Allen & Overy has announced plans to open two offices in Vietnam, one in Ho Chi Minh City and one in Hanoi. The British Magic Circle firm has recruited Mayer Brown JSM Vietnam managing partner Dao Nguyen to lead its efforts in the country.
 
In a statement, Allen & Overy Asia managing partner Thomas Brown cast the expansion into Vietnam as a part of a broader strategy to build an “unrivalled footprint” across Southeast Asia.
 
“Vietnam is rapidly establishing itself as a key jurisdiction within South East Asia and is of increasing interest to international companies and investors,” Brown said. Allen & Overy has already advised on many of the country’s bigger capital markets transactions, including a $250 million bond offering last month by VietinBank and $1 billion sovereign issue at the beginning of 2010.
 
A move into Vietnam by Allen & Overy had long been rumored, but speculation had previously focused on the firm’s referral relationship with local firm Audier & Partners. A spokeswoman for Allen & Overy said that relationship was terminated last December but that the firms continued to be friendly and will refer work when appropriate. Nicholas Audier, managing partner of the Vietnamese firm, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
 
One of the leading international firm lawyers in Vietnam, Nguyen specializes in mergers and acquisitions, real estate, and infrastructure-related deals. She also regularly advises foreign companies on their investments in Vietnam. Qualified in the U.S. and in Hong Kong, Nguyen joined the former Johnson Stokes & Master as a Hong Kong associate in 1996, both becoming a partner and relocating to Ho Chi Minh City in 2002. Hong Kong-based Johnson Stokes merged with Mayer Brown in 2008.
 
Nguyen, who will start at Allen & Overy later this year, will continue to be based in Ho Chi Minh City but will manage both offices. The firm said it is looking to hire additional partners and associates as well.
 
Though Vietnam’s potential for economic growth is often compared to that of China a decade ago, the market has proven a difficult one for international firms. Though several opened offices there in the mid-90s, just after the country’s normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S., a number, including Clifford Chance, White & Case, and Freehills, have since pulled out of the country. Lawyers in the country generally point to widespread corruption as an obstacle to foreign investment and an impediment to progress on major infrastructure and energy projects.
 
A few firms have built successful practices there, among them Baker & McKenzie, Allens, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, and Mayer Brown. It is unclear how Nguyen’s departure will affect her former firm’s standing in the market.
 
In a statement, Mayer Brown thanked Nguyen for her service and said: “ Mayer Brown JSM has been operating in Vietnam since 1994, and we remain deeply committed to having a strong presence in this important growing market to continue serving all our valued clients.”
 
More recently, Vietnam has been targeted for international expansion by many regional Asian firms, including Singapore’s Rajah & Tann, Japan’s Nishimura & Asahi and Korea’s Yulchon. In this feature from last summer, The Asian Lawyer also examined how Vietnam was at the core of the unorthodox Asia strategy being followed by Philadelphia’s Duane Morris.
 
Email: jseah@alm.com