HCMC – Jovel Chan, a young woman from Singapore, came to HCMC to open up a fitness studio in 2020. However, although Covid-19 affected her plan and forced her into 14 days of mandatory quarantine, she did not lose hope. She began blogging and writing about food, had an article get 10,000 hits overnight, did some mentoring and guest lecturing for some of the hospitality universities in Vietnam and is now part of an incubator program called Antler.
In an interview with The Saigon Times, Jovel talks about continuing to pursue her startup dream in Vietnam, the importance of giving back to society and how she plans to take the lessons learned from last year and use them for her personal growth this year. Excerpts:
The Saigon Times: Let’s go a little bit into your background. Are you from Singapore, the big city?
Jovel Chan: The small city, actually. Singapore is a city-country, a city-state and there are as many people in Singapore as there are in Saigon itself. So, it is actually quite small.
How long have you been in Saigon?
It’s been about one year. I moved here in December 2020 and got out of quarantine in January 2021.
How was your quarantine period?
Quarantine back then, unlike the three-day home quarantine that you have now, was 14 days in a hotel where you are greeted by everybody in PPE suits, from head to toe, from the airport to the taxi, to the hotel itself. You don’t see a single human face for the entire 14 days.
How did that affect you?
I struggled a little bit. Having food delivered to you three times a day is okay, but the thing is the windows didn’t open fully, so there were times when I felt a little claustrophobic. That was the only part, but otherwise, it was lovely. The Vietnamese and the people working at the hotel were great. Even if they were coming around just to drop off the food three times a day, they were so friendly, which helped. I managed to make friends with my neighbor across the corridor. I would stick little sticky notes on the chair outside my room where the food was kept; I would say hello to my neighbors and somebody would say hi back. That is how we communicated. It was nice to look across the corridor just to see a face from time to time.
What brought you to Vietnam?
The Vietnamese dream to have my own start-up, to do something that makes a difference here, hustle. I came here for the opportunity.
Have you found that opportunity here?
Definitely. Especially now, when everything is changing in Vietnam. There are so many opportunities and you definitely feel them everywhere you go. There is so much energy everywhere. People are inventing things and trying new things. During the lockdown, my neighbor who runs a hair salon started to sell food. This feels like a place brimming with opportunity and entrepreneurship.
How do you compare it to your home in Singapore? Do you believe that opportunities exist in Singapore for this type of entrepreneurship?
I think that is a great question. In Singapore, we are at the forefront of a lot of things. So, to a certain extent, that does imply there is lot of innovation and entrepreneurship. However, I feel it is very strategic. It is guided based on the nation’s goals, and a lot of things are structured. But in Saigon, it doesn’t feel like that. Here, if you want to do something and it is easy, you can do it. If I wanted to do something tomorrow that was a crazy idea, I could just do it.
Have you found a startup community?
Thankfully, I am a part of an incubator program called Antler. Through it, we have access to a lot of resources and mentors and are also in a community comprising very inspiring founders in Vietnam, both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. So I think that it has been very rewarding because of my position in this program. However, I originally came here to open a fitness studio.
Thank you. I came here to open up a fitness studio, but it wasn’t easy. Everybody wanted to help but it was not easy to get help here in the startup community.
Now that you are in the hospitality training startup, what background and skills led you to this?
I think there are two key traits. I love the hospitality industry. I think I have a great passion for this industry. I went to school and studied hospitality and have not done anything else for the past almost decade. I think the second thing is that I’m passionate about it. I also always believe in sending the elevator back down.
What do you mean by that?
If you have made it to a certain level, a certain position, constantly send the elevator back down to take someone up again.
Like giving back?
Yes, give back and help someone grow under you. During my time in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to do a little bit of mentoring, and I did some guest lecturing for some of the universities in hospitality here. That was such a rewarding experience to share and connect with the next generation of leaders. I wanted to do that on a massive scale; to help and talk about what I know of in hospitality and how great it can be, especially when I think many people are feeling very demoralized.
The hospitality industry specifically appears to lean more on soft skills versus hard skills at times.
Exactly. Because the one thing that you learn in hospitality is how to deliver great guest experiences and anticipate what somebody’s needs are. That, in a nutshell, is almost empathy. It is assessing how someone is and delivering a solution, or a product or service that you know will make somebody feel better.
You have a lot of connections in the hospitality industry here in Saigon that you have made over the last year.
I would say more than an average person.
What helped you make these connections?
Like I said, I came here to open a fitness studio. That didn’t happen; the pandemic affected my plans. I started writing and blogging in February, right about this time.
Writing and blogging about what?
I started writing and blogging about food. My first article was actually just a roundup guide of the restaurants open during Tet. Last year, the lockdown was happening during this time, so many people were staying in Saigon and not travelling because they were scared they wouldn’t be able to return. A lot of restaurants at that point had already announced they were closed. They thought it was going to be another normal year. So, a lot of foreigners and locals were talking about which restaurants were going to be open. You could see on every Facebook group. I decided that I was just going to write something and put it all in one place. Overnight, it was shared and spread like wildfire. This article had 10,000 hits overnight.
What are your expectations for the year 2022?
I think my expectation for this year is to take everything that I learned last year, adapt, be better at my business and enjoy personal growth this year. I came in 2021 wanting a lot and beat myself up because I wasn’t able to get it because of the pandemic. I think that was a huge learning. This is the new normal. Let’s look at it realistically and not be too upset if things don’t go our way.