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Millionaire Dang Le Nguyen Vu, owner of Trung Nguyen coffee, owns more than sixty Arabian horses. (Photo: Catherine Karnow)

My Time with the Coffee King of Vietnam

By Catherine Karnow

I have been photographing Vietnam for 21 years, and returned last fall to see what had changed. I was especially interested in new wealth as there haven’t been millionaires there until the last few years. I wondered what wealth looked like in a Communist country.

In Saigon I stayed with my friend Phuong Anh Nguyen, who escaped by boat when she was 13, returned to Vietnam at 24, and now runs the hottest bar in Saigon, the Q-Bar. She is also one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. When I asked Phuong Anh whom I should meet, she immediately suggested Dang Le Nguyen Vu, someone she referred to as the “Coffee King.” She arranged for me to meet him, as she knows everybody.

The Coffee King’s 12th-floor office is on a street full of “hair salons,” shops that are fronts for service girls. He greeted me in his grand 12th floor office and offered me a perfect espresso, then we sat down to talk. He watched me intently while I spoke; I knew that he was judging me.

I must have impressed him, though, because he invited me to spend three days at his ranch. As the Coffee King never poses for photographs, I felt honored, but nervous, too. I wondered why he was allowing me into his life, and what he would reveal.

A week later I found myself way up in the green misty highlands of Vietnam, listening to him tell me how he was going to change first Vietnam, then the world, through coffee.

The Coffee King owns Vietnam’s most successful coffee company: Trung Nguyen Coffee, which is as ubiquitous as Starbucks. Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of beans in the world, so that makes the Coffee King pretty rich.

The ranch house was in the traditional style of the region – one story, long, and not large – but oddly decorated inside. The living room was filled with imposing busts of revolutionary figures – Napoleon, Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung. He told me he talks to the busts and gets inspiration for how to change the world.

There was also an immense autographed photo of him with General Giap — one of the world’s greatest living generals (he’s 100 as I write this) — who is responsible for winning Vietnam’s independence from both France and the U.S. I myself have spent much time with General Giap, and my photographs of the general are considered his official portraits. Later I realized this was why the Coffee King had allowed me into his world.

But we didn’t spend time inside surrounded by busts; we sat at an old scratched wooden table in the Chinese style pavilion outside. For such a rich man, his furniture was very simple, a reflection of a culture of austerity that dates back to Ho Chi Minh.

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Also known as "The Chairman," Mr. Vu's life revolves around coffee. (Photo: Catherine Karnow)

For two days and two nights, the Coffee King smoked cigar after cigar and, in an operatic sing-song voice, spoke sadly about his love for the Vietnamese people and his deep despair for their future.

He pointed to his head and asked, “Why do you think I have no hair?”

“It is from stress. I do not sleep,” he said. “The people are too passive; they just do what they are told. The Vietnamese people are our greatest resource, and yet we are failing to show the world who we are and what we are capable of! We have no identity!”

The key to change, he said, was in the Vietnamese people — if they would only “wake up.”

I wondered whether he was voicing his frustration with the government, which censors freedom of expression, but he was quiet on this point. Indeed, in Vietnam, as others had told me, it is not what you do, it is what you say, that can anger the government.

Then, with eyes narrowed, gesturing with his Cohiba, he declared that everyone should embody the “coffee spirit.” But he was vague on the particulars; I wondered if he had a plan.

On my last night, I pressed the Coffee King for more. I wanted to know exactly how he was going to change Vietnam, and then the world, with this coffee spirit. In his flowing white tunic and matching pants, he resembled a prophet. He leaned forward and told me his vision. “My coffee shops,” he said, “will be gathering places where people, especially young people, will exchange ideas, where they will express themselves in all ways, through conversation, performance, art, workshops, lectures. Exciting and influential people will come and teach, and the people of Vietnam will wake up, be enlightened, and be inspired to think creatively and bring change to their country!”

As we sat at the old table on the pavilion, a light rain pattering on the roof, his Arabian horses stamping about in a nearby barn, I saw a man whose vision was clear because his love for his people was unwavering. I was seeing not only an individual with an intention so strong he would stop at nothing, I was also seeing the Vietnamese spirit, that indomitable force that keeps them focused on the goal no matter what the cost.

Catherine Karnow is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler. She will be showing her photography of Vietnam at Benroya Hall in Seattle February 26-28.

Learn more about how you can take a photo workshop with Catherine.