A Candid Interview With the “First American” Tony Salzman – How Did This Tiger Earn His Stripes?

As I sat across from Anthony Salzman, better known in the media as “The First American”, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world could rattle such a charismatic, over-achieving, innovating man. Well, let me tell you not very much…

Having lived and worked in Vietnam for over 18 years, this native New Yorker is tough as nails. I mean how else could he have survived and succeeded in a country under U.S. embargo, with inexistant banking system, no cars and poor infrastructure?

When you search Salzman on the internet, you find out he played a key role in the normalization of the Vietnam-US relationship as well as the signing of the Vietnam-US Bilateral Trade Agreement.

But, you also read he was “the first” at everything in Vietnam… Really? I ask him… the first at everything?

Any powerful man has his detractors, I argue, and those probably wonder if Salzman was indeed the first to ever issue a check… Wasn’t there a banking system in Vietnam before Salzman arrived in 1992? – Was Salzman really the first ever to own a car? that seems so unlikely that in the 90’s a country like Vietnam wouldn’t have cars? and then comes the biggie, the Chicago Tribune states that Salzman was “the first” American to ever do business in Vietnam. Come on! surely there were other Americans who flew to Vietnam with a dollar and a dream and somehow did business there in 1992, no?

Tony Salzman aka “Tony the tiger”, the chairman of V-TRAC Development Co. is a soft-spoken, charismatic (yes I already said that), almost humble man… As he sits across from me while I’m playing the devil’s advocate, he chuckles at my questions and smiles calmly… unbothered he explains:

T.S: “Banks. No, there were no foreign banks in this country when I arrived. No means zero. While I was here, sometime after I arrived, the ANZ bank Australia was the first. Citibank was the second. The country manager for the Australian bank was a wonderful guy named A.M. I chose to deliver the caterpillar banking business to him.

I ran one of the most successful and innovative marketing programs ever: it was a contest to find the oldest operating piece of caterpillar equipment in Vietnam. The reward was $1000. At that point in time the average monthly wage was $80. Submissions poured in from all over Vietnam. And, I thought it was high time that the first check be issued in Vietnam. It was after all a 100% cash society. A virgin banking market. So, we found the oldest caterpillar in the country that was still operating, a bulldozer built in 1937. The runner-up was 1939.

There ought to be some kind of archive photos of this someplace I’ll try to find them. When we announced the winner, it was a celebration attended by a lot of people, and the winner, who was an engineer who owned a tugboat. Sorry, the oldest engine was on the tugboat, the second oldest on the bulldozer. On the tugboat it was used for the propulsion. I remember having seen those huge checks when I was a kid on game shows. The ones the size of the bed. I decided that that was exactly what my company and the bank needed. A gigantic check with both of our logos on it made out to “bearer”. One of my staff members described the smile on the winners face as ear to ear Ivory! Well, the ivory disappeared when he saw this thing, the check, which I announced he had won. During the ceremony I proceeded to explain what a check is: a negotiable instrument. I told the audience that it was about time for Vietnam to start using negotiable instruments, and here is the first one! I invited the very perplexed men to come to the stage, and then I gave him a cheap plastic pen. He looked even more confused. The huge check was held by two bankers as backdrop to me and the very perplexed winner.

At this point in time I asked the bankers to turn the check around to show the blank side to the audience. They did this, and then I asked the winner to sign his name so as to endorse it. You can imagine, he looked even more perplexed then more perplexed then more perplexed! He did not want to sign. I then directed his attention to another representative from the bank who was holding two plastic shopping bags bearing the banks logo. The shopping bags were bursting full of cash. The ivory smile returned. He started to head for the bankers. I said no, you have to sign your name on the back of the check. He really did not know what I was talking about but he realized that he was not going to get near those bags of cash unless he signed his name

So, he signed his name. Then he headed for the bags of cash and once again I told him no, the two other bankers who were holding the gigantic check gave it to him to carry over to the guy holding the two bags of cash he carried the big check over to the other fellow, then an assistant took it from him, and the bags of cash were delivered into his hands. At that point in time probably only me, my wife, and the bankers understood what the heck was going on! Certainly nobody else did! Anyway, that was the first check negotiated in the history of Vietnam, regardless of which government regime one talks about.

Now, you have become the fifth or sixth person in the world to understand the nature of that ceremony and transaction. Unfortunately, I’ve never written any of this any place, or told any reporter. Eventually I’ll find the check picture I hope, in any case it’s quite a story.”

Quite a story indeed, and that takes care of how the tiger earned his stripe as “the first” American to ever issue a check in the history of Vietnam.

But how about being “the first” businessman to do business in Vietnam, that one is pretty preposterous I tell him, now how are you going to explain that Tony?

He smiles, and without a roar he says: “About being the First American doing business, here I confess that the media took some liberties. In fact, there were two others, neither of them had any employees, but there were two others. Oh yes, I am referring to two other Americans in Hanoi, there were some others in South Vietnam, I never knew who they were.”

So that settles it, Anthony Salzman may not have been the only ” first American” ever to do business in Vietnam, but he most certainly was “the first American” ever to have employees in Vietnam. And that is precisely why in 2010 he was bestowed with the most prestigious honor, by receiving the Vietnam Friendship Medal, from President Nguyễn Minh Triết, who recognized the American’s enormous contributions to Vietnam, principally as a pioneer whose personal and business commitment opened a new chapter of friendship and forged the way for others.

While I am impressed with all the anecdotes Salzman shared with me, I point out to him that the devil’s advocate is rarely satisfied…

IDG: I have to ask Tony, the “first” to own a car in Vietnam? Are you kidding? It was the 90’s, every somewhat civilized country had cars… really how could this be?

Without a pause Salzman explains: “NN-35-01, so 35 means United States,and 01 means the first person to register!

The problem arose when the first United States ambassador was appointed. According to protocol, he had to have the number one from the United States!

So I hated negotiation and sued during which I was told that I had to surrender my 01 license plate. There was a solution, typical Vietnamese style: I was given the license number 00 001!

There’s also a story about how I made the match between the ambassador, whose wife had tragically passed away due to terrible illness, and, you guessed it, the female banking officer from the Australia bank.

Now, if your friends the detractors do not believe that I introduced the first American ambassador to his wife, they need to read the next installment of the story!

Hint: The American ambassador had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And the lady banker was a Vietnamese immigrant to Australia. So, the Australian newspapers had headlines saying “U.S. ambassador marries Vietnamese girl”.

Well, this young woman was no slouch! She shot back to reporters saying the headline should have said “ex con Marries Australian diplomat”!

Hopes, I blew the punchline. She had been with the Australian aid organization in Vietnam before she joined the bank.”

That indeed takes care of the “First” to own a car in Vietnam, and of the best American matchmaker in Vietnam. Not only is the record straight but engraved in “steel” rather than stone, as Salzman tells me he still owns the older model Mercedes with its 00 001 Vietnam license plate.

As I thank Salzman for this rather uncanny interview, he graciously thanks me and adds: “When I was a kid there were these stories called “the just so stories” by Rudyard Kipling. My favorite was “how the elephant got its trunk”. I feel like I’ve explained a little bit the same way. [laughs]

In our Just So Story, I say this “tiger” has definitely explained how he has earned his stripes.

2 thoughts on “A Candid Interview With the “First American” Tony Salzman – How Did This Tiger Earn His Stripes?”

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