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Saigon is Reborn as Ho Chi Minh City

July 09, 2020

Going back to the Esso days in Vietnam, there was a strong belief that the South China Sea had significant oil and gas potential. In fact, when the U.S. government and Ambassador Graham Martin fled Saigon, the Russian oil experts landed there two months later. Once in Moscow, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the Russian who pioneered oil exploration in Vietnam and was instrumental in the formation of Vietsovpetro which remains a major Vietnam oil partnership between Zarubeshneft, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Petrovietnam. For all of the paranoia surrounding the "China Domino Theory," it was the Russians who supported Ho Chi Minh in his quest for an independent country. We should recall that Ho Chi Minh first asked Harry Truman for that support to keep the colonial French from returning after WW II.

Accordingly, in the early nineties I returned to the scene of former U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin's ignominious evacuation stairway to obscurity in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. The former Saigon U.S. Embassy was temporarily converted to be the headquarters of Petrovietnam though they had merely changed the locks and did not alter any of the interior including the "quiet room" for radio transmissions. It was to be demolished, but the watchman shown with me in the image below, was kind enough to give a guided tour.
It was at this point in time that I had formed a venture relationship with a U.S. independent domestic oil company to take them abroad which included a host of new foreign opportunities. Our company, SOCO International, in turn formed a subsidiary together with Hai Nguyen to enter oil exploration in Vietnam. Hai is an expatriate Vietnamese and experienced West Texas Mobil Oil man who had a dream of returning to Vietnam. Some mutual friends introduced him to a lunatic who backed his dream and off we went hand-in-hand as SOCO Vietnam.

Hai and I were joined by his wife, Le Hang, to form the "three lunatic amigos" team to make the impossible happen which we ultimately did. We beat out Exxon and Amerada Hess for the most prospective block in the bid round by including Petrovietnam in a decision-making role during the investment stage which was an anathema in our industry. I knew Exxon would not accept that concept. We were successful in obtaining two blocks on that basis and discovered oil in both of them together with Petrovietnam. When Hai, Le Hang, Joey and I reached the helicopter pad on the top of the former U.S. Embassy, I took their photo which is shown below.
Hai and I both had major oil company experience in two companies that actually became the same company, ExxonMobil. At one time, the Exxon Board met in Singapore in the mid-seventies and I recall one of the directors describing the gravitas of the Board by saying that the size and wealth of Exxon rivaled that of many countries in the world. The same director also believed in the "Domino Theory" and that Thailand would ultimately follow the path of Vietnam and fall to the "communists." I took comfort that not all of the misinformed radicals were in government.

Immediately, Hai and I agreed that we would be humble and approach the business on a personal level with the Vietnamese. The identity we sought was one of supporting the local communities such as the small school that we founded near Cu Chi, Vietnam. As Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, with whom I am shown below shaking hands, was a bit late getting there, we had tea in the Cu Chi Party Headquarters. On the wall, was a plaque honoring the mothers who had lost four or more children in the Vietnam War. It was a sobering moment given the number of them. Cu Chi is a short distance from Ho Chi Minh City and was home to the Cu Chi Viet Cong tunnel networks. It played a pivotal role in the 1968 Tet Offensive that destroyed the political will of the U.S. to continue the ground war. Therefore, it became a favorite spot for B-52 bombers from Thailand to drop their loads while American reporters watched the sound and light show safely from the rooftops of their nearby hotels. The bombing missions ultimately created networks of good fish and prawn farm ponds.
Given the diversity of the SOCO International assets in such far-flung places such as Yemen, Tunisia, Mongolia, Russia and Vietnam, we chose to list the company on the London Stock Exchange in May 1997. On one occasion we had a Vietnam contract signing in the Lord Mayor of London's Residence in which the current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung are shown below on either side of the tall Lord Mayor. Such a show was a bit out of character for us, but the Vietnamese appreciated the recognition by the British Government. In fact, we are the largest UK investor in Vietnam.
Over the years, we have invested over $1 billion in Vietnam and had four "First Oil" parties with Petrovietnam including the one shown below for the very significant TGT oil discovery. Our efforts resulted in some $4 billion of revenue generated to the economy of Vietnam in addition to the creation of thousands of jobs for Vietnamese.
Originally, we had to convince the Vietnamese that the major oil companies were not the only ones who had access to advanced technology. The complaint at Exxon was that much of the technology developed by them stayed in the laboratory as few had the temerity to apply it to real life for fear of failure, a common malaise in large organizations.
Perhaps the most gratifying aspects of our time in Vietnam has been support of over $2.5 million to charitable and educational causes such as the school program, shown below, as well as the Agent Orange Survivors Program as a small attempt to address the sins of the past.
I actually think some of our old Air America buddies and Esso Vietnam employees would be proud of what the tiny minnow, SOCO Vietnam, did in a country that we all thought had such huge promise and people of great potential.

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