Internship in Vietnam: Working for a challenge fund, riding a Russian motorcycle
Written by Tom Sargeanstson
Editor’s note: Tom Sargeantson was one of 19 fellows who participated in the William Davidson Institute’s Global Impact Internship program in the summer of 2014. He was in Hanoi working for the Vietnam Business Challenge Fund, which helps Vietnam’s private sector develop innovative business models. Like the other WDI fellows, Sargeantson blogged about his experiences. Check out the blog and enjoy Sargeantson’s wrap-up post:
I turned 28 in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam on the back of a Russian Minsk – a motorcycle older than I and wonderfully appropriate for the undulating roads that connect Hanoi and my homestay for the night in Mai Chau. My guide had done well to steer us away from the stresses of the country’s congested (and dangerous) highways. We took back roads that I would not have found on a map and even stopped for tea at his childhood home in a village normally closed to foreigners. The trip was a birthday gift to myself, and as I would be leaving Vietnam in just about a week, it doubled as a chance to reflect on my time in the country.
That night I sat cross-legged on the floor not at my homestay but at the home of a neighbor who had invited my guide and me for dinner. The power had gone out, as it often does, so the room danced with flickering candlelight. We drank rice wine poured from used plastic containers, and I tried my best to navigate the traditional toasting protocols that dictate who drinks when. It was great fun. The food spread out before us was delicious and included a local delicacy that I only tried reluctantly – dog meat. I pretended that it was my birthday celebration, and my unexpected hosts made it a memorable one.
The hospitality I found in Mai Chau I found everywhere I went in Vietnam. It was in the markets and the alleys of busy Hanoi, the beaches of Da Nang and the terraced rice fields of Sa Pa. Vietnamese people are deeply friendly and welcoming, which isn’t the common perception at home. The question that I have most often received about my summer has been whether or not I felt any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war. The answer is decidedly no, despite the fact that two blocks from my homestay rests a downed American bomber in a lake, memorialized by an adjacent war museum. As far as I can tell from the friendships that I made and the conversations that I had, Vietnam is somewhat remarkably a pro-American country. What this says about the U.S. military’s misadventures in certain parts of the world is a topic for a braver blogger.
Vietnam’s friendliness was not new to me – I had been to the country twice previously. What was new to me, though, was the type of work that I would be doing: I had never worked for a non-profit before. I’ve spent my career in the private sector, and business school was my chance to gain exposure to the other side. My experience in Hanoi was an overwhelmingly positive one. My colleagues were all passionate about their work and the effort they put into managing the Vietnamese Business Challenge Fund. The painstaking process they went through in selecting investments yielded a portfolio with significant potential. The portfolio companies are all positioned for both profitability and positive social impact.
It was visiting these companies that I most enjoyed about my work. Each was unique, and each was led by entrepreneurs passionate about making a difference in Vietnam. The funding they receive from the VBCF is critical to the viability of their business plans, which made the work I was contributing over the summer feel important.
I am so lucky to have had this experience, and I know that I will carry these lessons with me throughout the rest of my career!