Peter Ryder didn’t know what to expect. In Hanoi on a business trip in January 1992, he paced the lobby of his hotel, waiting to meet the translator who was to be his guide. Would he be a bespectacled academic? Or maybe a Marxist matron in a Mao jacket? Nothing of the kind, as it happened. “In walks this drop-dead-gorgeous woman in tight jeans, a leather bomber jacket and long black hair, who spoke English with a Russian accent,” recalls Ryder, now 46, of the encounter. “I thought I had met my Mata Hari.”
Unlike that femme fatale of World War I fame, who seduced her men and supposedly stole their secrets, Ryder’s translator—now wife—Le Bich Thuy, 33, has become the former Wall Street banker’s trump card in his quest to practice American-style capitalism in Communist-ruled Vietnam. One of only a handful of American entrepreneurs to have successfully cracked the Vietnamese market, Ryder, with crucial help from Thuy (pronounced “twee”), has launched a small family of commercial ventures there—including his latest deal, a $20 million resort on famed China Beach, that was officially signed during Bill Clinton’s historic trip to Vietnam in November. Says Bob Schiffer, an assistant for economic and social issues at the U.S. embassy in Hanoi: “As a team, Peter and Thuy are well on their way to becoming one of the country’s leading business partnerships.”
Ironically, it is one international joint venture that nearly didn’t get off the ground. Thuy, who was born in Hanoi and raised during what the Vietnamese call the American War, was, like many Vietnamese, wary of getting involved with a foreigner, let alone a native New Yorker. “When I was 5, in 1972, the Americans were bombing Hanoi,” explains Thuy, the third of four daughters of a silk-factory supervisor and his homemaker wife. “A bomb actually fell on our house, although it didn’t explode. The last thing I thought I would do was marry an American.”
But Ryder, raised on Long Island by his mom, a real estate broker, and his stepfather, a television PR executive, was determined to woo Thuy from the moment they met. Recently divorced after a 10-year marriage, the former University of Pennsylvania anthropology grad student and top executive with Salomon Brothers investment bank had already worked in Tokyo and was ready for a new challenge. Hired by a Japanese construction firm to conduct a feasibility study in Hanoi, he contacted Rick Mayo-Smith, an American businessman he knew, who in turn asked Thuy to be Ryder’s guide.
She was perfect for the job, having mastered Russian and English at Hanoi’s University of Foreign Languages, but refused to be alone with Ryder until, over the next two years, he won her heart. “I fell in love with a very persistent man,” she says. The couple wed in Hanoi in 1994.
Since then Thuy has opened the QT salons (the letters stand for quan thanh, meaning “shop of the gods”), three luxury beauty emporiums that cater to foreigners and well-heeled Vietnamese men and women. “I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” says Micheline Leubert, wife of the Swiss ambassador to Vietnam. “They spoil me.” For his part, Peter arranged the financing for 63 Ly Thai To, one of Hanoi’s most modern office towers.
While the Ryders decline to discuss finances, according to Mayo-Smith, 48, now a partner in Ryder’s Indochina Capital Corp., “We have investments worth many millions. Peter has a reputation as a guy you can trust, and he’s got a great asset in his smart, beautiful wife.”
The Ryders’ home life is also thriving. Their twin 6-year-olds, Maxwell and Lucas, were until recently enrolled at an international preschool owned by—who else?—their mother (the boys now attend a French-speaking school). “They switch languages as easily as breathing,” boasts Thuy of her trilingual sons. In other words, they, like their parents, are perfectly poised to enjoy the best of both worlds. “We’ve built a very solid foundation,” says Peter of the partnership. “Thuy’s the realist, and I’m the dreamy optimist. We make a very good team.”
Ron Arias in Hanoi