In conversation with a modern-day hero of Vietnam
Johnathan Hanh Nguyen is a man who has not only shaped the history of Vietnam’s aviation, tourism, travel retail and luxury sectors but that of the nation itself. Getting an audience with the Founder & Chairman of Imex Pan Pacific Group (IPPG) – the first by a foreign journalist – is to embark on a voyage of discovery into the country’s remarkable emergence from a poor, economically restricted nation in the mid-1980s to an emerging economic powerhouse of Asia nearly four decades on. Martin Moodie reports from Ho Chi Minh City.
Imex Pan Pacific Group (IPPG) Chairman Johnathan Hanh Nguyen’s life tale is inspiring, poignant and powerful in equal measure. It is the narrative of a man dedicated to his country while simultaneously building a business empire that has transformed the nation’s fortunes across multiple business sectors. And in recent years, it is a story of leadership in helping to guide Vietnam out of the darkness that the COVID-19 pandemic cast over it.
After I arrive at IPP Group (IPPG) headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City, I am ushered into a long board room by IPP Travel Retail Chief Executive Phillip Nguyen, one of Johnathan’s sons, a man who shares his father’s passion and boundless energy for country and commerce.
Johnathan Nguyen enters the room and with a broad smile and warm handshake thanks me for coming to Vietnam, asks how my stay has been and then starts to quietly but with rising enthusiasm open up about his extraordinary 37-year journey. I say journey rather than career for that is indeed what those years have entailed, a journey surely like no other.
Today, IPP Group (IPPG) is one of Vietnam’s leading multi-industry corporations, with interests straddling fashion, food & beverage, airport management, travel retail, distribution across multiple product sectors, investment, technology, out-of-home advertising, and much more.
Importantly to him and his group, Nguyen is equally renowned for his philanthropy and wider Corporate Social Responsibility contributions to Vietnamese society. Besides his leadership of one of Vietnam’s most powerful companies, he is also Chairman of Southern Airports Services Joint Stock Company (SASCO) and of Cam Ranh International Airport Company.
Nguyen launches into the conversation by taking me back 37 years to 9 September 1985. It is a date that will forever remain etched in his memory, the day a Vietnam Airlines Boeing 707 aircraft flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Manila. It was a momentous occasion in Vietnamese history, one that marked the inaugural flight between the two countries and the carrier's first post-Vietnam war air connection to a non-socialist nation.
Vietnam had suffered under the debilitating constraints of an American embargo for a decade (it would not be lifted until February 1994) following what was then North Vietnam's liberation of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.
Revered figure: Johnathan Nguyễn has been honoured with multiple awards for service to his country
Johnathan Nguyen (second right) pays a visit to Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng after the landmark first Vietnam Airlines flight from Ho Chi Minh City in 1985
About IPP Group
IPPG is one of Vietnam’s leading multi-sector corporations. It has extensive interests in fashion and luxury; liquor & tobacco; food & beverage; inflight and airport duty free; out of home advertising (including airports); airport investment, cargo airline; construction and management of luxury shopping centres; real estate; and wider business investment.
- DAFC&ACFC (fashion)
- IPP F&B
- IPP Travel Retail
- IPP Media
- IPP Supply Chain
- IPP Leaf
- IPP Technology
- IPP Air Cargo
- IPP Property
- Bellazio Logistics
See www.ippgroup.vn for more details.
Johnathan Nguyen (right) with Vietnam Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyễn Cơ Thạch following the historic breakthrough
It was a flight of paramount importance to Vietnam, both symbolically and economically. It is no overstatement to describe it as the moment Vietnam, war-torn for two decades and then closed off from the rest of the world by the US embargo, began to open. The following year, in 1986, the government would introduce the “Đổi Mới” programme of economic and political reforms which aimed to steer the country toward a ‘socialist-oriented market economy’.
But the most compelling aspect of that flight is its back story. For it never would have happened without Johnathan Hanh Nguyen. In 1984, based in the US where he had been working as a Boeing sub-contractor Comptroller for over ten years since he had left his native Vietnam, he took his wife and two children to his birthplace of Nha Trang in the south. The trip followed an invitation to visit the country from the United Nations Vietnam representative office in the US. Later Nguyen visited Hanoi at the invitation of the Council of Ministers where he was asked to meet Vietnam’s then-Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng.
It was no random meeting. During that landmark discussion, Vietnam’s leader asked Nguyen for his assistance to open a flight route to the Philippines, seen as a vital economic lifeline for bringing in desperately needed supplies to the poverty-stricken nation. The only other flights at the time were to Moscow and (with authorisation needed on each occasion) Bangkok. Nguyen’s task wasn’t made easier – some might have said it was impossible – by the fact that the Philippines was a close ally of the US at the time.
An emotional moment after the Vietnam Airlines flight (below) landed at Manila International Airport on 9 September 1985
At first, Nguyen, despite his painstaking efforts, was no more successful in finding the opportunity to open the flight route. Having established his first business in the Philippines, PHL Impex International, (the forerunner of IPPG) he had partnered with Vietnam Airlines and simultaneously contacted the President of Philippine Airlines and offered to open a route to Manila. However, the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos wanted to avoid any conflict with the embargo of their ally, the United States. Marcos even went as far as to order no further such requests to open the flight route.
Showing a persistence that would mark his whole career, Nguyen kept trying. And then on that fateful September day, things suddenly and dramatically changed. He recalls receiving a call from President Marcos’ assistant, whom he had asked for help with his mission. On the evening of 4 September 1985, she called and advised that the President was in a very happy mood – now was the moment, perhaps the only one. President Marcos would see him briefly.
Johnathan Nguyen revisits the momentous day with Martin Moodie
Desperate in his desire to succeed and to open his country to the rest of the world but knowing his persistence could land him in deep trouble, Nguyen arrived at the Presidential Palace, his heart thumping. Armed with the relevant documentation from the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department, he could only hope the President would sign.
Marcos gave it a cursory read. And then signed. When Nguyen went outside the Presidential office, he saw Mr Trần Tiến Vinh, the then first secretary of the Vietnam Embassy. After hearing the good news, the official hugged him, shed tears and said, “Hanh, you are a hero of our country.” Both men wept with the emotion and sheer significance of the moment. In Hanoi, there was euphoria and relief among the waiting members of the Politburo. “It was mission completed,” Nguyen recalls.
Five days later the inaugural return flight from Ho Chi Minh City landed in Manila. Onboard were 31 Vietnamese aviation officials and media representatives. When Nguyen saw the red Vietnamese flag with its yellow star fluttering briskly in the wind as part of the official greeting, he was overcome with emotion.
“Oh my god, this is my country – this is Vietnam. I was shaking in my heart,” he remembers. “I will never forget that flight. Everyone was aware that this was an historic moment for Vietnam. I did it for the country and the people of Vietnam.”
General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng (left) congratulating Johnathan Nguyen on receiving The First Class Labor Medal, a symbol of his contribution to his native country
The return flight carried some 30 tonnes of goods from American expatriates intended for their relatives in Vietnam. The long-shut door had cracked ajar. But Nguyen was not finished there. “My job was done – but then again it was not,” he remembers.
Deeply moved by the fate of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were trying to escape hardship as boat people (between 1975 and 1992, millions of Vietnamese fled the country in one of the largest mass exoduses in modern history), he decided he should stay and help the government stabilise and further connect Vietnam with the world.
That decision was not easy, especially as the Nguyens’ two young children had contracted dengue fever during the 1984 visit. The family could afford medicine but there was none to be found due to the sanctions. Tendered lovingly day and night, the kids made it through but Nguyen was acutely conscious that many others would be less fortunate due to a chronic countrywide lack of medical care and treatments.
“Here was I trying to help my country and yet the mosquito from my country had bitten my children,” he remembers of the poignantly symbolic events. “So, I felt hesitant about staying because my children were not safe. But how about the millions of children who got sick and the many that passed away? How about the millions of people who were escaping by boats under extremely dangerous circumstances? My heart was bumping. I said that I had to do something.”
And so he did. Soon after the new air route was opened, Nguyen visited a Vietnamese refugee camp in the archipelagic province of Palawan in the Philippines. It was a seminal experience. He urged those he met to advise their relatives in Vietnam to stop trying to escape illegally, vowing to them that conditions at home would improve.
Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan, Chairwoman of the Vietnam Children’s Fund, presents a special award honouring Johnathan Nguyen's contributions to charity
In a December 2021 interview with a local reporter, Nguyen related how he promised the refugees he met that he would work with the US, Vietnamese and Philippines governments to reconnect families through a scheme known as the Orderly Departure Program. Once again, he delivered on his pledge and flights from Vietnam subsequently carried individuals to the Philippines before being reunited with their families in the US and other countries around the world.
Nguyen also successfully sought assistance from American lawyers to find a legal way to bring urgently needed medication from the US into Vietnam. The eventual solution was for the items to be sent by overseas Vietnamese to their relatives through flights from the Philippines by a humanitarian gift programme – the lifeline that Nguyen had opened up.
He also found a way for foreign remittances to be sent to Vietnam, helping build the nation’s foreign currency reserves and thus allowing those citizens with relatives overseas to have money to spend on household items and other necessities. In the process, he was creating wealth and jobs in Vietnam.
(Continued on next page)
The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 14 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit www.moodiedavittreport.com and to subscribe, please e-mail email@example.com