David Do: From Down Under, to Saigon Far East

David Do.JPG

David Do, Founder and Managing Director of Vietnam Investments Group (VI Group), is one of the inspiring global citizens who has lived and worked across cultures and countries before moving back to his ancestral homeland, Vietnam, where he was born. 

Calling Australia home after arriving by boat with his family at the age of four, David returned to Vietnam 11 years ago in bid to explore the feasibility of a business venture in Vietnam and set up a private equity firm, VI Group. 

Besides operating VI Group, David is also a board member of companies in education, tourism, hospitality, media and entertainment. Advance recently has the opportunity to speak to David who has shared his experience of living and working in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance

How long have you been in Ho Chi Minh City now? What made you decide to move?

I've been back here since the end of 2007. I actually moved to Ho Chi Minh City from Seattle as I lived in the United States for 10 years and my (American-Vietnamese) wife is from there. I grew up in Sydney and I'm an Australian citizen. I moved back because I was born in Ho Chi Minh City and I wanted to see if I could start a business in Vietnam. 

Before I came to Vietnam, I spoke little Vietnamese. My family arrived in Australia by boat – a usual refugee story - when I was four years old. I grew up in Sydney. My level of Vietnamese was probably of maybe a six or seven year-old. So when I came back, I didn't hold any of that. But if you're forced to use it, you will pick it up. So now I can read and write. I would say verbally I'm pretty fluent.

In terms of challenges, one of them was the difference in lifestyle. There are a lot of people here and lots of hardship. You have to constantly look both ways when you walk around as there is so much traffic. It's not like in Australia where you're used to walking in a city. You're just unfamiliar. I had lived in Asia and spent time in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai, but it was a very big shock, as in the whole lifestyle. People work a lot. The city has much longer business hours than in Australia. 

Could you give me an overview of your current role at VI Group?

I'm the founder and CEO. We're a private equity firm. We manage 500 million US dollars. Consisting a team of 50, the firm provides expansion capital to industry-leading companies and works with management to grow and improve them, thus creating shareholder value. We add value to companies through assisting with strategy, recruiting, operations, implementing technology, bringing international partners and industry consolidation.

What major challenges and problems did you face when establishing VI Group in Vietnam?

I think some of the challenges are around timing. Back in 2007, the market was really hot and then the world went through the financial crisis in the third quarter of 2008. When you're in the finance business and there's a financial crisis, people always pull money out of emerging markets. So I think the overall global environment was very difficult in the first year. You need to also deal with foreigners because all of our investors are foreign. So it's really difficult finding local people who can work across cultures. 

You are one of the board members of the Australia - Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue. What does your role involve?

We're a sounding board for the organizers. Assisting with raising money, advising on how to deal with any political or cultural sensitivity. Some of the companies we've invested in have donated money or services for the dialogue. We own a big travel and hotel operator so they donated hotel rooms and flights. I've also been involved in a couple of the sessions that they have for the attendees. So my role is fairly broad. The dialogue is a bilateral forum between Australia and a number of countries. And I think given the desire from both governments to have better relations, that's a very meaningful thing for people like us to support. 

My broader desire is for Australia to be better integrated into Asia. Australia is remote geographically but it's part of Asia. Asia is one of Australia’s largest inbound market for leisure travel. Australian companies have an unsuccessful history of expanding into the UK and the US and just focus on English speaking countries because they think it’s easier. And a lot of them just don't make the effort to expand into their backyard, which is Asia. 

What's life like in Ho Chi Minh City? How is it different from Australia?

So life I would say is convenient if you want to balance work and non-work because you work longer hours in Asia, but you have a lot of help. So you have cleaners, nannies, drivers, which means you don't have to do the housework that you would have to do in Australia. So you definitely work longer hours for sure. I think because everyone else works a lot, you can never be more efficient about how you organize your time because you just have a lot more meetings in given days than you would in Australia. I think that the quality of life is nowhere as near as good as Australia. Australia is a walking city. The air quality is pretty good in Ho Chi Minh City compared to most Asian cities, but obviously it's not as good as Australia. For food safety, Australia is probably top in the world. There's just not a lot of cultural things to do here, but it's a very convenient place for work because you can get a lot more done here. The economy is a lot more vibrant than Australia because you can start up a business very easily.

I went to public school in Australia from kindergarten through 12thgrade. After completing my undergraduate program in Australia, I did my post-graduate study in the US. I think the Australian education system is one of the best in the world because you are taught to think. I really value the sports, the outdoors part of education in Australia because for my own kids, growing up in Asia, we always spend holidays outside of Vietnam so that they can play outdoors. It's less rote learning. All of those things force you to become a more flexible manager and that's a very useful skill that we get in Australia. And all the technical things you learn are world class. 

Australia is a multicultural society. It would be a lot more useful if the education system pushed learning another language because Australia, only has 24 million people and unless we trade with other countries, which means you need to know the language and the culture, then Australia's growth is not sustainable.

What are the three must-do things in HCMC?

I think you need to go eat at a local restaurant recommended by a local. And you should only pick a restaurant which specializes in one or two types of food, not a tourist trap. 

Try to find a local family and stay with them to see how their life actually is, just to see how different it is. The war museums are pretty grim, so I would go to the Fine Arts Museum to get a sense for Vietnam’s strong artistic traditions.