Cat Thao Nguyen: Opening a new chapter for Australia-Vietnam ties

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With a strong affinity that Vietnamese have with Australia in terms of trade, education and immigration, Cat Thao Nguyen, a first-generation Australian born to Vietnamese parents, grasps the opportunity to further advance the bilateral ties between the two countries through the creation of the Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue (AVYLD).

Moved to Ho Chi Minh City over a decade ago, Thao wears many hats. Not only is she the Chairperson and Co-founder of AVYLD, she is also the Chair of an Australian education charity Loreto Vietnam, as well as an international education strategy and cultural intelligence consultant and a writer. 

Thao is determined to match rhetoric with actions. Leveraging the platform of AVYLD, she endeavours to build on people-to-people links to encourage and boost engagement between Australian and Vietnamese young leaders from across industries through a dialogue to be held once in every two years in Australia or Vietnam.

Following the success of the inaugural dialogue held in Sydney in 2017, Thao envisions the next event continuing to bring together pre-eminent leaders to build bridges and make a positive impact to the overall bilateral relationship, thereby accelerating the delegates’ contribution to prosperity. 

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance

Why did you decide to move to HCMC?

I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to Australia when I was a baby. I grew up in Australia, being a minority for most of my life. I always had a romanticized sense of my ancestral homeland. The first time I went to Vietnam was in 1991 with my mother and brothers. It was also the first time I realized I had grandparents. And I went to our family’s land where our ancestors are buried and saw the coconut trees that my grandfather planted, I realized that I actually had a tangible heritage that I didn't have in Australia. 

And so when I got the opportunity to work for an international law firm in Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to move there and to search for a sense of place and belonging. I think that was the main motivation for the move and to really discover a heritage that I didn't have in Australia.

After I moved to Vietnam, I wrote a feature news article for the Sydney Morning Herald called "Finding the way home", and from there, the publisher Allen and Unwin, through a commissioning editor Richard Walsh, contacted me to produce a book and seven years later, my memoir We Are Here was published. The book was shortlisted for the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. 

What were the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling in HCMC?

Even though I had grown up, in many ways being Vietnamese at home, similar to a lot of migrant and refugee children, there's a dichotomy in their lives. I’m Vietnamese at home and Australian outside. Despite being connected to my Vietnamese heritage growing up, when I moved to Vietnam, I still faced multiple challenging realities. 

I grew up in a western, liberal democracy. In Australia I was also an ethnic minority. So when I moved to Vietnam, overnight I became part of a visible majority and I dramatically shifted income classes. And the day to day reality of confronting poverty that I saw was also a challenge. We have poverty in Australia but in Vietnam it appeared to be more outwardly prevalent. I struggled with expectations around gender as well as culture. In many ways, I felt it could have been easier if I was a complete foreigner. But having a Vietnamese heritage while being Australian, meant I functioned in a grey space, often with shifting expectations from those around me. Those were a lot of the challenges I had to adjust to.

What prompted you to establish the Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue? What were some of the challenges you experienced?

There are a number of bilateral dialogues with Australia’s trading partners like China, Indonesia, India to name a few. But nothing with Vietnam. We realized that there was a missing platform where we could get young emerging leaders together, under 35, who can make a huge contribution to the prosperity of Vietnam and Australia and ultimately the world. We envisaged that they we could nurture powerful people to people links with change makers which would then propel the impact journey of each delegate. We also felt that there were groups around the bilateral relationship but some operated in isolation and were divided politically in many ways because of the past. 

There is now a population within Vietnam where 65 per cent of the population are under 35 so they don’t have any direct experience of the war.

We wanted to create a platform where people like the children of former enemies actually can come together in a common vision to contribute to a better world. Within the platform we've created, we have former refugees, international students, and a very diverse group of people who are interested in a common goal with a demonstrated interest in the counterpart nation. We hope that our platform can nurture significant people to people links to accelerate the effectiveness of the bilateral relationship and hence contributing to prosperity. That’s the reason AVYLD was born. 

As to some of the challenges, they were getting people to understand our vision and to buy into it. But through our networks we were able to get the right people to be on our advisory board and they were really crucial as well as initial founding sponsors who were supportive of dialogue including UTS Insearch and the Australia-ASEAN Council.

With the first dialogue, we didn’t have any history to go by and we were really encouraged to actually have 1,400 expressions of interest submitted. This affirmed to us that this dialogue was incredibly timely. The delegates have described AVYLD as ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘transformative’.

How do you want AVYLD to grow?

What we would like is to keep the dialogue growing and support a network of incredible young leaders to build a very powerful alumni base. We believe this will become a network that can really propel change to happen by collaborating with each other, with shared values and common purpose. 

We also want the dialogue to be self-sustaining. We are thinking about creating the Australia Vietnam leader's dialogue which can in turn support the young leader's dialogue. We also believe that with the platform created, we can influence policy and possibly produce research around issues affecting Australia and Vietnam. 

What’s next for AVYLD?

We are in full implementation mode for the next event, which will occur in May 2019 in Vietnam. The steering committee has been recruited. We have an amazing team based out of Australia and Vietnam which we are really proud of. We're in the process of calling for sponsors to be onboard and the applications will open in October with a launch in both countries. We'll confirm the delegates in March and then the dialogue will occur in May. 

We're really heartened by the conviction that others have shown in us and we've been able to meet with the prime ministers of both countries, the foreign ministers and other high level dignitaries. We also had a private session with the Governor General of Australia who came to Vietnam who not only praised our work but was deeply inspired by the stories he heard. We were incredibly grateful to have this feedback and to know that we are creating something really important.

Apart from AVYLD, what are you currently working on?

I have started my own consulting practice after leaving the corporate law and investment world. At the moment I'm consulting to the University of Technology, Sydney as well as UTS: Insearch. I create strategic partnerships for these clients in Vietnam. I am also involved in cultural intelligence training to help companies and individuals be as effective as they can be in a globalized world. This includes pre-departure training for expat secondees, international students, diplomats, etc. 

What do you enjoy most about HCMC?

The city is full of possibility and very dynamic. The optimism here is palpable as well as the sense of potential. It is a city that really tests your resilience but also your empathy and ability to adapt. There’s poetry and creativity everywhere you turn. The food is also pretty great. 

Is there anything else you'd like to share with Advance?

I came to Vietnam and initially thought I’d stay for a year or two but then I met my husband here and he's from Canada. So Vietnam has become a third and common home country for us. My husband’s parents were raised in Ho Chi Minh City and arrived in Canada as refugees. He’s an executive coach. Now, we’ve built a life here.