As I sat across from Anthony Salzman, better known in the media as “The First American,” I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell could unsettle such a charismatic, innovative, and accomplished man. Well let me tell you not much …
Having lived and worked in Vietnam for over 18 years, this native New Yorker is tough as nails. I mean, how else could it have survived and succeeded in a country under US embargo, with a non-existent banking system, no cars, and poor infrastructure?
When you search for Salzman on the internet, you discover that he played a key role in normalizing the Vietnam-United States relationship, as well as signing the Vietnam-United States Bilateral Trade Agreement.
But, you also read that he was “the first” in everything in Vietnam … Really? I ask you … first in everything?
Any powerful man has his detractors, I contend, and those are probably wondering if Salzman was in fact the first to write a check … Wasn’t there a banking system in Vietnam before Salzman’s arrival in 1992? – Was Salzman really the first to own a car? Does it seem so unlikely that in the 90s a country like Vietnam did not have cars? And then more importantly, the Chicago Tribune claims that Salzman was “the first” American to do business in Vietnam. Let’s go! Surely there were other Americans who flew to Vietnam with a dollar and a dream and somehow did business there in 1992, right?
Tony Salzman, aka “Tony the Tiger”, the president of V-TRAC Development Co. is a charismatic man, soft-spoken (yes, I already said that), almost humble … as he sits across from me while I play . devil’s advocate, laughs at my questions and smiles calmly … without bothering, explains:
TS: “Banks. No, there were no foreign banks in this country when I arrived. It does not mean zero. While I was here, shortly after I arrived, ANZ Australia bank was first. Citibank was second. El’s country manager Australian bank was a wonderful guy named AM I chose to hand over the Caterpillar banking business to him.
I ran one of the most successful and innovative marketing programs of all time – it was a contest to find the oldest operating piece of Caterpillar equipment in Vietnam. The reward was $ 1000. At the time, the average monthly salary was $ 80. Presentations came from all over Vietnam. And I thought it was about time the first check was issued in Vietnam. After all, it was a 100% cash partnership. A virgin banking market. So we found the oldest track in the country that was still in operation, a bulldozer built in 1937. The runner-up was in 1939.
There should be some kind of stock photos of this place that I’ll try to find them. When we announced the winner, it was a celebration that was attended by many people, and the winner, who was an engineer who owns a tugboat. Sorry, oldest engine was in tug, second oldest was in excavator. In the tugboat it was used for propulsion. I remember seeing those huge checks as a kid on game shows. The ones about the size of the bed. I decided that was exactly what my company and the bank needed. A gigantic check with our two logos payable to “carrier”. One of my staff members described the smile on the winners’ faces as from ear to ear Ivory! Well, the ivory disappeared when he saw this thing, the check, that I announced I had won. During the ceremony I proceeded to explain what a check is: a negotiable instrument. I told the audience that it was about time Vietnam started using negotiable instruments, and here is the first one! I invited the very perplexed men to come up on stage, and then I gave them a cheap plastic pen. He seemed even more confused. The huge check was held by two bankers as a backdrop for me and the puzzled winner.
At this point I asked the bankers to turn the check over to show the blank side to the audience. They did this, and then I asked the winner to sign their name to back it up. You can imagine, he looked even more perplexed than more perplexed than more perplexed! He did not want to sign. Then I turned his attention to another bank representative who was holding two plastic bags with the bank’s logo on them. The shopping bags were full of cash. The ivory smile returned. He began to head towards the bankers. I said no, you have to sign your name on the back of the check. He didn’t really know what he was talking about but he realized that he wasn’t going to go near those bags of cash unless he signed his name.
So, he signed his name. Then he went to the bags of cash and once again I said no, the other two bankers who had the gigantic check gave it to him to take to the guy holding the two bags of cash and brought the large check to the another colleague, then an assistant took it from him and the bags of cash were handed into his hands. At that point it was probably only me, my wife and the bankers who understood what the heck was going on! Certainly no one else did! Anyway, that was the first check negotiated in the history of Vietnam, regardless of the regime of government that is being talked about.
Now, he has become the fifth or sixth person in the world to understand the nature of that ceremony and transaction. Unfortunately, I never wrote any of this anywhere, nor did I tell any journalists. In time I will find the image of the check, I hope, in any case, it is quite a story. “
Quite a story indeed, and that deals with how the tiger earned his streak as “the first” American to write a check in Vietnam history.
But how about being “the first” businessman to do business in Vietnam, that’s pretty absurd I tell him, now how are you going to explain that Tony?
He smiles, and without roaring says: “On being the First American to do business, here I confess that the media took some liberties. In fact, there were two others, neither had employees, but there were two others. Oh, yes, I mean Two other Americans in Hanoi, there were others in South Vietnam, I never knew who they were. “
So that settles it, Anthony Salzman may not have been the only “first American” to do business in Vietnam, but he was certainly “the first American” to have employees in Vietnam. And that is precisely why in 2010 he received the most prestigious honor, receiving the Vietnam Friendship Medal from President Nguyễn Minh Triết, who recognized the enormous contributions of the American to Vietnam, primarily as a pioneer whose personal commitment and Entrepreneurship opened a new chapter in friendship and paved the way for others.
While I am impressed with all the anecdotes Salzman shared with me, I point out to you that the devil’s advocate is rarely satisfied …
IDG: I have to ask Tony, the “first” to own a car in Vietnam? Are you kidding? It was the 90s, all somewhat civilized countries had cars … really how could this be?
Without a pause, Salzman explains: “NN-35-01, so 35 means United States and 01 means the first person to register.
The problem arose when the first US ambassador was appointed. According to protocol, he had to have America’s number one!
So I hated negotiation and filed a lawsuit during which I was told that I had to hand over my 01 license plate. There was a solution, typical Vietnamese style: they gave me license number 00 001!
There is also a story about how I made the match between the ambassador, whose wife had tragically passed away due to a terrible illness, and, you guessed it, the banking clerk at the Bank of Australia.
Now if your naysayers don’t believe that I introduced the first American ambassador to his wife, they must read the next installment in the story!
Hint: the American ambassador had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And the banker was a Vietnamese immigrant in Australia. At the time, Australian newspapers had headlines that read “US Ambassador Marries Vietnamese Girl.”
Well, this young woman is not far behind! She responded to reporters by saying the headline should have said “ex-con marries Australian diplomat!”
Hopes, I ruined the auction. He had been with the Australian aid organization in Vietnam before joining the bank. “
In fact, that deals with the “First” to own a car in Vietnam, and the best American matchmaker in Vietnam. Not only is the registration straight, but it is etched in “steel” rather than stone, as Salzman tells me that he still owns the older Mercedes model with its Vietnam registration 00 001.
As I thank Salzman for this strange interview, he kindly thanks me and adds: “When I was a child, there were these stories called ‘the stories’ of Rudyard Kipling. My favorite was ‘how the elephant got its trunk.’ explained a bit the same way. [laughs]
In our Fair History, I say that this “tiger” has definitely explained how he has earned his stripes.