Hanoi’s First Finnish Settler

Matti Nurmi is a Finnish electrician-engineer-turned-restaurant-and-kindergarten-owner who has lived in Vietnam for over 20 years. He is one of Vietnam’s first Finnish settlers.
    Maybe you know him as his name became pretty well-known in Hanoi back in the 90s when “waterfall” bangs, Hip-Hop, Nintendo Boys and horn-rimmed spectacles were hot. Back then Matti opened one of Hanoi’s first Western bars “the Sunset Pub”. If this still doesn’t ring any bells maybe you remember him as the man in the fancy Porsche which he used to cruise around in to promote his restaurant business. There is no doubt that to Matti the 90s was the decade of fun but also lots of hard work. Today he dedicates most of his time to his Kindergarten and security glass business, a quite different line of work from when he was entertaining guests out on the balcony of Sunset Pub. 

Finland – A little boring
The 54-year old father of two originally moved to Vietnam in 1989 because he felt as if he needed some new scenery. Finland had gradually become a little too dull and cold to his taste.
    It was the Whitbread Ocean Race (today Volvo Ocean Race) however that really ignited his urge to travel overseas. But even with an experienced background in local sailing there was no open spot for him. Unable to participate in the race due to cutthroat competition he turned to the newspaper to look for overseas jobs. He came across an ad for a job in Vietnam with a Finnish government water supply project, applied for the job and got it. But for a young Finn with no previous knowledge of Vietnam the place was a little odd. “It was quite strange to come here. Today the buildings look totally different, everything back then was without paint; there were no lights and no roads. Hanoi has developed a lot since then”, he says.
    Matti ended up working with the water supply project for five years and during this time met his Vietnamese wife Trieu Nguyen who was working on the same project as him. The couple married in 1990.
    After leaving the water project he had no what so ever desire to return to Finland. “I didn’t want to go back. Finland is a cold country and there is nobody there, he laughs, adding that: “When you first get a taste of the life in Vietnam then there is not much happening over there.”
    Like Matti his wife wasn’t too keen on replacing Vietnam’s warm climate with Finland’s icy winds so in 1993 the couple decided to open the western bar Sunset Pub in Hanoi. – One of the first of its kind located on the fifth floor over the Dong Do Hotel.

A real foreigner place
It sounds as though Matti has mostly fun and warm memories of Sunset Pub’s glory days despite the fact that the place demanded a lot of his blood, sweat, toil and tears.
    The place was a real foreigner place and when former US-president Bill Clinton lifted the American-economic sanctions against Vietnam in 1994 the business really shot up. Americans flocked to the country to make business and every night the place was packed with business people, mostly Americans. Sunset Pub was the place to go, the only place to go actually, Matti says.
    During that time Matti used to drive around in his Porsche which he’d had delivered all the way from Europe. On the way over the cargo boat lost its propeller so it took about half a year before the car was on Vietnamese ground. But it was worth the wait. Back then nobody had a car like that. “You are number one”, people used to shout with their thumbs in the air, when Matti came driving past them on the dusty roads.
    The car was mostly used with the purpose of promoting the restaurant/bar business and it was a brilliant idea for he really managed to draw attention to himself. Even to this day people come up to him and say: “Hi, aren’t you Matti from Sunset Pub?” – Many asking why the place isn’t open anymore. “People have good memories from that time”, Matti says.
    But with a small boy at home the pub was just too much work, so Matti and his wife decided to say enough is enough and turn the key in 1998.
    When Sunset Pub closed down a lot of Western places had shot up. “The Vietnamese copy ideas very fast. In the beginning we were kings of the market but now there are lots of restaurants that look like ours did”, Matti says. When he is asked about whether he misses running the restaurant he answers no, unhesitatingly. “Everybody who has tried to run a restaurant knows that it’s tuff business, wherever you run it. It’s not easy work. Our dream is one day to open a bar just for fun and then not run it ourselves”, he laughs. “But it’s just a dream”. 

Opened up his own kindergarten
As if a time-consuming restaurant business wasn’t enough Matti and his wife chose to open the school Morningstar International Kindergarten in 1995 while running the pub.
    Matti’s wife came up with the idea after realizing how difficult it was to find a kindergarten for their older son Peter. People looked at her as if she was crazy when she said she would open up her own school but back then there was only one international school so the international kindergarten was very welcomed by the local expat community.
    Matti was focusing a lot on the restaurant during this time so it was his wife who ran the kindergarten (while also working as an English teacher.
    Since 1995 Morningstar International Kindergarten has grown and today the school provides care and education programs for children from 18 months to 7 years at its two campuses in Ba Dinh District and the Tay Ho District of West Lake in Hanoi. Matti and his wife are now looking to expand the school business since there is a big demand for international schools in Vietnam. According to Matti education in Vietnam is a bit of a problem. The education is not at the right level yet and right now a lot of Vietnamese families send their kids out of the country to study or send them to international schools in Vietnam, he says.
    Alongside the kindergarten business Matti runs the company Morningstar Safety Glass. The company provides safety glass improvements for factories and companies but doesn’t sell the glass only the machinery and know-how. The company started less then 10 years ago and “is more a hobby than a business”, Matti adds with a smile.

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