From small-town teacher to serial UK entrepreneur: a woman’s incredible journey

By Phan Duong   December 18, 2019 | 06:02 am PT
From small-town teacher to serial UK entrepreneur: a woman’s incredible journey
From a small-town teacher in Vietnam, Hai Ngan becomes a serial U.K. entrepreneur. Photo by VnExpress/V.N.
When she left Vietnam for Britain with her English husband, Hai Ngan's only worry was how she would earn a living. 

The town of Aylesbury in the southeast of England is famous for its old pubs. It is also home to the headquarters of a popular jewelry brand though not many local people know its founder is a 40-year-old Vietnamese woman named Hai Ngan. 

"I sometimes find it hard to believe how far I have come," Ngan says. 

Twenty years ago she was a primary school teacher in northern Sapa Town and barely knew any English. One day in September 1999 Ngan and her fellow teachers were eating lunch in school when a group of foreign tourists paid a visit.

After the meal, one of them, Jeremy Knight, asked for Ngan's address. She gave it without a thought. Her school was situated near the Sapa ancient rock field, which received lots of visitors, so she and her students were used to interacting with strangers.

One day she unexpectedly received a letter and a Christmas card from Knight, who described himself as an online trader. He said he wanted to be her friend.

Ngan wrote him back a four-page letter in Vietnamese despite not being sure if he could translate and read it.

During Lunar New Year (Tet) that year she received a reply from him. It turned out he had asked a friend in Ho Chi Minh City to help him translate her letter. He even asked that friend to translate his letter into Vietnamese before sending it to Ngan. 

Since then every six weeks she would get a letter from him, duly translated. The letters gradually helped deepen the connection between two strangers and they developed affection for each other.

Every year Jeremy came to Vietnam to visit her. In 2003, feeling that their relationship had become serious enough, she decided to visit his family in the U.K.

But the idea of traveling to a foreign country, still not very common among Vietnamese, made her nervous. She bought a return ticket because "in case nobody came to pick me up, I could return home." She also bought two gold rings so that "if anything happened, I could sell it for some money."

She carried along a big dictionary. "Nobody was aware I was going, except my mother. However, knowing my independent spirit from a very early age, she fully supported my decision." 

But all her worries disappeared once she landed at the airport and saw the familiar figure of Jeremy. During her three-week visit, he showed her around and helped her explore England in beautiful autumn. 

Ngan, her husband and children. Photo by VnExpress/V.N.

Ngan, her husband and children. Photo by VnExpress/V.N.

Ngan took him to northern Thai Binh Province, her hometown, to meet her family. They married in early in 2004.

"On my wedding day, my relatives jokingly told the groom he has got a ‘jewel’. ‘I will return a treasure’, he joked." She recalls the incident with a smile. 

Ngan knew living in England would be challenging. Her main concern in the beginning was what she would do to earn an income.

Knight says: "Ngan is a strong character. I told her my income would be enough for us but she did not agree. After just three days, she asked me to take her out to look for a job." 

She got a job in a barbershop. It was hard work, having to wash customers' hair, and clean the floor and mirror.

"Doing this was a mental torment and embarrassment for myself, yet I endured to learn English as soon as I could. One day the manager asked me to assist him with cutting the hair of a customer. Looking at myself in the mirror, I became furious with myself."

She went looking for her boss and told him she was quitting then and there. Returning home and seeing her husband, she burst into tears. 

"I was shocked she reacted so strongly, he recalls. 

She was determined to learn English and never worked as an employee.

Knight suggested that she could go to a second-hand market to buy some products and then resell them online. He also realized that for Ngan to work, English was crucial.

"During the first few calls, I could not understand what customers were saying. Either my voice quivered or said ‘sorry, wrong number’," Ngan said.

Gradually she overcame her lack of self-confidence and began to understand what the customers were trying to say.  

Besides interacting with customers, she also studied English at a center and always listened to the TV and radio when at home.

"To speak with my mother-in-law, I would often watch TV with her after dinner. It was both to learn the language and explore her culture. She also got to know my world view." 

She tried doing all kinds of things, from selling tours to DVDs on health. Those jobs were quite trendy at the time, and helped her earn decent money and also prepare for her future business. 

Once, in 2013, she heard on the news that English women bought 10-12 items of jewelry a year on average. An idea struck her and she decided to learn about the jewelry industry.

She went to markets, bought beads and made jewelry, and posted their pictures online. As a woman born in a town well known for its handicrafts, it did not take her long to ensconce herself in the jewelry industry.

Now she runs 12 factories in several countries, and her products are sold on Amazon in the U.K., Italy, France, Germany, Spain, the U.S., and Australia. She also sells them on her companies’ websites and through stores in Britain. The jewelry company earns revenues of VND60-80 billion ($2.59-3.45 million) a year. 

Besides jewelry, the couple also sell weight-loss and children's products and own a company manufacturing labels for supermarkets. She and her husband have outsourced transportation, photography and marketing. They do not keep their products in company warehouses but send them to Amazon's warehouses. 

She has attended a number of courses on web language and online marketing. Her biggest challenge is to strike a balance between family and work. From giving birth to children in a new country with no relatives and taking care of them, she has always had to manage by herself.

The most difficult phase is possibly over: her two children are in secondary and primary school respectively while her businesses are well established. 

Knight recently set up three jewelry workshops in her hometown, and the products made there have been sold in several continents. 

He has indeed returned a "treasure."

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