Michael Tatarski speaks to Saigon’s New Zealanders to find out about one of the city’s smaller expat communities. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Among Saigon’s expat communities, one of the quieter groups hails from distant New Zealand. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact on the city and country as a whole. Tony Martin, the consul general of New Zealand, is very happy with his nation’s standing in Vietnam.
“In the last five or six years we’ve really seen the flow of New Zealand products here grow, driven by food and beverage and timber,” he tells me at the consulate on Dong Khoi.
“A big part of that is because Vietnamese consumer incomes are rising along with the requirements for food safety and food quality, which New Zealand can offer,” he explains. “We’re a small country with only 4.5 million people but we have 5.5 million cows and 25 million sheep so we’re driven by primary production and that matches up well with what Vietnam wants right now.”
This is a big year for the relationship between New Zealand and Vietnam, as it marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two.
“We have an agreement with the Vietnamese government to reach a target of USD $1 billion in two-way trade by the end of this year and we’re on track to deliver that,” Martin says.
Roughly 60 percent of New Zealand’s exports to Vietnam fall in the food and beverage category. However, the New Zealand community has its eye on other sectors as well.
“There are a number of areas where we see the biggest opportunities to support Vietnam in its growth. One is education, so there’s the opportunity for Vietnamese students to study in New Zealand but there’s also the chance for New Zealand institutions to partner up with Vietnamese universities. This is a really big one for us,” Martin stresses. New Zealand is also looking for ways to help the aviation and agribusiness industries using methods proven back in New Zealand.
As for the Kiwi community at large, Martin notes that it is small and tight-knit, with about 350 New Zealanders in Saigon and, at most, 600 in all of Vietnam.
“You generally sort of know who’s around town. We have a lot of teachers at the international schools and they form the core of the community,” says Martin. “Some of those expats have been here for long periods of time and they’ve seen Vietnam grow, and they are big advocates for living in Vietnam but also for New Zealand business in Vietnam.”
One such member of the community is Rebecca Taylor, who has lived here for 17 years and helps plan the New Zealand Food & Wine Festival, which returned in February after a two-year hiatus.
“The festival began as just a BBQ with 350 people and has evolved into a major event with 1,000 attendees,” she shares. Taylor has seen the community and the city change over the years. “[The community] has expanded, more people are staying here longer and putting down roots, starting their own businesses.”
Asked if she feels a sense of New Zealand identity while living in Saigon, Taylor is positive.
“My kids have never lived in New Zealand, yet if you asked where they were from they’d say they’re New Zealanders. They have a very strong identity. We do have a strong cultural identity.” This is bolstered by events like the food and wine fest and gatherings for major rugby matches, the national sport of New Zealand.
Warrick Cleine, chairman and CEO of KPMG Vietnam and Cambodia, has also been here for 17 years and is a key member of the Kiwi community. Cleine heads the New Zealand Chamber of Commerce, which is mainly a mechanism for New Zealanders in Vietnam stay in touch and get together.
“It’s a diverse community and there’s a core who have been here for a long time who are very Kiwi-community minded,” Cleine says. “It’s a small expat community compared to a lot of the groups…whereas other groups might be so diverse that they don’t need to mix together, the Kiwis are small enough to get together regardless of where they’re from and what they’re here for.”
Like Martin and Taylor, Cleine points to the importance of the food and wine festival, as it is one of the largest events on the city’s social calendar despite the fact that it is hosted by a relatively small group.
“We’re very proud of our food and wine and it’s a chance to celebrate that part of New Zealand…it’s a chance for us to enjoy it with our friends from other places, including Vietnam.” Cleine has seen his home country’s profile grow dramatically since he arrived in Vietnam in the 90s.
“Certainly in areas such as education, business and trade ties have grown, especially Vietnamese going to study in New Zealand. There’s a much better understanding of what New Zealand is in Vietnam thanks to these sorts of ties.”