By Hillel Aron
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It was during the year in Bangkok that Mike visited Vietnam and crossed paths with one of his San Jose uncles. He had known Ly Nguyen, his father’s youngest brother and only eight years Mike’s senior, as a kid but hadn’t seen him for years. Ly was 10 when his family was uprooted to the U.S. “I grew up trying to be a better American than everyone I met,” he says. He became that good American, working his way up from graphic specialist to lead press man for Cannon. At 30, already burned out on Silicon Valley life, Ly went back to visit Vietnam, realized how much he had missed it, and stayed.
A decade later, when Mike took some time off from the Bangkok job to rendezvous with his parents (who were making their annual visit to relatives in Saigon), Ly was married with two kids and a senior account director for Bates Worldwide. As Chris had done years earlier, Ly essentially told his free-floating nephew to stop bouncing around and get serious, maybe even consider opening a business together.
Ly’s friend Ton That Diep was running Toan Viet, then a small music video production business. The three decided on the spot to revamp the company and turn it into a top-notch commercial studio together. Diep would be the silent partner, while Ly, with his vast contact network, signed on as managing director. And Mike, with his scant knowledge of the business world, got to keep his desired title, “lead artist.”
Mike laughs at their unlikely partnership, especially since he had never really considered living in Vietnam at that point — until Ly took him around to the agencies and post houses, and said, “?‘Look — this is just the beginning. Look how far we’ve come, and imagine how far we can go.’ He had the clients and the work, but there was no one here that could do the work properly. I really believed we could come in and do something amazing, and make a difference for a lot of people.”
“We just went for it,” says Ly triumphantly.
But the triumph was short-lived. Although Toan Viet produced 46 commercials in just six months of Mike overseeing its creative work, and had taken the lion’s share of production jobs from competing houses, Diep suddenly pulled the rug out from under them, believing that with his new client base, he could go it alone. He hired a local designer for a fraction of what he was paying Mike.
The way Mike explains it, “Diep was much smarter than us. He’s a businessperson and we are artists.” The contracts they had signed were worthless without an official seal, and lacking recourse in the murky halls of Vietnamese justice, last November Mike ended up on the street, with just 10 percent of the profits (not including the company assets) to show for his year-long effort. By his own estimation, he lost a “hell of a lot of money.” Ly left the company a couple of months later, also empty-handed.
Soon after Toan Viet imploded, Mike came back to California to do some soul searching. After three months of meeting with industry people while shuttling between his parents in San Jose and Chris in Venice, he’d internalized the hard lessons of the previous year and started to formulate a plan. Part of that was being able to say out loud that Vietnam was where he wanted to build his immediate future. L.A. hadn’t changed, but he had. He was restless and eager to get back to Saigon, where, despite the chaos, he felt more likely to achieve his goals.
He also missed the sociability of a culture in which spontaneity rules and even celebrities are accessible. “In L.A., people go out and the first question is always ‘What do you do?’ It really warps your perspective .?.?. The work becomes more important than the people, and that’s not how life should be. They don’t just sit in a café and strike up a conversation with someone the way I can in Saigon. In America, for the most part people would rather be left alone,” he tells me after returning from California. “That sense of isolation and distance is not so much fun for me.”
Saigon life is not conducive to isolation. Everything Americans do behind closed doors takes place on the street here: cooking, eating, napping — even discreet sex on the back of a Honda Dream parked in the shade. “It either drives you crazy or you just can’t get enough of it,” says Mike with a flicker of his brow. “When I’m back in the U.S., I feel safe and ordinary. When I’m out here, I feel alive.”
Two weeks after our first meeting, I hook up with Chris again at Blind, where the office is only just starting to wind down at 8 o’clock. He’s wearing a T-shirt, cargo pants, black Converse and the same boxy glasses as last time, but sporting a scruffy goatee. “I can’t find my electric razor,” he says, reminding me that he’s just moved and has yet to unpack it all. “Anyway, Asian people .?.?. we’re not that hairy.”