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Getting Back to Business in Vietnam : Profile: An American who grew up as the U.S. military's unofficial interpreter and mascot in Vietnam is back as a business consultant. He says the country has a lot of potential.

December 23, 1990|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HO CHI MINH CITY — It's 1962. The first U.S. military advisers have arrived in the village of Tui Hua in the central coastal region of Da Nang to set up a "strategic defense hamlet," teaching villagers how to defend themselves from the Viet Cong. But who is that interpreter clambering out of the Army Jeep?

It's a blue-eyed, blond, 9-year-old kid, as all-American as the Beaver Falls, Pa., hometown he shares with Joe Namath. This son of missionaries is toted around as the military's unofficial interpreter and mascot. He spouts Vietnamese, charming the villagers.

Fast forward to October, 1990. An official of Vietnam's State Committee for Cooperation and Investment is facing off against an American businessman. The official, who has recently been plagued with problems with foreign investors, sits ramrod straight, his face weary, his demeanor stern.

Suddenly, the blue-eyed blond switches from English to a stream of Vietnamese. The official breaks up in laughter; the meeting's tone has changed.

For nearly 30 years, Donald Lemon has been breaking bread--and breaking the ice--with the Vietnamese. America may be the land of his birth, but Vietnam is the home of his youth.

Now, as Indochina representative for Credit Lyonnais Securities (Asia) Ltd., the brokerage arm of France's largest bank, Lemon is one of the most noticeable Americans in Vietnam, bridging both lands as he advises French and Hong Kong clients on investment opportunities. Because he only gives advice and does not actually engage in commercial transactions, such consulting is permitted under the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam.

"We have lots of clients who want to come here, but they don't know what to do," said Lemon, 37, clad in blue jeans as he lounged in the bar of the Saigon Floating Hotel. "They're very happy to have a blue-eyed gwai lo (foreigner) who can come in and understand a little about what is here."

Lemon, who lives in Hong Kong, primarily scouts out Vietnamese companies for potential foreign investors. To do that, he helps the Vietnamese make reasonable presentations, including developing information they aren't always accustomed to keeping: a corporate history, financial data, depreciation, value of equipment and land. In a socialist economy, where no clear land values exist, that isn't always easy.

His familiarity with Vietnam is immediately apparent when he eschews the hotel's restaurants filled with foreigners. Instead, he jumps into a pedicab, rattles off directions in Vietnamese and heads to a back-alley, open-air eatery serving Vietnamese shrimp pancakes. No other foreigners are in sight.

Although a growing number of consultants are positioning themselves as "Vietnam experts" in anticipation of the embargo's end, Lemon possesses the bona fides. Along with his missionary parents, he moved to Vietnam in 1958, at age 5, and stayed 12 years--until college. He lived in Da Nang, Nha Trong, Da Lat and Saigon. He went to a boarding school in the highland city of Da Lat with other foreign children but absorbed language and culture from his Vietnamese playmates.

He grew up with the war. While other kids his age were back home playing baseball, Lemon spent three terrified weeks wondering whether his parents were dead or alive in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. They turned out to be fine, but five other parents of his boarding school classmates were killed, people who had become like aunts and uncles to him. He was 15 at the time.

War became part of his landscape. One day, he was playing tennis in Saigon when a "satchel charge," or briefcase filled with explosives, exploded 200 yards from him. It hardly fazed him.

"By that time, you got so used to these kinds of things that I remember very distinctly being perturbed because I missed my first serve," Lemon said with a laugh.

He polished his resume after he returned to the United States in 1970 for college. He earned an undergraduate degree in speech and theater from Wheaton College in Illinois, an MBA from the University of Chicago and a law degree from John Marshall Law School.

Along the way, he tried to share his experiences in Vietnam with other Americans, many of whom he found uninformed. For one college project, he presented a program on Vietnamese literature, melding his own creative writing, poetry from Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese mythology.

"It was just to kind of say, 'This is a group of people who live and breathe and feel, not some gooks and statistics you see on TV,' " Lemon recalled.

Not everyone was receptive. In one school extemporaneous debating competition, where Lemon coincidentally drew the topic of Vietnam, one judge accused him of lying about his background and refused to believe that Lemon had lived there.

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