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 Amazon.com. 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.
Be ready in 30 minutes, Robert McCandliss, then an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Bang Nguyen. The two men had worked together on a USAID project to rebuild war-ravaged cities. Half an hour later, a U.S. Embassy station wagon with tinted windows pulled up at the Nguyens' two-story home in Saigon.
Before he left, Bang Nguyen asked his mother and several of his eight siblings to come, too. His mother refused. "We belong to this land, and we stay," Bang recalls her telling him. "If you feel that you cannot, and you have a chance to try to build a new life, go." Two of Bang's sisters, who were pregnant and could not travel, urged him to flee. He was the only family member who had worked for the government -- as an official in the ministry of the economy. They knew that if he stayed, he risked persecution.
Night had fallen when McCandliss took the Nguyen family to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where at least 4,000 other Vietnamese officials and their families were waiting for planes. As dawn began to break, McCandliss ushered the Nguyens into a gymnasium. On a tarmac, the military plane waited. Then Bang, his wife, Kim Vu, their older son, Huy, daughters Thy and Linh and baby Henry boarded the C-31, with its long droopy wings, and left Vietnam -- never, they thought, to return.
The Nguyens wound up at an Army-base-turned-refugee-camp in rural Pennsylvania. The family had not been there long when another friend from USAID, Willard Sharpe, pulled up in his Volkswagen Beetle. He somehow packed all six Nguyens into his Bug and drove them to Arlington, where the family slept in his living room for six months.
Those first years in Northern Virginia were difficult for Bang Nguyen. Despite a civil engineering degree, the only job he could find when he arrived was as a janitor at Pizza Hut. The day his boss asked him to clean the bathroom, he says, he cried for the first time in his adult life.
In 1976 he bought half a share in a service station on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. He worked long hours, seven days a week. He would often arrive home from the gas station late, fatigue blurring his eyes. There were evenings when he would pour himself a glass of whiskey or beer, and sink into an easy chair in front of the fireplace and stare at the framed black-and-white portraits of his parents above the hearth, his mother in a traditional ao dai dress, his father wearing a Western suit.
"He would just sit and look at them," Henry recalls softly. "And you just knew not to bug him."
Once, when he was a teenager, Henry overheard his parents arguing. Henry's mother had family in the United States. But Bang had no one outside his wife and children. He had been a government official, supervising the reconstruction of dams and roads. Now, in the prime of his life, he was a glorified mechanic.
"I got nothing!" Henry heard his dad blurt out.
Henry realized that his father was wrestling with feelings of loss and humiliation, but he learned not to probe too deeply. Part of him wanted to know. Part of him said, let his parents be.
Throughout his childhood, Henry resisted the stereotype of the book-smart Asian kid, though there was no question, he was bright. He aced calculus in seventh grade. He won admission to Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite New England prep school. But, like his brother and sisters, he chose W.T. Woodson High in Fairfax. The lure was lacrosse and a gifted Latin teacher named Maureen O'Donnell. She had lost four of her own six children to cystic fibrosis but somehow inspired hundreds of students to take up the study of a dead language. She had a saying that many of her former students, including Henry, still remember: "Latin may be the course, but the subject is life."
While Henry embraced Latin, he was less enthusiastic about the language his parents spoke. One summer, Henry reluctantly attended Vietnamese language classes three times a week. His mother was his teacher.
A dainty Vietnamese woman barely 5 feet tall, Kim Vu was the Iron Lady of the classroom, Henry recalls with amused admiration. She liked to call on him, especially when she knew he didn't know the answer, which was often, because he had been outside playing instead of studying. But as soon as class was over, she would extend the olive branch. Did he want french fries and a Coke? "It's going to take more than fries," a petulant Henry would say. "What about a cheeseburger?" she'd try.
Vietnam meant little to Henry then. It was a dragon shape on a map, Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now," napalm and bomb craters. "It was like Vietnam means nothing to me except it made my parents' lives miserable," he says. "I just knew they thought about it, and it hurt."
He was almost consciously dismissive of things Vietnamese. On Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, his mother would adorn a little wooden altar with incense, fruit, rice and photos of ancestors, and place cherry blossoms on a table nearby. But these rituals embarrassed Henry. Friends would ask: "What's this? What's that?" He'd say: "I don't know. Let's go!"
He felt uncomfortable if he made a friend whose father was a Vietnam veteran. "It's that sort of shame that Vietnam wasn't good for America, was it? A feeling kind of like, 'my bad,' you know?"
This unease with his heritage made him embrace his American identity all the more. He describes himself then as a "banana," an Asian who's yellow on the outside, white on the inside. "I was," he says, "as banana as they come." He had only one close Vietnamese American friend, Henry says, and "he was probably more banana than me."
The Nguyens are among more than 1 million Vietnamese who streamed out of the country after 1975 and settled in the United States, creating a diaspora that stretches from Northern Virginia to Northern California. Many harbored a deep bitterness and anger toward the Communist government. At the Eden Center shopping center in Fairfax County, the yellow-and-three-red-striped South Vietnamese flag still flutters in the wind. But Bang focused on business and moving the family ahead. Everyone in the family became a citizen. The children excelled at school.
The decade following the Nguyens' arrival corresponded to "the dark years" in Vietnam. No letters or phone calls passed between Bang and the family he left behind in Vietnam. It was too risky to communicate with American relatives.
The Communist regime eventually realized that the Soviet-style centrally planned economy was not working. In 1986, the government embarked on an economic reform program called doi moi, or renovation. Gradually Vietnam began to open up. Families began to exchange letters. The Nguyens sent Levis, Tylenol and Doublemint, even videotapes.
In May 1992, Bang Nguyen nearly died when the inner wall of his aorta, the major artery that carries blood from the heart, tore. A 10-hour surgery saved his life. He spent five months recovering, much of that time virtually immobilized.
"In that situation, I thought my life was over," Bang recalls. If he was going to die, he thought, he wanted to do one last thing: return to Vietnam to see his mother.
That fall, Bang flew to Saigon, where his mother and sisters met him at the airport. When Bang saw his mother for the first time in 20 years, he held her and cried.
In 1993, he visited again. On that trip, he met a cousin he had not seen in 40 years, who had commanded troops fighting for the Communist North during the war. Now the cousin ran a seafood export company. He introduced Bang to Vietnamese officials. These men, Bang recalls, were eager to see Vietnam develop.
By now, Bang had sold the gas station. Henry was at Harvard. Bang's old ambition began to flicker. As a civil engineer who knew Vietnam, Bang says he thought he could help his country. So he began to root around for business opportunities. Over the years, he tried seafood export, a pharmaceutical business, a satellite company to help improve communications.
But it wasn't easy to do business in Vietnam, especially for someone who had fled after the war. Early on, Henry recalls, his father almost had to beg to help launch beneficial projects, find willing partners and get necessary approvals. He found his overtures were sometimes ignored. Once, he heard about a plan to develop beautiful Cam Ranh Bay, which had been a major U.S. military installation on the southeastern coast. Bang knew the area well. He spent weeks coming up with a proposal. Nothing came of it.
Another time, Willard Sharpe went back with Bang. The idea was to buy and renovate a French colonial hotel in Nha Trang, a coastal city. "We poked around and poked around," Sharpe recalls. "But we never got one off the ground."
Henry's return to Vietnam happened almost by accident.
In 1995, after graduating from Harvard, he landed a plum of a summer job. He was going to write the Rome section for "Let's Go," that venerable college student and backpacker travel guide. He had visions of living in a rented apartment near the Piazza di Spagna for eight weeks, eating out six days a week.
Then the publisher decided to do a Southeast Asia book, and one of the countries was Vietnam. Knowing Henry spoke Vietnamese, the editor asked him if he would go. He was reluctant but agreed.
For Henry, as is evident in passages in the tour book, Vietnam was a revelation. He was taken by the drama of the mountains in the northwest near China, the snail-like climbs up steep, narrow roads that "scare the wits out of you" as they "skirt the Grand Canyonesque abyss." He found the people of the one-time imperial capital Hue, where his father was born, "gracious and accommodating" and speaking "with a drawn-out mellow tone somewhat analogous to the American Southern drawl." (He went so native, he even wrote a witty sidebar about the peripatetic Ho Chi Minh's search for a way to deliver Vietnam from French colonialism titled "On the Trail With Ho Chi Minh: 30 Years of Budget Travel.") Most of all, he says, he was struck by walking the streets and hearing people speak Vietnamese and realizing: "That's what my parents spoke at home. The things that were being served, you ate at home. This is home."
He had shaved his head before leaving. Now, 10 weeks later, he looked like a shaggy tennis ball. The nicest clothing he had in his backpack were khaki shorts and a white button-down shirt. They would have to do. He was going to see Grandma Nguyen for the first time in 20 years.
On his way over, he took a spill from his motorbike on a busy boulevard, injuring himself. He climbed back on, and "dripping and driving," he reached the house where his aunt lived with his grandmother.
His aunt, Nguyen Thi Nhu Nguyen, opened the gate. "Oh my God," Henry remembers her saying, and exhaling, stunned at the sight of a young man with unruly hair and crushed flowers, bleeding profusely from his arm and leg.
"Hi, Aunty!" Henry said, brightly. "So nice to meet you!"
Henry quickly became buddies with Grandma Nguyen. She was tiny, but she had presence. She would sit in the living room, directing the domestic help, "not a dictator, but in control," he says. They would go for strolls, and she would don a pretty wide-brimmed straw hat. She could not walk very fast, but she got around. She would chew betel nuts, her teeth stained red, juice running down her lips.
Henry had just graduated magna cum laude. But Grandma kept Hoang, as she called him, in his place. "So what does a Harvard hotshot do in the United States?" she'd tease him.
Henry enjoyed the harassment. "It was just me and my grandma," he recounts. "It's half crotchety old person, half jokester, always picking on me, making a crack. It was awesome."
When Henry returned from Vietnam that year, he entered Northwestern University's medical school. His father wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and sisters, who had all become doctors.
Henry excelled at his studies -- after all, his older sisters had taught him one-handed surgical knots when he was 16. But Henry always found business more stimulating than medicine. He and a classmate, Butch Reddy, would sit in the back of their lectures, plotting to start a sushi/noodle truck to compete with pizza and sandwich trucks. Or they would pore over a map of Chicago, and Butch would say: "Henry, this is the next big neighborhood. We oughta drive up there and buy some real estate."
"It wasn't a drive about money," Henry says. "It was a drive about winning -- predicting the future and being right."
In his third year, he enrolled in Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. His parents were not thrilled. But what could they say? He was going to med school at the same time.
By the time Henry graduated in 2001 with a medical degree and an MBA, his father had moved on to a new project. With Henry's brother-in-law, Bang was launching a telecommunications company, Viaworld Internet Telecommunications Corp., or VITC, with Vietnam's state-owned telephone company. The company needed someone to set up its Hanoi office. Henry agreed to help his father out.
Working in Vietnam was nothing like Henry's MBA classes. The country was moving cautiously toward a free market, what the government calls a "socialist-oriented market economy," yet the government still owned thousands of firms and factories. Trade laws were ambiguous, corruption rife. Decisions took forever.
Still, Henry was captivated by the beauty of old Hanoi, where the tree-lined streets are flanked by gracious French colonial villas, where pagodas dot Hoan Kiem Lake, where slight women balance heavy baskets of fruit or fish on long poles, and where men pedal bicycle cabs (called cyclos) past narrow shops teeming with lacquer bowls and bolts of silk.
Like the people around him, Henry looked Vietnamese. He spoke some Vietnamese. But no one mistook him for a Vietnamese.
Local people he met would ask, "Where are you from?"
"I was born in Vietnam," he'd say.
"No, where are you from?" they'd insist.
"Well, I grew up in the States."
"Okay, you're American, you're not Vietnamese," they'd pronounce.
He began to realize that people were never going to accept him as a native Vietnamese. "It's like you didn't go through that full experience," he says. "To use a sports analogy, you got traded to a team late in the season, and they end up winning the Super Bowl. You don't feel like you won the Super Bowl. You showed up late. You show up here as the carpetbagger. You're not Vietnamese."
Yet each time he was scheduled to return to the United States, Henry extended his stay. Sometime in 2003, a subtle shift occurred. Up to then, when people asked where he was from, he said Chicago. Now he answered Hanoi.
One spring morning last year, Henry found himself seated next to the founder of a large venture capital fund at a breakfast meeting of American entrepreneurs in Hanoi. He was rubbing shoulders with Patrick McGovern, the chairman of IDG Ventures, a fund group that has invested more than $1 billion in North America, Europe and Asia.
A big Irish American gent in a double-breasted suit, McGovern was struck by the way Henry presented himself and his ideas. After the meeting, he turned to Henry: Would you ever consider being on the investment side?
Last August, IDG flew Henry to company headquarters in Boston and made him an offer. At 31, he would run a $100 million venture capital fund. His picture appeared in the Vietnamese press. People began approaching him at parties and cold-calling him. Bang fielded congratulatory calls from Vietnamese officials. Some wanted to fix Henry up with their daughters. Finally, Bang was getting a measure of real respect, through his son's success.
Now, Henry is scrambling to launch the fund. On a brisk February afternoon, he is sitting at an oval conference table in his Hanoi office with two associates and three entrepreneurs. A voice speaking Vietnamese wafts from a speaker hooked to a laptop. That's Nguyen Hoa Binh, the founder of PeaceSoft Solutions Corp. He is, Henry says, "the young IT superstar" of Vietnam.
Henry is helping Binh and his three partners, none older than 23, map out a business strategy centered on electronic classified listings. The entrepreneurs are smart but green. When Henry asked them recently to draw up a business plan, they included a marketing budget of $10,000. When he suggested they might notch that up slightly, they handed him an over-the-top plan to spend $65,000 for the grand opening party.
"What are they going to have? Vegas Night and strippers?" he says, chuckling at the recollection. "I don't think it's humanly possible to spend $65,000 on a party here."
Henry has spacious apartments in Hanoi and Saigon. He watches ESPN on satellite TV, drives a black Ford Escape SUV, and flies to the States every few months on business and to see family. He has recruited Butch Reddy, his med school pal, and Jin Lim, a buddy from Woodson High days, to work with him. They hang out together, playing video games at Lim's apartment, or wolfing down a steak at a local greasy spoon, or sipping the latest fine wine at Vine, a Hanoi restaurant Henry has invested in.
His girlfriend, he says, is his laptop. His mother, who used to give ex-girlfriends exit interviews to find out what went wrong, is hoping he'll marry a nice Vietnamese girl. Henry has dated a few, but he can't seem to find someone who understands his ambition and has a career of her own.
He realizes now that his early expectations about fitting in were naive. Though "something deep rooted in my heart and soul is Vietnamese," he says, "really, what is my spirit and mind is so American."
At first, Henry cannot find the house. He has seen his childhood home only once before, fleetingly from a taxi with his father.
Now, on a Wednesday this past February, he fishes his cell phone out of his pocket and dials his dad. As Bang gives directions, Henry walks up one street, down another, gesturing as he describes in Vietnamese what he is seeing. Children run by. He passes beneath a blue banner strung up across a road that shouts: Building for the Future and a Better Life and Culture.
Finally, he finds the street. Pham Viet Chanh. And there's the house, the one his dad designed, with his mom directing the contractors. It is pale golden yellow. Henry places it from pictures, not from memory. He walks around a bend in the road to get to the back of the house. He calls his father again. What used to be his back yard is now built up with smaller houses.
"Okay, I see it. I see it," he says to his dad. "So that means our yard used to go all the way back to the water, right?"
He points at a barely visible channel of water, a tributary of the Saigon River. "I'm probably standing in what used to be our back yard. My dad said we used to have a little boat. We'd just put a boat right back here."
He's wearing tan slacks and a blue button-down shirt, black wire-rimmed glasses. The Vietnamese locals are sitting in the shade of a shop awning in simple work shirts and dresses. "I could just stop and talk to them . . . But I feel uncomfortable. I don't know how they feel. And on top of that, maybe I don't even want the questions, you know?"
As he leaves, he speculates about finding a way to buy back the house. "Maybe no matter what it costs, it would be worth it just to get it back."
On a sunny Saturday, Henry walks through the blue-green gate of Aunt Nguyen's house.
He has barely sat down at a table laden with Hue-style noodle soup and sweet sticky rice when Aunt Nguyen begins teasing him about his recent appearance on a nationally televised holiday special. He was featured as an overseas Vietnamese businessman working to develop technology here.
"All the girls wanted to know who the handsome guy was," she jokes.
Between plates of fruit and meat, Aunt Nguyen reminisces about Henry as a toddler and recalls the dark years. She worked for a state-run seafood factory then. "If I had had any contact, that would have drawn attention to me," she says.
After the war, the victorious Communist government sent her husband, Le Luy, who had been a teacher, to a reeducation camp for eight months. Luy, now 72, tried to escape. He found someone willing to sell him doctored Chinese passports so he and his family could board a boat to somehow reach the United States. "But in the end, they swindled him and took all his money," Aunt Nguyen says.
Henry is silent. What can he say to make up for what they've been through? "I know when Dad came to America, he was very sad," he finally tells his aunt. "America gave us a lot of opportunities. But for the first six or seven years, life was really bad. My parents struggled, but they always hoped. Whereas here . . ."
"You didn't even bother to hope," his aunt says, finishing Henry's sentence.
Aunt Nguyen wants Henry to stay, to see an old family house in Nha Trang on the river, where she has a large tree dripping with jackfruit. But he has to leave. He has to catch a flight back to Hanoi. He has job candidates to interview. He has prospective clients to meet. There is so much to do.
Ellen Nakashima is a Washington Post Southeast Asia correspondent based in Jakarta.