Industry Insights Session is part of Vietcetera’s Vietnam Innovators Summit program. The second Industry Insight Session focused on returning overseas Vietnamese and the opportunities for them as they integrate into Vietnam’s dynamic labor force. Quang Do (Overseas Vietnamese), Phuc Pham (Robert Walters), Tuan Le (The Lab Saigon), Calvin Lam (InDe Pacific Capital), Cuong Dang (Forbes), and Hoang Thi Kim Dzung (Genesia Ventures) joined Hao Tran for an afternoon of insightful discussions at The Sentry.
A wave of Vietnamese citizens left the country as economic and political refugees during the Vietnam War — all of them wanting a more peaceful, stable, and comfortable life. While they built new lives away from home, a big part of their identity remained rooted in their homeland.
For first-generation immigrants, however, being Vietnamese is mainly attached to stories of conflict and poverty. Many of them, if not most, live their whole lives as citizens of their new country.
But as Vietnam emerges from a troubled past and becomes one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, overseas Vietnamese have started looking at Vietnam in a different light. Several have already moved back to the country, discovering their roots and embracing their Vietnamese identity. Thousands more are hoping to come home soon.
At the second Industry Insights Session held by Vietcetera as part of its Vietnam Innovators Summit program, overseas Vietnamese who’ve made the bold step to come home for good share their experiences, thoughts, and learning as they experience the “new” Vietnam.
The ‘Overseas Vietnamese’ community
There aren’t many organizations or groups that unite the Vietnamese diaspora — this was what Vietnamese-German Quang Do realized when he started building the Overseas Vietnamese (OV) group on LinkedIn in 2019. He started searching for all the “Nguyens” from across the globe on the platform and added them to expand his connections and eventually create a community. Today, the LinkedIn group has over 20,000 members of overseas Vietnamese who are eager to connect with each other and to the country that feels strange but familiar.
“The OV community can bring opportunities normally not available for Vietnamese without connections. It’s hard to find people with similar interests and backgrounds, and OV has become that platform,” says Quang.
While he hasn’t officially moved to Vietnam yet, Quang’s role in Google Singapore is tightly bound by his Vietnamese origin. He helps Vietnamese businesses grow with Google, which also gives him the opportunity to travel between Vietnam and Singapore often.
“Every time I come here, maybe every two to three months, I get surprised by the pace of things progress. And the entrepreneurial mindset among young Vietnamese blows me away.”
He admits, though, that Vietnam still has a long way to go to lure overseas Vietnamese like him to settle in the country fully. Most of his Vietnamese colleagues at Google also find it hard to trade the kind of lifestyle and careers they have in Singapore for Vietnam.
“I envision moving to Vietnam when the right opportunity comes, maybe in the next five years,” hopes Quang.
What he can do for now is to continue the mission of his growing Overseas Vietnamese community. From LinkedIn conversations during the pandemic, OV members now also gather offline. Regular local meetups are already happening in Ho Chi Minh City, New York, Paris, London, and Sydney.
Come home ‘phở’ good
A survey by Robert Walters earlier this year found that a significant proportion of overseas Vietnamese wants to settle back in Vietnam to give back and contribute to the country’s growth.
But joining the local labor force isn’t a walk in the park, explains Phuc Pham, Country Manager at Robert Walters Vietnam. Attracting this unique demographic — educated abroad and used to certain lifestyles and social benefits — and having them integrate seamlessly into Vietnam’s work culture presents both risks and advantages.
Phuc says overseas Vietnamese professionals are one pool of talent companies are eager to tap because of their international experience and a more modern approach to work. As different industries expand in Vietnam, the need for senior professionals has also grown. “And these companies want more Vietnamese people in their management team. Investors are looking for locals who have the knowledge and insights and are committed to doing the job.”
But overseas Vietnamese, especially those coming from the West, may have higher expectations. Phuc notes that this group considers living standards, medical insurance, education, and salary packages when moving to Vietnam for work. Many Vietnam-based companies might still need more time to be ready to meet these demands.
Through Robert Walters’ ‘Come Home Phở Good’ campaign and the steady developments Vietnam is experiencing, Phuc has high hopes that more and more Vietnamese abroad will decide to move back.
“Since we launched this campaign in 2016, this year is probably the best so far as we successfully brought back more people. It’s good to see that 89% have stayed with their original employers for at least two years. People are finding not just opportunities here but good opportunities with the right companies in Vietnam.”
But, what does coming home to Vietnam really feel like?
This question can have varying answers as returning Vietnamese experience different things and have unique ways of coping and adjusting.
To Tuan Le, who was one of the first people who conceptualized and built Vietcetera, coming back to the country 11 years ago brought challenges and opportunities for his personal and career growth.
If there’s one thing he wishes he knew before coming home, Tuan said he would have gotten to know the market first. An entrepreneur by nature, Tuan left a lucrative job in Dubai to launch his own businesses in Saigon — first was a co-working space, and then a cafe and bar, and now his creative company, The Lab.
“I wish I wasn’t too arrogant when I came back to Vietnam. I brought with me things I thought had so much value here. I would’ve gotten to know the market first, learned, and then see what people needed and provided those needs. Maybe then I would not have closed my first business.”
It also started as a hit-and-miss for Cuong Dang, who left Vietnam 20 years ago but returned in 2017. Cuong, who now serves as Partner and CEO of Forbes Vietnam, started his career here in logistics, transportation, and brewery businesses.
“I was born and raised in Vietnam, so coming back makes sense. But I wish I came back earlier,” says Cuong. “It was in the early 2000s when economic growth began. If I only continued monitoring the situation and the opportunities in Vietnam, I would’ve made a more informed decision to come back earlier.”
He doesn’t have any regrets, however. Aside from cementing Forbes Vietnam’s name as one of the country’s leading media firms, Cuong is also an investor and a senior advisor.
The story’s a little different for Hoang Thi Kim Dzung, who shares that she worked hard to come back to Vietnam from Tokyo two years ago. “I went to every supermarket, area, and district to learn about the Vietnamese market. I didn’t just lean into the local environment but dove deep, communicated with the locals, and embraced Vietnam fully.”
Dzung helped establish the first representative office of Genesia Ventures in Vietnam in 2019 and has since invested in early-stage startups, including Vietcetera. As someone who’s seen how discipline and utmost commitment pay off in the long run, Dzung uses her position to bring value to Vietnamese startups.
Entrepreneur and investor Calvin Lam fully agrees that there’s value in Vietnam’s business landscape. Calvin moved back to Vietnam nearly two decades ago, bringing with him a wealth of experience and knowledge from Silicon Valley. He invested in real estate before focusing on consumer fashion and private equity. Calvin is also one of Vietcetera’s angel investors.
Vietnam, he explains, might be considered a challenging environment for corporate-minded people, given how most of the company structures are still very traditional. But it is an entrepreneur’s haven.
“Vietnam could be a good location to build businesses, with its young and tech-savvy population,” Calvin says, further noting that the country has gone through massive economic and social developments, and entrepreneurs can find immense opportunities to prosper.
“And there isn’t a ‘too early’ or ‘too late’ timing in coming back to Vietnam,” Calvin comments on Cuong’s statement. Vietnam is continuously changing, and each phase brings unique possibilities for returning Vietnamese. “It all depends on what you want to achieve here.”
Join The Conference on November 18 and the rest of the Industry Insights Sessions in the coming weeks for expert insights on a fast-innovating Vietnam. Check how to buy tickets here.
Here are some more photos from the Industry Insights Session: Come Home Phở Good: