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The singing banker of Thanh Hoa

Nguyen Hai Duong, who is General Director of Thanh Hoa Microfinance Institution in Vietnam, has been a supporter of the Women's Economic Justice program. Photographed in his office in May 2023. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

Nguyen Hai Duong, who is General Director of Thanh Hoa Microfinance Institution in Vietnam, has been a supporter of the Women's Economic Justice program. Photographed in his office in May 2023. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

The cartoon version of a financier with taste would be, perhaps, a monocled snob with a penchant for white truffles and calf-skin gloves. But Nguyen Hai Duong is a north Vietnamese investor with a refined sensibility of a different sort.

While he dresses in the bankers’ standard polo and khakis, and he sits behind a desk appropriate for the General Director of Thanh Hoa Microfinance Institution, Duong lights up in an uncharacteristic way when the conversation turns to north Vietnamese culinary delicacies like pork rolls and rice paper with fish sauce.

As he’s rhapsodizing about the local flavors, though, he pauses.

“For foreigners,” he reflects, taking in his American audience. “You may not like these very much. They’re fermented dishes that could be difficult for you to eat.”

Fermented foods, like many of Duong’s interests, take time to appreciate.

Acquired tastes

Traditionally, Vietnamese fish sauce is made by layering fresh anchovies and sea salt in large wooden barrels, which are then left outside in the sun for months. The heat naturally breaks down the anchovy-salt mixture, and the result is uniquely local but also popular all over the world.

It’s a flavor about halfway between the near universally appreciated Vietnamese coffee, and the distinctly local Rượu thuốc, Vietnamese “medicinal liquor.”

Rượu thuốc is made by soaking herbs or animals in alcohol, and many Vietnamese men believe drinking it can improve health and virility. One popular type is snake wine, which is thought to cure various ailments. Photo: Travis Nichols/CARE

Fermented fish sauce is the type of thing – intensely local, distinct, and a bit of a challenge – that Duong loves.

He positively glows when he starts talking about the local flowers that thrive in the region’s rough, mountainous soil – lotus, peach blossom, chrysanthemum.

At his house, he says, he has orchids and roses, and in the area around the city of Thanh Hoa, where he grew up, he’s always been drawn to beautiful places like the ornamental flower shop where Pham Phuong Thao, a CARE Women’s Economic Justice program participant, sells ornamental feng shui plants and fruit trees.

“Thao is a young, dynamic, creative, and enterprising woman. Her business is perfect for the local terrain of the low mountains of Thanh Hoa.”

Duong appreciates what Thao is trying to do — a rare sensibility in the financial world – which is maybe why he’s been able to see opportunities where others have traditionally only seen numbers.

Phạm Phương Thảo, Pottery Plant Shop: Pham Phuong Thao is a small business owner from Thanh Hoa in North Vietnam. She established a shop selling flowers and ornamental plants in 2018 and now employs six people. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

An empowering sensibility

Growing up in Thanh Hoa, Duong witnessed the struggles faced by his own mother, a single parent striving to make ends meet. He says her resilience and determination deeply impacted him, fueling his resolve to address the challenges faced by women like Pham Phuong Thao in Thanh Hoa today.

Since 2018, he’s worked with CARE’s Women’s Economic Justice program to help create financial opportunities for people who haven’t traditionally had access to capital, particularly women. And once he became General Director of the Thanh Hoa MFI, he saw an opportunity to provide a pathway to economic independence for women entrepreneurs, like Thao, who was part of the CARE Entrepreneurship program, and many others.

Duong also, it should be noted, sings
At the MFI office, seated behind his oak desk, it took almost no prompting for him to begin “A Dream in My Siesta,” his favorite song by Thùy Chi:

"A Dream in My Siesta"

The dream

The original microfinance program began in 1998 in three districts in Thanh Hoa, then, in 2014, it was officially expanded into the MFI program, where Duong’s strategic partnerships, such as the collaboration with CARE’s Ignite program, have helped it grow.

At the core of CARE’s approach lies a commitment to holistic empowerment. Partners like Thanh Hoa MFI don’t just provide financial support; they also focus on equipping women with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. Through face-to-face and online training courses, women entrepreneurs gain the confidence and expertise necessary to launch and sustain successful businesses.

“Vietnam is one of the countries that have begun to develop economically, but development now still sees disparity. Therefore, the financial knowledge provided by the project is very useful for low-income, poor and near-poor women.”

Around Thanh Hoa, the impact of the MFI program has been profound. Women who were once relegated to the sidelines have emerged as resilient and successful entrepreneurs, driving economic growth within their communities. These stories of triumph serve as a powerful inspiration for others, igniting a sense of possibility and ambition among women who had long believed their dreams were out of reach.

Access to finance has been a considerable challenge for Thao, but, thanks to a loan from Thanh Hoa Micro Finance Institution (MFI), she had $1,100 to invest in her business. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

Looking ahead, Duong envisions a future where financial support activities become commonplace throughout Vietnam. As the country progresses on its economic development journey, he believes it is essential to bridge the gap between different socio-economic groups. Duong emphasizes the importance of collaboration between NGOs, government agencies, and financial institutions to scale successful initiatives and leverage technology for greater outreach.

As he continues to sing his favorite melodies, Nguyen Hai Duong remains driven by his vision—a dream of his own, where Vietnamese women entrepreneurs thrive, their businesses flourishing, their voices heard – and appreciated.

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