Vincent Floreani is a career diplomat who’s lived and worked in the US, London, Romania, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and the United Arab Emirates. He arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to take up a three-year posting in September last year. He sat down with AsiaLIFE’s Barbara Adam to talk about all things Saigon. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.

What is your mission here in Ho Chi Minh City?

I have a six-page plan! It’s a lot about supporting all the sectors of the economy to create opportunities for French companies.

We are particularly strong in the health sector here in Vietnam. For decades, maybe over a century, we’ve been training Vietnamese doctors. We also have big pharmaceutical companies in Vietnam.

We created a healthcare group and we’re working together. We also help support French agriculture and agro-product companies. The area of health safety is also big in Vietnam. That area has some opportunities for us. Also, we’ve always been strong in infrastructure in Vietnam.

We’re also looking at the tech sector in Vietnam. We have some big companies here, like Gameloft, and some small companies, like Le Flair, an online sales company. We also have some startups.

Last year in Paris, we opened the world’s largest incubator, called Station F. It has the capacity to host 1,000 startups, and there are a lot of initiatives we are trying to focus on from all over the world.

We created a French Tech Hub here, we had a really big reception at the French Residence in May. About 100 company representatives came.

Vietnam is growing very fast, and tech goods have overtaken textiles as the biggest export. Samsung makes up about 25% of Vietnamese exports. The whole ecosystem is growing, and growing very quickly. There are a lot of opportunities in this sector.

It’s the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and Vietnam. Are there any special events planned this year?

Yes, we have been celebrating the anniversary with many different events. We held our fourth annual job fair in May, organised with French companies and the French Chamber of Commerce.

We also had an event in Can Tho, with clowns performing at an outdoor plaza. It was very popular, more than 300 people came along.

We also have exhibitions and performances scheduled for the rest of the year. In September we have the Mémoire Flottante (Floating Memory) exhibition from the Université d’Architecture Bruno Grasser at Villa Saigon. On September 21 and 22, we will show the theatre play Saigon, which enjoys an immense success in France. In October we have an exhibition of French and Vietnamese artists at Salle de l’association des BA. On October 6 we also have a dance show called Tordre (Twist) at the Opera House.

You can find a list of all the special events on the consulate’s website, although it’s only in French and Vietnamese.

Where do you take friends and family who come to visit you in Ho Chi Minh City?

I take them to District 1 to see Nguyen Hue walking street, and around the city — the Rex, the Opera House, the Continental, Rue Catinat, which is now Dong Khoi Street.

I also like to show them the new exhibit at the Independence Palace, which shows the development of the city from the mid-19th Century to the 1950s and 60s.

I also like Cholon, I like to take people walking along the river, to the traditional medicine museum. Little by little we discover new things.

I also really like Hue, not only the old citadel but also the tombs.

Have you learned any Vietnamese since you’ve been here?

I’ve tried a few words but when I try, people laugh, so it’s not inspiring.

Even when I say cam on (thank you), people look puzzled. I wanted to learn when I arrived but I was so busy. I want to at least be able to greet people and say a few words. But I know I could never speak Vietnamese fluently, which is a shame because when you learn a language you learn the culture that goes along with it.

What are your plans for Bastille Day on July 14?

It’s a big event for us. Every year we have about 1,200 people here. We have two parties. One for the officials from the city and companies, including our sponsors. Then we have a reception here in the garden for the French and Vietnamese community.

This year we’re bringing a singer, Ngoc Mai, to sing the French and Vietnamese national anthems, and also Xin Chao Vietnam. There’ll be a light and sound performance at the residence. Also, a jazz band, cheese, wine, champagne, the regular French stuff.

What’s your favourite Vietnamese food?

I discovered – really discovered – Vietnamese food here. In France there are about 300,000 people in the Vietnamese community, so there is a lot of Vietnamese food available. But they don’t have the same ingredients as you have here.

When I came here I discovered Vietnamese food is not greasy, but very tasty with fresh herbs. I actually gained weight! Even though I came to Vietnam from Chicago, the home of deep dish pizza.

We have a chef here. We get her to cook Vietnamese when we have French guests and French when we have Vietnamese guests.

Do you have a favourite restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City?

Oh, I really shouldn’t name a favourite. I could get in trouble!

I like L’Atelier des Rêves, run by a Franco-Vietnamese couple.

I like Le Bordeaux. The owner has an interesting story. He left Vietnam when he was 13 and started as a dishwasher at a restaurant. The chef noticed he had potential and paid for his cooking lessons and he became a great chef in France and then came back here.

I also like La Villa, L’Escale, Le Corto, L’Olivier, Le Jardin des Sens and many others.

There are about 6,000 French citizens registered here with the consulate, so we estimate there are about 8,000 or 9,000 French people living here. Because not everyone thinks about registering.

After our chat, Vincent gave us a quick tour of the French Residence, where he lives with his wife, and also the venue for many official functions.

Built in 1872, the beautiful French colonial building has served many purposes throughout its life, from the residence of the military governor of Cochinchina, an embassy and a high commission.

In 1967, the French sold a parcel of land to the Americans, who built their own consulate next door. But the residence still has a 1.5 hectare “backyard” filled with 100-year-old trees, civet cats, birds and snakes.

Vincent showed us some of the artefacts on display in the residence, including antique silverware (including an absinthe spoon), lacquer artworks, a carved screen with scenes from Hue’s ancient citadel and chu nhom characters on the back, and a bust of Marianne, an important symbol for the republic of France. Marianne oversees the weddings that are celebrated at the consulate, Vincent said.