Whistle blows for Vietnam tycoon

This 2011 picture shows Nguyen Duc Kien, patron of the banking sector and chairman of Hanoi ACB club, at a meeting in Hanoi.

Story highlights

  • Nguyen Duc Kien, one of Vietnam's most prominent and aggressive tycoons, was arrested
  • The 48-year-old, who cofounded Asia Commercial Bank, is charged with conducting "illegal business"
  • Move could symbolize a backlash against those who have profited from an economic boom
  • Comes after Dang Thi Hoang Yen, one of Vietnam's richest women, was ousted from Vietnam's parliament

This year of the dragon, according to Chinese and Vietnamese astrology, was meant to be fortuitous for Nguyen Duc Kien, one of Vietnam's most prominent and aggressive tycoons.

But despite starting positively -- the businessman successfully launched his breakaway football league after a bitter clash with the state football federation, events took a turn for the worse on Monday night. Mr Kien, who was born in 1964, another dragon year, was arrested by police at his luxury villa in the upmarket West Lake district of Hanoi.

The 48-year-old, who cofounded Asia Commercial Bank, one of Vietnam's biggest lenders, has been charged with conducting "illegal business" by failing to obtain the appropriate licences and registration for three small investment companies that he chairs, according to the Vietnamese government.

While the charges may sound trifling, he faces a maximum of up to two years in jail if found guilty by Vietnam's justice system which, like every other part of the state, is controlled by the Communist party, and rarely acquits suspects.

The arrest of Mr Kien comes just several months after Dang Thi Hoang Yen, one of Vietnam's richest businesswomen, was ousted from Vietnam's parliament. Like their Communist neighbours in China, Vietnam's secretive leaders rarely reveal their true intentions publicly.

But analysts and foreign diplomats in Vietnam believe that the moves against two of the country's first generation of tycoons could symbolise a backlash against those who have profited from an economic boom that has lined the pockets of many businesspeople and politicians but left the country racked by economic instability and bad debts

Born on outskirts of Hanoi, Mr Kien studied at an army academy in Ho Chi Minh City before continuing his military education in 1981 in Hungary, then a fellow Communist nation. On his return he worked for a state-owned textiles company before founding ACB in 1994 with a group of business partners.

Those who have done business with him say he can be "ruthless" and "aggressive" but that he is a genuine businessman rather than just an influence peddler. He was widely believed to have been behind an abortive attempt to take over Sacombank, a rival lender, earlier this year but in a country lacking financial transparency, few hard facts ever emerged about the prospective deal.

After helping build ACB into one of Vietnam's strongest non-state lenders and attracting investment from the likes of Standard Chartered bank and Jardine Matheson, the Hong Kong conglomerate, he shifted his attention to football.

Following a number of angry public outbursts about corrupt and incompetent refereeing and falling match attendances, he audaciously took control of Vietnam's nascent professional football league last year alongside other prominent football club owners.

When his ACB Hanoi team was relegated at the same time, he bought another top flight club and merged the two to maintain his influence in the game.

As he battled with the state-controlled Vietnam Football Federation for control of the television rights for the new league, he warned in the local media that he would be willing to give up his business interests to purse his sporting ambitions.

Now, as the tables are turned and he is thrust into the dragon's den that is Vietnam's politically controlled justice system, he runs the risk of losing everything.