Back when Vietnam's international profile was just slightly better than North Korea's, only a few outsiders considered working in a country ruled by a monolithic Communist party, but that didn't stop John Ditty, who has been making a living in a decidedly capitalist field there since 1993.
Just as US veterans reminisce about their time "back in 'nam" during the war years of the 1960s and '70s, Mr Ditty has his own "war stories" of his early days in a country that was embarking on economic and social transformation. The land known for terraced paddy fields and the foggy scenery of Halong Bay today is a rising economic power and the footsoldiers of finance have never been busier.
"This is what I have always done. I studied finance, accounting and economics at university extensively, because when I was in high school I liked numbers, and I thought that one of the things that would probably appeal to me as a career was accounting," the managing partner for advisory services at KPMG in Vietnam tells Asia Focus. A friendly Australian, he comes across not so much as a former high-school maths whiz but a clever mate you can have a beer with after a rugby match.
Mr Ditty was working with Ernst & Young in London in the late 1980s when Eastern Europe started to go through its transformation. He was on the ground in Hungary and Poland as they began making the transition from decades of socialism to a market economy.
Half a world away, Vietnam was cautiously opening up its economy after the Doi Moi economic reforms in 1986. Within five years it was ready to start experimenting with a market economy, which provided an opening for Mr Ditty. By then he had become part of a small group of professionals with unique expertise in helping formerly socialist countries create market-based financial systems.
"Someone said, 'John, you worked in Eastern Europe, you understand transitional economics, you worked in socialist market transitioning to a market focus, do you want to try Vietnam?' And I initially said, 'Yes, I'm happy to try Vietnam for two or three years,'" he recalls.
"And like many people who come to Asia, whether Vietnam or Thailand or Malaysia, you started to realise the weather is nice, the people are nicer, why on earth would you want to be anywhere else? And that was 23 years ago."
Since he joined KPMG Vietnam as managing partner of the audit practice in 2004, Mr Ditty has overseen the growth of the firm from two partners and fewer than 200 staff to 28 partners and more than 1,000 staff today.
Mr Ditty has extensive expertise in managing and coordinating advisory engagements in Vietnam and Cambodia, along with experience in leading large teams of people from different cultural and professional backgrounds.
He has developed a wealth of knowledge and understanding of business practices in Vietnam and Cambodia in the course of advising businesses including state-owned, private-sector and foreign-owned entities in both countries. His clients include Asia Commercial Bank (the largest private bank in Vietnam by assets), BP, Citibank, HSBC, Prudential Assurance, Toyota Motor, Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Nestle, to name the few.
"Twenty-three years ago the private sector in Vietnam was very small and people who were starting businesses were starting with a small amount of family capital that they could borrow from their mothers and fathers and cousins," he recalls.
"The regulatory environment wasn't great, the market wasn't very developed, but I think what has happened over the last 20 years is that Vietnamese businesses have got a better understanding of what integrated businesses do, and that they have to compete with foreign competition."
He cites the example of Vietnamese consumer product companies that now find themselves in competition with the likes of Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. Those local firms "can only do that when they are very good", Vinamilk being a prime example. Starting life as a state-owned company before being privatised, it quickly recognised the opportunity in dairy products and nutrition to become "one of the best at what they do in Southeast Asia".
"Vinamilk has bought businesses in Australia, New Zealand and America, so you can see that Vietnamese companies have got bigger, they have become more sophisticated, the owners are becoming more aware of what is needed, and that personally is great for me and from a business point of view, for KPMG as well," he says.
THE NEXT DECADE
"In the next ten years, I think, a lot of the story will be Vietnam moving from a less developed nation to a middle-class country which, if I look back at Thailand 20 years ago, would probably be not dissimilar to Vietnam," he continues.
"When you have a young population who want better lives for themselves and their children, they want to work hard, they want to invest, and they want to grow, so the demographic story is something that will underwrite growth."
The export opportunity under the China Plus One strategy is another factor that will underwrite growth in Vietnam, he says. Because Vietnam also aims to differentiate itself from some other Asean countries by creating a more balanced economy, it could have more chances to expand than its regional peers.
"The country's economy is not just domestic consumption, it is not just a global supply chain base, but it is the combination of those two things that provides a very strong growth potential for Vietnam in the next decade."
Mr Ditty expects Vietnamese companies to begin to expand outside their home territory in the future, but in the meantime they will continue to grow domestically because there is still "significant domestic growth that has not been tapped out yet".
Vietnamese companies will look to invest in countries or markets where they feel comfortable and that will be Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to some extent, because the emerging economy dynamic and cultural understating will make it easier to pursue business deals.
"Over time, they will probably spread a bit further but it is still going to be many years before any more Vietnamese companies make large-scale investments in North America, Europe or Japan unless they are truly multinational, so I think we will see a natural progression," he adds.
In terms of inbound investment, apart from Thailand and South Korea, a number of Japanese companies are tapping into manufacturing for export opportunities in Vietnam. There is also significant Japanese interest in financial services and the retail sector and they are leveraging what they are doing "very well" in terms of emerging opportunity, in Mr Ditty's view.
There is also a lot of money coming from Singapore into the real estate sector in Vietnam, Taiwanese companies are moving into processing and manufacturing and this is "fairly normal" because companies are always looking at the most immediately obvious opportunities. They can see what Vietnam represents but all of them acknowledge that there are also problems and challenges.
"Vietnam is still somewhat of a chaotic market," says Mr Ditty. "There are a lot of people. There are a lot of roads. There are a lot of new roads. There are a lot of motorbikes and the key for a lot of people in any business is distribution, or simply being able to get your product from where your make it to someone who pays for it.
"What Vietnamese companies are very good at doing is, obviously, understanding their local market and building a business model that enables them to compete more effectively."
Vinamilk, for example, has started to invest in local dairy businesses while also applying the latest technology to farming practices and management of dairy herds to maximise quality and revenue. Masan Group started life as a fish sauce manufacturer and began to expand into instant noodles and other products that complement its original product.
In terms of labour, there are other markets in Asean that might be better at better at leveraging their workforces to serve national goals, but Vietnamese workers' zeal for self-improvement sets them apart.
"Apart from English, people are also learning Japanese and Korean because they see that it is opening other doors. Whether it is learning a language, technology, basic finance, or anything that creates an opportunity that might open a door that was otherwise closed, they are very keen to push ahead with that," he says.
The cultural values of Vietnam also hold great appeal for Mr Ditty, though he says that forming close friendships is never easy for an expatriate.
"I am a foreigner and even though I've lived there for twenty-plus years, I'm not Vietnamese. I never will be, but I love the food, I love the vibrancy of life, I love the energy in the city, I love the opportunity that Vietnam has to actually be very different from what it has been," he says.
"What I like about Vietnamese culture is that they are very caring of their family and their neighbours and it is a very open and welcoming society."
Vietnam's arts are now being exported and Vietnamese food is gaining increasing popularity around the world. At the same time, foreign influences are increasing in Vietnam, and these days it's not uncommon to see a Vietnamese restaurant next to an Indian or Thai establishment.
To Mr Ditty, Vietnamese culture offers a very interesting blend of a traditional Chinese base mixed with the French influence from the colonial era. The latter gave rise to culinary traditions that set Vietnam apart, such as great pastries and coffee at a time when the rest of Asia was drinking mostly tea. So Vietnam has taken in various cultures, interacted with them and made them its own.
It's a long way from the Great Ocean Road in Victoria where Mr Ditty grew up beside the rough sea, but Vietnam is definitely his home now. He currently resides with his wife and two children in Ho Chi Minh City, and when they have time, Da Nang is the perfect getaway.
"Da Nang has a very open stretch of beach, it's really wild and not crowded. It's not a safe place necessarily for swimming but there is awareness around the beach there, which reminds me of where I grew up," he says.
"My wife is Vietnamese and I've been married for 18 years. I have two teenage children who are Australian/Vietnamese or Vietnamese/Australian -- I guess they are children of both cultures. Vietnam is home for me now and that is probably where I will be for the rest of my life," he concludes with a smile.