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After fleeing from Vietnam, one man returns to be a 'bridge'


Finding the right partner abroad is one of the more difficult parts of taking your brand international. The job requirements may be tough to find: someone who speaks both languages and knows U.S. business, your brand and the local culture.

A rapidly expanding trend is hiring “repatriots,” according to Angela Rud, an employment lawyer with Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis. These are foreign nationals who were educated in the U.S. and worked in corporate America, before deciding to move back home.

On Franchise Times’ recent trade mission to Vietnam, we met Sean Ngo, Edwards Global Service’s Vietnamese counterpart. Ngo is the shining example of the expat trend. His family escaped from Vietnam during the war with the United States, and Ngo was educated in the United States; however, he still had roots in the country where he was born.

Ngo worked on a deal with Edwards Global’s prospects in Vietnam, which is how he popped up on company principal William Edwards’ radar. Ngo is what Edwards refers to as “bridges,” the locals who link in-country business practices and networks with the U.S. ones.

“We have people asking us to be that person all the time and we turn them down,” Edwards said, because they haven’t seen them in action.“You have to take your time building that network.” Williams, who has been doing international business for 40 years, says you have to treat these “bridges” with respect. “They’re not second-class citizens,” he says, “they’re peers. That’s key.”

Here’s a little on the back story of how Ngo came to work with the discerning and holder-of-high-standards William Edwards.

Q. Talk about what happened when your family left Vietnam:

A. My family left Vietnam on April 30, 1975. by boat. We got out just before the final fall of Saigon. We were one of the fortunate few to have left safely on big naval ships docked nearby. My father was a senior-ranking officer who worked for the then-South Vietnamese military. I remember the day my father and his men arrived in two Jeeps and told my entire family we had to leave immediately. There was no time to say good-byes to any of our friends.

We spent a few weeks in military camps in the Philippines and then flew on a military transport jet to Fort Chafee in Arkansas. There we spent about six months along with thousands of other Vietnamese refugees, before being relocated to San Jose, California, where we were fortunate to have been sponsored by a local church and its members. To this day, my mother still lives in San Jose and is very close to our main sponsor.

Q. What did your parents do for jobs here?

A. There is a perception the Vietnamese who escaped early were able to bring their assets. The fact of the matter is that we left at the last minute with nothing but a few suitcases of photos, clothing and personal jewelry, which only had sentimental worth. During the process of moving to America, we lost many of the suitcases, as well.  

My father learned English at the community college while working for a technology company as an electronics technician. He later sold insurance and real estate in the San Jose area. My mother, who used to be a secretary in the former South’s Presidential Palace under then President Ngo Dinh Diem, started a moderately successful nail shop, which she sold to help my father with his public duties in the local Vietnamese community.

To this day, I believe the older generation of Vietnamese Americans still feel they have lost their country and are living where they do not fit in completely—a little bit of lost in translation, Vietnamese style.

Q. When and why did you go back?

A. My first visit to Vietnam was in 2001. To be honest, vacationing in Vietnam, or anywhere in Asia for that matter, was not very high on my list prior to the visit. I had always wanted to visit Europe first and then Asia, but the opportunity came and I took it.

I had always wanted to live abroad and finally made the decision to move to Vietnam at the beginning of 2005. Growing up in America, I felt I had lost the Vietnamese culture and language. I could not speak a single sentence in Vietnamese without adding English into that sentence. As a child, it was great to “fit in,” but as an adult, “fitting in” came at a cost. Going back to Vietnam was in many ways an opportunity for me to get back to my roots.

My family and friends thought I was crazy to just pack up and leave. They thought I might come back after six months, but instead I have been living and working in Vietnam for the past seven years, and I see no changes in the foreseeable future. I never thought I would live in Vietnam long-term. I always wanted to live in other Asian cities, including Singapore, and of course, Shanghai. But, Vietnam truly is where the next big opportunities are—China’s been done, it came and went, and now there are 90 million Vietnamese who are tired of war and want to improve their livelihood.

Q. What do you see as the positives of the Vietnamese culture?

A. Like many of its Asian neighbors, Vietnamese believe in a strong family, education and hard work. These values are reinforced from a country that has been repressed by multiple wars over the last century. The Vietnamese culture is heavily based on Chinese culture, including many of the same customs and holidays. Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in Vietnam.

Vietnam in only beginning to rev its economic engine in so many diverse industries. As a result, many Vietnamese often have one full-time job and possibly other jobs after hours or on the weekends. They are in fact very entrepreneurial and believe that making money as quickly as possible and working for others is not sustainable long term. This is why franchising in Vietnam is seen as an exciting and a rare opportunity to use a business model that has worked so well internationally.

The exchange of know-how that increases consumer choices is what is needed in an economy that is often nicknamed “The Little Tiger,” partly in reference to the big cat just north of the border.

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