to drink fresh milk since she was six months old, when Linh had to return to the workshop and could not continue breastfeeding her child.
Saving every penny
To have additional sources of income, Linh used to try to sell goods online. She had to give up the job because she could not survive in the online market with numerous sellers like her.
“I tried everything possible to make money, but it was extremely difficult to earn it,” Linh said.
Currently, she is trying to keep her job at the company, thinking that she is still lucky to have an income.
“I am waiting for October, when a workshop that makes calendars for the Lunar New Year vacation is expected to recruit staff for another part-time job. Then, after working at the workshop that makes fans till 5:00 pm, I’d continue working at the calendar place from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm,” she told of her plan.
“If I work four hours, I can earn VND100,000. So every month I’d make an additional VND3 million [$126], which would be truly helpful for me and my child.”
In more challenging times, Hoa reminds his wife to save as much as possible to prepare for when their jobs may become more unstable.
“Rumor has it that another lay-off is due in September. For me, there’s no point in worrying so much now so I’ll try to work when I still have a job. When I’m unemployed, I’ll return to my hometown to farm and raise cows,” Hoa added.
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