Coming Home

By Ellen Nakashima
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Henry Nguyen peers out the business-class window of the Vietnam Airlines jet as Saigon begins to take shape below. He marvels at the undulating curves of the Saigon River and surveys the thicket of tall buildings that makes up the city's center. As the jet purrs closer, a crazy quilt of blue, yellow and red cinder-block homes emerges from the haze.

"It just looks like chaos," he murmurs.

Thirty years ago, Henry was on a different kind of flight, a U.S. military C-31 transport plane leaving Saigon. He was 22 months old. His father, Bang Nguyen, had been an official in the South Vietnamese government. When Saigon fell to the Communists in April 1975, Bang was forced to start over in the United States.

Until just a few years ago, Henry, an iPod-toting, Redskins-rooting Vietnamese American who grew up in Fairfax County, never imagined he would be living in Vietnam. That, at 31, he would be running the country's largest venture capital fund. All his grad school training pointed in a different direction -- to Wall Street or a lucrative practice as a heart surgeon.

But here he is, hopping into a cab and into the steamy, swarming motorbike traffic of Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City. Henry has an office and an apartment in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, though these days he is spending more time in Saigon. It's Vietnam's pocketbook, where commerce happens. "I'd like to see how aggressive, how hungry people are," he says, though it's hard to imagine they are as aggressive and hungry as he is.

His office is on the 15th floor of a glass-and-steel downtown building on a busy street that leads to the Saigon River. The high-energy atmosphere suits Henry, a Harvard graduate who went to business and medical school at Northwestern University. Trim and clean-shaven, he buzzes with ideas, a Nokia cell phone never far from his ear.

As lead general partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam, Henry must figure out how to invest $100 million of the Boston-based firm's money in technology start-ups. He knows that some people think he's nuts, that there's no way he can find that much to invest in in Vietnam, a communist country wary of losing control of its economy. But Henry's betting that Vietnam will be the "next China" in the technology market.

"We're looking for that next, next thing," he says. "Every country's got to have an Who's going to be the next guy to start Amazon in Vietnam? We want to find him first."

Henry belongs to a growing class of people born in Vietnam who left and have chosen to return. Gradually, the government's attitude toward them has shifted from suspicion and derision to grudging respect. After all, Vietnam needs their expertise and dollars.

For Henry, there's a lot riding on his ability to make smart investment choices for IDG: Some of his own money is in the fund, a standard practice in venture capital. He'd love nothing more than to be known as the venture capitalist who helped launch Vietnam's technology boom.

But fortune and reputation are not all that are at stake. In a deeper sense, he is here to come to terms with the past. To try to resolve what he calls "the duality of being American and Vietnamese."

The call came at 5:30 p.m. on April 25, 1975, five days before Viet Cong tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon.

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