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A cup of java in the heart of Hanoi
‘I brought espresso to Hanoi in 1995,’ says Vietnamese-born, Seattle-bred David Thai
By Karen Mitchell
HANOI, Vietnam — If there exists a poster boy for young, enterprising Vietnamese who have returned from abroad, he would be Saigon-born, Seattle-bred David Thai. At 27, Thai is living an entrepreneurial dream: In 1998 he became only the third foreigner in Hanoi to be granted a license to own and operate a private company in Vietnam.


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       WITH HIS RESIDENCE in Ho Chi Minh City and offices in Hanoi (the Vietnamese equivalent of a bi-coastal lifestyle,) Thai operates the Tan Viet My coffee company, as well as an investment, consulting and trading operation under the holding company, VT International. He also runs the sleek Lac Viet café, near Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi, as a hobby, he says.
       Thai’s coffee plantation, located in Dak Lak, in the Central Highlands, encompasses about 2,200 acres and has over 100 employees. The roasting facility in Ho Chi Minh City produces a private label blend sold in overseas markets including Turkey, Singapore, Taiwan, Canada and the United States, where Thai was delighted to spot some of his coffee in a San Francisco coffeehouse last summer.
       “Currently, we’re looking for a $6 million investment, a joint venture with a foreign partner for the plantation,” Thai says. “The agriculture business here is quite competitive.”
       His business and personal success in Vietnam was fueled by the impact of coming back as a young adult, an experience that inspired him to “build a bridge” between the cultures. In many ways, Thai, whose family fled the country in 1974 — a year before the end of the war — embodies the bridge building concept in his persona as he links his Vietnamese heritage with his American education and a patient never-give-up determination.
'Vietnam had drip coffee but it was poorly roasted and poorly processed from A to Z, and I saw a chance to change that,' says David Thai.
       Thai graduated from the University of Washington where he switched from business studies to an interdisciplinary program in the comparative history of ideas. To help with expenses, he ran a construction/custom painting business on the side.
       “I had aspirations,” he says, “and the business gave me a sense of accomplishment. I was going to make it all happen. The history courses were an eye-opener and I knew immediately I wanted to come back to Vietnam.”
       In 1995, Thai was a scholarship exchange student at Hanoi’s University of Bach Khoa. “Almost immediately, I saw the opportunities here,” he says. “When you first come you see that, but you forget it’s still a communist government and that you’re foreign.”
‘Currently, we’re looking for a $6 million investment, a joint venture with a foreign partner for the plantation,’
       When a Time magazine tour of 70 CEO’s stopped in Hanoi, Thai worked on the advance team and served as an escort for the group. At dinner on the tour’s final night in Hanoi, Sprint Corporation chair and CEO William Esrey included a thank-you to Thai in his toast.
       “I was really surprised,” Thai says. “After that, an American investor contacted me and asked what I thought Vietnam needed. I really missed the good Seattle coffee. Vietnam had drip coffee but it was poorly roasted and poorly processed from A to Z, and I saw a chance to change that.”
 A spice merchant with a Hanoi twist
       Thai did the necessary research, subsequently taking classes in roasting and distributing in Seattle and purchasing an Italian espresso machine. “I brought espresso to Hanoi in 1995,” he says.

       Eager to introduce his state-of-the-art coffee expertise to Vietnam — which was first introduced to coffee by the French in the mid nineteenth century — Thai and two other Americans opened Cafe Au Lac, in a prime location adjacent to Ho Kiem Lake. After six months, the café was serving 2,000 cups a day of latte, mocha’s and cappuccino.
       “After a year, the other Americans left and I had to move the business. I didn’t understand the barriers to entry into this market — it happens to many foreigners. But it launched me in business here.”
       Thai’s trading firm, which is directed by his fiancée, French-Canadian Julie Larochelle, maintains a databank of Vietnamese raw materials and handicrafts.
       Eventually, Thai predicts, Vietnam will flood the export market with its lacquers and textiles, high quality merchandise with the right manufacturers.
       “But doing business here requires a deep commitment,” he cautions. “Before you get off that plane, take that American ego and give it to the stewards. Have a lot of patience and absorb as much as possible.”

       Investors who complain about the lack of speed in the Vietnamese business sector should remember that the country has only had a market economy for some 13 years, says Thai, who plans to “take a break” and return to the United States to pursue an MBA before he is 30.
       “It takes time. The economy is still very young but there’s huge opportunity. Hanoi is power-driven, Ho Chi Minh City is profit-driven. Vietnam needs foreign investors who aren’t out for the short-term profit, but for personal growth and the memory of friendships and special moments. Then the profits will come.”
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