Bloomberg’s Women Behind the News: K. Oanh Ha

March 16, 2013 — Bloomberg News’ Vietnam bureau chief K. Oanh Ha speaks to economy reporter Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen on returning to report on her homeland’s renewal and leading Bloomberg’s only all-female news bureau.

K. Oanh Ha spent her early childhood in Saigon. In 1979, she left Vietnam on a boat with her family and lived in a Malaysian refugee camp for a year before moving to California. Thirty-two years later, she became Bloomberg’s Vietnam bureau chief, based in Hanoi.

Ha leads four women journalists who are chronicling the communist nation’s transformation toward what its government calls a “socialist-oriented market economy.” It’s her first job as a manager, not counting that she’s the oldest of eight siblings, she says.

Before joining Bloomberg, Ha worked as a business reporter at the San Jose Mercury News and for San Francisco’s KQED, a public radio and TV station, focusing on Asia-Pacific issues. She has a BA from the University of California Los Angeles, and speaks English, Vietnamese and Spanish.

Ha spoke with Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen, who covers the Vietnamese economy. Nguyen joined Bloomberg as a stringer in 2006. She graduated from Hanoi’s Foreign Language University, and worked at Deutsche Presse-Agentur before joining Bloomberg.

Nguyen: How did you get into journalism?

Ha: I grew up in neighborhoods where parents didn’t let their kids out because there might be trouble. My parents were working hard, and we didn’t travel much outside of our Orange County, California, suburb.

I was desperately curious about the world around me. My dad delivered newspapers for a while, and he brought them home. Every Sunday, I would spread the newspaper out in front of me and read it from front to back. I especially loved the stories from foreign countries because it was a peek into other people’s worlds and lives that were so different than mine.

I was about 10, and I pretty much knew then that I wanted to be a writer and reporter. I wanted to bring faraway places into someone’s living room.

Nguyen: How did your career lead you to Bloomberg?

Ha: One of my many internships was at the Wall Street Journal in Los Angeles. That showed me that you can write about money, finances, the economy in very compelling ways. And I got over my fear of numbers.

I also learned a lot about business reporting in my years at the San Jose Mercury News. The paper had a bureau in Vietnam and I had my eye set on that job from day one, but when the paper closed the bureau as part of cutbacks, I looked for other opportunities. I took over as host of a public radio news show called “Pacific Time” that was broadcast across the U.S. The show was produced by KQED in San Francisco and delved into the connections between California and Asia, and the Asian-American experience. I had never done radio before and I learned so much about telling stories for a listening audience.

Then a friend who works for Bloomberg in Seattle told me about the Vietnam opening. I couldn’t say no to coming back and bringing the story of this country to a broad audience. Maybe a little girl somewhere in Orange County or Burmingham, Alabama, is reading our stories.

Nguyen: What do you think is the Vietnam story?

Ha: I’d traveled to Vietnam on reporting and personal trips for about a decade before being based here. Vietnam’s narrative for many Americans and Europeans is still colored by the war. This is our opportunity to tell the story of a vibrant economy, wide-spread entrepreneurship and the yearnings of many Vietnamese who hunger for more of everything.

This year and the next few could be the most important period of Vietnam’s development since the doi moi economic reforms in 1986 that opened up the country and its economy. Investors are watching how and when the government will carry out the restructuring of state-owned companies and the changes needed to make the financial sector healthy. There’s a lot of public debate on how to amend the constitution, and Vietnam is at a crossroads economically and politically.

Nguyen: What challenges do we face reporting in Vietnam that you didn’t have in the U.S.?

Ha: Not having access to public records is a big challenge. The lack of transparency isn’t good for investors or for developing a strong, independent press. That’s where Bloomberg can make a difference, with accurate, exclusive stories readers can rely on and lots of useful, hard-to-get data. It is more difficult to get officials and even chief executives to talk to the media than in the U.S. That forces us to be creative.

I remember we chased and chased an executive of a Vietnamese company for an interview and he kept dodging us. We brought a pizza over to his office, unannounced. It was such an un-Vietnamese thing to do. He was totally caught off guard by it and we ended up getting a great exclusive story out of it at time when no one could get him to comment.

We’ve accomplished real breakthroughs in the last two years. The prime minister granted his first foreign media interview in Vietnam to Bloomberg. We’re sponsoring our first-ever market education event with the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange this month.

Nguyen: Our bureau here in Hanoi is an all-women staff. How does that make us different than other Bloomberg offices?

Ha: We certainly have a lot more fun here! We’re probably in the running for the noisiest bureau, and we could probably start our own Dine section on Hanoi street food with the constant smorgasbord of food in this office.

I sometimes feel that I’ve managed to pick up four more sisters. There’s constant chatter in the office. We get laughs out of it, and that continuous communication sparks a lot of stories and ideas. What I’m most proud of is that this bureau carries out the best of the Bloomberg values every day and it’s intuitive for all of us. I love it that when a big story breaks, such as the financial tycoon arrest that sent the market plunging or the apology by the Communist Party head, everyone just dives in until it’s done. Working together well as a team is critical when you are in a small bureau. Visitors often remark that we have a fun, cozy office. When you feel supported, encouraged at work and you’re having fun, you produce your best work.

Nguyen: Any advice you have for young women reporters starting their careers?

Ha: Seek out good mentors, someone who you want to emulate. That’s so important for your development. I’ve had some excellent mentors who are also friends and have learned a lot from them.

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