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To talk with Johnathan Hanh Nguyen in his office and its adjacent project and display room is to have an encounter with Vietnam’s modern history.
Yesterday at company headquarters in central Ho Chi Minh City the Founder & Chairman of IPP Group granted me the first interview he has ever conducted with a foreign journalist during an extraordinary 37-year journey. I say journey rather than career for that is indeed what those years have embraced.
Besides his leadership of one of Vietnam’s most powerful companies, Nguyen is also Chairman of Southern Airports Services Joint Stock Company (SASCO) and Chairman of Cam Ranh International Airport Company (CRTC). He is equally renowned for his philanthropy and wider CSR contributions to Vietnamese society.
As he showed me around the scores of photos that adorn the walls of the room where we had chatted for the previous 75 minutes, Nguyen’s eyes lit up as he singled out one in particular. Dated 9 September 1985, it shows a Vietnam Airlines Boeing 707 aircraft that flew that day from Ho Chi Minh City to Manila, marking the inaugural flight between the two countries and the carrier’s first-ever flight to a non-socialist country.
It was a flight of critical importance. It is no overstatement to describe it as the moment Vietnam, war-torn for two decades until the mid-1970s and then shackled by the US embargo from 1975 (which would not be lifted until February 1994), began to open to the world. The following year, 1986, the government would introduce the ‘Đổi Mới’ programme of economic and political reforms which would steer the country towards a ‘socialist-oriented market economy’.
That flight would never have happened without Johnathan Nguyen. In 1984, based in the US where he was working for Boeing, he took his wife and two children to his birthplace of Nha Trang. Later he visited Hanoi at the invitation of the Government Office where he was met by Vietnam’s Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng.
During that landmark meeting, the PM asked Nguyen to help open a flight route to the Philippines, seen as a crucial economic lifeline in terms of bringing in much-needed supplies to the poverty-stricken country. The only other flights at the term were to Moscow and Bangkok.
On the evening of 4 September 1985, Nguyen secured a meeting with Ferdinand Marcos at the Presidential Palace, hoping to get the President’s signature. His heart was thumping as the country’s leader looked over the relevant document from the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department. And then he signed it. When Nguyen returned to the Vietnam embassy in Manila the senior official hugged him and said, “Hahn, you are a hero of our country.” Both men cried with the emotion and the sheer significance of the moment. In Hanoi there was euphoria and relief.
Five days later the inaugural flight landed in Manila. When Nguyen saw the red Vietnamese flag with its yellow star fluttering in the wind as part of the official greeting he was overcome with emotion. “I was shaking in my heart,” he recalled.
In my interview (to be published next month) you will read how that ‘mission accomplished’ turned out to be just the start of a remarkable contribution to Vietnamese society. As we talked, files for no fewer than 45 live projects involving a collective US$120 billion worth of investment filled the long boardroom-style table at which we were sitting.
One of those is IPP Air Cargo, a newly created airline that is expected to make its first flight this September, and which will serve not only the country’s six international airports but also another six domestic ones.
It will be Vietnam’s first cargo airline and the first carrier of any kind to serve those domestic airports. It will have a transformative effect on the country’s supply chain, overseas and domestic investment and employment, and economic recovery from the pandemic. Johnathan Hanh Nguyen, the man who played such an unforgettable role in the opening of Vietnam is now providing crucial inspiration and leadership in its post-COVID reopening.