Making Waves In Vietnam
Most expats end up in Da Nang, Vietnam, as a result of research or recommendations from friends or colleagues.
Not Marc Mrsic. Marc arrived in Da Nang by accident.
Marc flashes his broad smile and explains…
“I’ve always had a thirst for overseas life. I left my hometown of Brisbane at an early age for stints in the U.K., the Middle East, and Europe.”
Marc is the Managing Director of TTS Group (Total Traffic Solutions), a multinational civil engineering firm based in Brisbane and specializing in designing and building roads and transportation infrastructure.
Six years ago, Marc wanted to expand his business abroad and opened the first TTS Group office overseas… in Singapore.
“Honestly, opening the Singapore office was really difficult, but it provided a lot of experience that I continue to leverage,” explains Marc.
A few years later, TTS Group landed a project from the World Bank to build an expressway in Hanoi and a public transit system in Ho Chi Minh City. This led, in September 2014, to the opening of a new branch of TTS in Hanoi.
“My wife Maria and I left for Hanoi just after the office opened with the intention of living there,” Marc explains.
“We share a thirst for living abroad and gaining new experiences, but Hanoi was too big and bustling for our tastes. So, when the Vietnamese New Year (Tet) holiday kicked off a few months later and most businesses in Hanoi closed, we stuck a pin in the map and took off for Da Nang.”
That choice led to quite a fork in the road for the Mrsics.
The couple stayed in a hotel that first trip and fell in love with the beauty of Da Nang, the slow pace of life, the beautiful beaches, and the friendly people.
“We decided we wanted to drop anchor in the city. We rented an apartment in a six-story building a couple of blocks from the beach that we began using as a weekend getaway from Hanoi.
“We’d long tossed around the idea of one day opening a beach bar abroad, but the idea had never taken root. Then it resurfaced in Da Nang.
“We found a nice location on China Beach and started the design work with the help of a local architect.
“We’d only been in Vietnam less than a couple of years, but we’d built a good reputation thanks to our successful World Bank projects.
“In addition, Maria and I had by this time started an initiative called ‘K’s 4 Kids,’ which involves organizing motorcycle getaways for ourselves and other expats based in Vietnam,” Marc continues.
“We go on trips together and donate US$1 for each kilometer traveled to kids in need, so we have fun and get a chance to contribute to the community. Our inaugural event was a 1,500-kilometer trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi that made a big impact. We enjoyed every minute of it.”
However, the local authorities were less enthusiastic about the beach bar project. There is only so much beachfront land to develop in the region, making any beach development project a sensitive topic locally.
Marc tried everything to get the project off the ground, including providing free reports on infrastructure and tourism advice to local authorities, but that still didn’t turn the key.
“Still,” Marc says, “it was rewarding to make that contribution and to generate the goodwill that came with it.”
After three months of trying to get the beach bar going, the Mrsics shifted gears.
“It started out innocently, just the way us landing in Da Nang had been an accident,” grins Marc.
“The laundry room in our building is located on the top floor, offering a spectacular view over China Beach, the city landscape, and the rolling hills in the background. Maria and I were up there doing the laundry over a glass of wine one afternoon when it hit us: That rooftop would make an excellent bar!
“We prepared a renovation design and budget, then approached the landlord, who we already knew well and were on good terms with.”
Long story short, the landlord was enthused that the laundry room could generate a decent income. The trio agreed on a five-year lease, and, presto, The Waves Rooftop Bar was born.
“Even though the lease is only for five years, we invested a lot of money into building a top-quality bar for our customers, mostly tourists, so they’d feel right at home,” Marc says.
“Everything is constructed to Western standards with beautiful furnishings and fixtures throughout.
“The project was also an opportunity to showcase our investment ideas and potential future expansion plans to government agencies, as well as our long-term commitment to this and other venues,” continues Marc.
“After completing renovations, we spent three weeks training the staff so that everyone knew how to do every job upon opening.
“The local authorities are allowing The Waves Rooftop Bar to operate as a 100% foreign-owned business, which is rare,” says Marc with a grin.
“Everyone in a position of authority knows we’re here for the long run, and we’ve demonstrated that we want to give back to the community. This speaks volumes about the integrity of the local officials and who they choose to help succeed in their community,” Marc points out.
Within a month of opening, The Waves had made big waves and become a favorite local watering hole. Marc hired a band to play four times weekly and was so happy with the result that he increased the agreement to six nights per week.
“The band brings in a lot of customers… as do events like Ladies’ Night and Trivia Quiz Night,” explains Marc.
“Now we’re planning to take over the remaining part of the top floor that still houses the laundry, expand the bar, then buy washing machines for each apartment in exchange.”
There are several takeaways from the Mrsic story, the most compelling of which is that, when expats foster good relations with locals, create teamwork, and demonstrate they are there to give and not just take, good things happen.
“Don’t forget,” laughs Marc, “that original beach bar project is still very much alive. We don’t give up that easily!”