Walking in SpaceBar any day and you probably will find a guy sitting in at a corner table, staring at his laptop, next to a half-empty cup of coffee. He has slim and tall figure, tanned skin, single eyelids on a face too-cool-to-socialize; unsure if Vietnamese or foreigner. But try to ring the bell at the bar, this mysterious person will swiftly approach you, pen in his hand: “May I get you something?” And if you’re lucky, his solitude vibe will disintegrate, being replaced a smile as sincere and harmless as of a farm boy you stumble upon at the dirt road of Vietnam villages. That person is Christian Ki; and we call him CK.
The wild childhood
That smile can be traced back to his childhood. CK himself was a farm boy. He was born in a tiny straw-and-mud house 30 years ago in Vung Tau. The house did not have electricity. What it had plenty was dust: dust on furniture, on skin, on eyes; with the passing of big trucks on the nearby highway. Despite the lack of materials, CK recalled a magical childhood: lots of free time, no worries, catching crabs, playing games in the woods and the riverbanks, working at a rubber farm, illegally.
My face widens. CK goes on, as casually as commenting on weather.
“My mother and I worked illegally at a rubber farm to earn more money. We sneaked around to steal rubber milk, sometimes right in front of a guard with a gun in his hands. I was a two-grader at the time.”
“It was the happiest time of my life,” he concludes.
The spirit of an explorer showed early in CK. Thus, he did not like his teenage years in Hoi An – a nice city to visit but – with his temperament – too suffocating to live and work in. Plus, “I don’t play well with others,” CK admits – not to my surprise.
After finishing high school, he ran away on a 1-year cross-country trip, exploring different terrains of Vietnam like an untethered horse. CK’s interest in travelling then led to the 2 years studying Hospitality Management in Singapore. Alone, the eager 19-year-old boarded his first plane abroad; it was SilkAir. CK arrived at midnight to one of the most expensive city on earth without yet a place to stay – because why not?
By the end of his study, CK decided to return to Hoi An with the passing of his older brother. Unlike the trend of young Vietnamese moving South, CK swam upstream to Hanoi in 2012. He had an intuitive urge: “It was a spiritual calling.”
Of freelancing, and dynamites
From 2012 to 2014, he was close the expat community and freelanced for various projects as hotel butler, tour and ticket booking person, technical interpreter, hospitality consultant. This added to a myriad of other working experiences during his college years. They seem unrelated at first glance; but all had one thing in common: offering a helpful service for people in need. He said yes to whatever he knew how to do – sometimes also to things he didn’t know for sure.
“Have you ever carried explosives?”
My face widens again. I say I haven’t and don’t have yet any craving to do so.
“We blew things up 6 times per day. When I worked as technical interpreter of a Canadian mining company, I used to hold 15kg of dynamites in my arms. I stuffed dynamite in a hole with a stick. It wouldn’t explode.”
Apparently it didn’t. At the same mining site, he walked several kilometers down a sloped tunnel, holding a robe. The tunnel was pitch-black, small like a wormhole.
Becoming an entrepreneur
In between the ticket booking, the travelling, the translation, the explosions, the underground walk; CK put in stock countless tips on how to settle in and get around Vietnam, both in life and work. He knows how to help: from getting a Sim card, to booking an authentic tour, to getting a temporary residence. The demand for this kind of expat service was clear.
However, this demand wasn’t the only reason CK created his own company in 2014. When I ask about his motivation, CK thinks for a brief moment and shares about his compassion for the villagers.
“In the rural areas, there are people who deserve better lives. They are not getting enough help. At the same time, I know expats who dedicate their lives to Vietnam, but they lack support.”
This compassion for the village life was born in his wild childhood. Same way as the love for Vietnam natural landscapes was born in his years of travelling. Many travelers arrive to the hustle bustle of the big cities and label it Vietnam. While the truth is they need to see the life at the villages to understand the totality of what Vietnam has to offer.
What pains CK is how the rural villagers regard themselves as inferior to foreigners. He feels compelled to change that. “One of my visions is to reduce the gap between the local villagers and the expats.”
This urge, combined with a compassion for the village life, a willingness to help the expat community, and a love for Vietnam landscape, leads to the creation of “The Insight Frog” in April 2014.
The Insight Frog does many things: assist visa, work permit, and residence permit process; book accommodation and flight; arrange tour and travelling; provide technical interpreter, organize events, and giving hospitality consultancy.
May sounds like a mouthful but the company simply reflects CK’s way of working: offering helpful services to people in need – whatever within its’ capability.
Besides running his company, CK is now a partner of ClickSpace – putting his expertise in Hospitality Management into work. He also serves Quinoa Salad at your table and makes you Matcha iced blend. But this should not surprise you by now.
A story by Milena Nguyen