Harper’s Bazaar caught up with Mary Tarnowka at one of her favorite establishments, Maison Marou cafe, patisserie, and chocolate factory on Calmette
— CHRIS THOMPSON.
Justifying her Marou habit, Mary explained that although both of the co-founders, Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou, are French, Vincent Mourou is a dual national American and Marou also has an American manager and pastry sous chef and they are a member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam (AmCham). Marou was a fitting place for us to meet since the brand showcases the best of Vietnamese ingredients with international entrepreneurial flair and passion, winning acclaim both in Vietnam, as well as in global competitions.
It is leaders like Mary who build bridges and facilitate connections among people and between Vietnam and the wider world. Mary is originally from the American Midwest, but considers her emotional home and domicile as San Francisco. She honed her skills as a diplomat, with decades of experience working in Asia, including in Seoul, Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei, before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City. As U.S. Consul General, she focused on strengthening the overall comprehensive partnership between the United States and Vietnam, promoting what she called the 3Ps – Peace, Prosperity, and People-to-People ties.
In her new role as Executive Director of AmCham Vietnam for Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, she works to strengthen trade and investment ties, in part through continuing to expand her network of personal relationships. As we met, she was enthusiastically finalizing last-minute details for AmCham’s annual Independence Day Celebration, this time featuring more famous U.S. brands as well as traditional American foods from local American chefs and restaurant owners, including 2019 Chef of the Year Peter Cuong Franklin of Anan.
HARPER’S BAZAAR (HB): Hi Mary, how has living in Asia affected your personal style and sense of fashion?
MARY TARNOWKA: I am inspired by street-style traditional textiles and designs as well as an increasing number of local high-fashion designers. But at 5’10 (178 cm), I often feel like an Amazonian when I try to buy anything readymade, so I usually try to channel my inspirations with the many talented local tailors.
I really admire designers like Chula who incorporate Vietnamese traditional motifs in modern styles and a range of sizes. And Betty Trần, who just had a fantastic show at The Reverie Saigon with a stunning collection of elegant dresses and models of various shapes and sizes.
HB: What was your first impression of Vietnam?
MARY TARNOWKA: I first visited in 2003. I loved wandering through the narrow streets, the small shops and street vendors of Hanoi’s Old Quarter by Hoan Kiem Lake. I was terrified to cross what I remember as six lanes of motorcycle traffic in Saigon on Nguyen Hue before it became a walking street. Over time, I grew to love the dynamism and energy of Saigon, and the entrepreneurial spirit and openness of the Saigonese people.
HB: What has been the biggest change for you transitioning from life as a U. S. diplomat to your new role leading one of the largest foreign business organizations in Vietnam?
MARY TARNOWKA: I found my career as a diplomat incredibly rewarding and have deep respect for my colleagues, but it has been liberating to return to the private sector where I have much more autonomy. I work with a small but talented team at AmCham that is dedicated to helping our members, through networking, sharing best practices, gaining business intelligence and policy advocacy to improve the business environment.
Our mission is to be the most strategic, influential business association in Vietnam, strengthening U.S.-Vietnam trade and investment ties, driving innovation and sustainable growth.
HB: Describe your thoughts on the role of women as business leaders in Vietnam?
MARY TARNOWKA: The talent and achievements of Vietnam’s female business leaders impresses me. I think business leaders in Vietnam – and around the world – need to do a better job recruiting, developing, and tapping into the talents of women to ensure diversity and inclusivity within their teams. I also look forward to seeing more women in the most senior positions in the Vietnamese government – and the U.S.!
HB: What advice would you give Vietnamese women to guide their path towards a successful business career?
MARY TARNOWKA: Don’t give up. Keep trying and learn from your mistakes and try again. Find a support network and mentors and be a mentor and supporter of other women. Join AmCham’s Women in Leadership events and Irene Oehler’s Women’s Storytelling Salon.
“Women should find a support network and mentors and be mentors and supporters of other women”
HB: How have you noticed how Vietnamese culture is represented in the U.S.?
MARY TARNOWKA: Vietnamese cuisine has become more and more popular in the United States in recent years. Everyone has their favorite pho shop, and nuoc mam is becoming a common staple in American kitchens. Vietnam has also become famous in the United States and globally in recent months for its impressive success in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak in Vietnam. And the Ghen Co Vy song and TikTok videos went viral in a very positive way.
HB: How about Vietnamese cuisine, any favorite dishes that you’d like to share with us and where do you most enjoy dining out?
MARY TARNOWKA: I love Vietnamese cuisine and that is mostly what my daughter and I eat at home, including banh xeo, bo la lot, goi ga, mi Quang. We often get banh mi on weekends and love the che at Ben Thanh market.
HB: How do you like to relax in your “hometown” of Ho Chi Minh City?
MARY TARNOWKA: Mostly, I like to just spend time with my teenaged daughter, Zofia, and my dog, Pabu. I also love to tend to my garden and go out to local shops to buy new plants, particularly fragrant flowering plants and orchids. When I was Consul General, my terrace got a bit crowded with all my purchases. It may be happening again.
I also enjoy kayaking on the Saigon River. You get a totally different perspective on the city, and when in the creeks of Thanh Da Island, can feel a world away.
To keep fit, I also take an outdoor cardio fitness class at the Boathouse from a crazy French personal trainer and former professional boxer Cyril Terrones of BodyandMind Gym, and reward myself with a fresh coconut or soda chanh after.
I also love to explore local markets and try the street food. I spent hours in Cholon recently shopping for decorative trim for a bicycle rickshaw (cyclo) I brought with me from Delhi. Last Sunday, a photographer friend Sang Nguyen successfully persuaded me to get up at 4.30 AM to go to Binh Dien market.
It was fascinating, even if many of the local vendors were already closing up when we arrived around 5.30 AM.
HB: And finally, what is your idea of an ideal vacation within Vietnam?
MARY TARNOWKA: There are too many choices! I am enjoying the fact that AmCham just opened a chapter in Da Nang to support our growing membership in Central Vietnam. It gives me an excuse to visit more frequently, and take some personal time to explore.
In recent trips, besides early morning walks on the beach and evening walks and visits to restaurants like Mango Mango and Streets in Hoi An, I saw endangered red-shanked langur in the national preserve on Son Tra peninsula, and finally visited the Cham Museum’s impressive collection of Cham artifacts. Next trip, I think I need to finally drive over the Hai Van pass to Hue, one of my favorite cities in Vietnam for all its cultural heritage – and delicious banh beo, banh khoai, and che!
In a few weeks, I look forward to traveling to Dak Lak with my daughter and having a chance to bike, hike, and kayak. This fall, I want to finally visit Sapa’s rice terraces and Ninh Binh’s caves.
While I know the current lack of international tourists presents serious challenges to Vietnam’s tourism sector, it also creates amazing opportunities for those of us who live here to support local businesses and rediscover Vietnam – without the usual crowds!
HB: Thank you Mary Tarnowka. I wish you the best of luck on your journey!