FROM OUT OF WAR-TORN VIETNAM, EX-JOURNALIST BUILDS A THRIVING PUBLISHING BUSINESS IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE GOVERNMENT
By ARUNA HARJANI in Jakarta For China Daily Asia Weekly
The fall of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) on April 30, 1975 was a watershed moment in Vietnam’s modern history followed by reunification of the north and south. However, this challenge of nation-building brought out the best in many, such as Vinh Le Quoc, a pioneer of Vietnam’s media industry.
Vinh, who has run several publishing ventures in partnership with the government since the 1990s, grew up in the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. He inherited his passion for the industry from his father, who worked on a state-run publication.
“My father had a very interesting life as a senior journalist and photographer, which is why I decided from a young age to become a journalist when I grew up,” he says.
The senior Vinh was trained in East Germany during the Cold War. In 1968, when Vinh was born, the North Vietnamese Army had launched the Tet Offensive, attacking US and South Vietnamese positions. Hanoi, where Vinh and his family lived, subsequently came under attack from the United States.
“The whole city was under heavy bombing,” he says. “My mother, my two siblings and I had to evacuate out of the city.” Vinh’s father, who was shortsighted and thus unable to join the army, stayed back in Hanoi to work when the rest of the family escaped.
“We moved to many different villages and had to live with farmers. We lived among water buffalos and rice fields,” Vinh recalls. Yet wherever the family ended up, he says that his father managed to hop on a bicycle and find them, supplying them with food and basic necessities.
When the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 were signed, Vinh and his family were able to return to the city.
“My father was one of the first journalists who were flown by helicopter from Hanoi to Saigon to witness the victory of North Vietnam,” he notes. The senior Vinh was working for Vietnam Pictorial, a publication of the state-owned Vietnam News Agency.
In the immediate aftermath of reunification, life was tough for most Vietnamese. “We called it ‘subsidy time’ as all the food and necessary items were supplied by the state according to the number of family members.”
Each member of the family was given one set of clothing every year, Vinh recalls. “We were given 11 kilos of rice and 200 grams of meat every month per member.”
Everyone, including children, had to work. Vinh went to school during the day but helped his mother in the evening baking cookies for her to sell to street food vendors.
In 1985, Vinh managed to win a partial scholarship to Hanoi University, and as part of a government policy, his food supply was increased. “I was happy because I was able to minimize my parents’ expenditure.”
The next year, Vietnam opened its doors to the world, allowing private businesses and foreign investment. “Everybody was talking about doi moi, or innovation,” he says.
These policy changes meant that when Vinh graduated from Hanoi University in 1990 there were plenty of opportunities as the first few overseas investors — including Telstra, an Australian telecoms company, and mining giant BHP Billiton — were entering the country.
“Because I studied in English, which many Vietnamese didn’t, I could find jobs in companies with foreign investments.”
He landed a job at the Vietnam News Agency as an editor. “My job was to watch foreign channels and translate important news into Vietnamese, then send these to government agencies for verification.”
After six months, Vinh became a junior editor and reporter for the World Affairs Review under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A year later he shifted to the Vietnam Investment Review (VIR), the first foreign-invested weekly newspaper in the country, which was later sold to Australian Consolidated Press.
“I moved up the ladder very quickly, becoming a senior journalist and then a news editor, thanks to the tutelage under my father.”
In 1993, Vinh received a scholarship from the US-based Institute of International Education. During his overseas training, he realized he was more interested in management, so he focused on that side of the media business during his internships and visits to newspapers and magazines.
Vinh returned to Vietnam in 1994 to work as an assistant managing editor for VIR and as a managing editor for the Vietnamese version of the same paper. The following year, he was sent to Brunei to cover Vietnam’s inclusion in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
When Vietnam was exploring plans to set up its first stock exchange, Vinh proposed to his Australian boss to publish a daily financial newspaper to cover the new change. “Both the Australian boss and the governing agency, the Ministry of Planning and Investment, declined.”
Ready to strike out on his own, Vinh quit his job at VIR in 1996, moved to Ho Chi Minh City and started his first magazine, NHA DEP. Meaning beautiful home, NHA DEP was the first interior design magazine in Vietnam and the flagship of his company, Hai Dang Design.
“I had some American friends as major investors,” he says. “My only investments were my talent and management skills. It was the first time we set up a new model of partnership between the private sector and government for magazine publication.”
The model meant a private company would invest and manage the financial and commercial activities while the government agency approved the editorial.
Eventually, in 1998, Vinh sold his shares in the business and moved back to Hanoi to join a new company, HQ Vision, with a new magazine. DEP (beauty) is currently the largest and oldest premium fashion and lifestyle publication for women in Vietnam. With the government as a partner, Vinh asked his father, by then the editor-in-chief of Vietnam Pictorial, to become another partner.
In 2002, Vinh restructured HQ Vision to establish Le Bros, a marketing and public relations company. It is now a member of Worldwide Partners, a global network of owner-operated agencies.
Two years later, he established Le Media to act as a dedicated publishing unit. “We wanted to separate our businesses into two different fields to avoid conflict of interest,” he explains.
Today, Le Media has five magazines. In addition to DEP, the stable has a men’s magazine, a business magazine and two titles licensed from the United Kingdom — Stuff and Autocar.
In 2013, he set up a holding company, Le Investment, to combine his companies into one group. Another digital marketing and communication services company, Le Digital, was established in 2014.
“We call the private-government partnership by a term that only exists in Vietnam, ‘socialization’. This means the private sector can invest in a media company but remains under the strict governance of the state bodies,” he explains. “The government agencies are our partners. The publishing and broadcasting licenses belong to the government partners while the copyright may belong to private companies.”
Vinh has been in the industry long enough to understand the kind of articles he can publish. “I think it is important that one knows the balance between making money and contributing to society.”
He also says that in the near future, he expects that the trend of socialization “or privatization, as the West calls it”, will be a common trend in Vietnam.
“Soon I believe that private sector will be given a better chance to invest directly in the media with the government as a supervisory agency”.