HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnamese businessman Pham Dinh Nguyen flew to the U.S. for the first time, drove to a tiny, frigid trading outpost and bought his own piece of the American dream: Buford, Wyoming – population 1.
Nguyen's name was not released last week when he won the auction for Buford – billed as the nation's smallest town – but he has since drawn attention in Vietnamese media and on social networks. Many are lauding him for showing the world that Vietnam has moved far beyond war and poverty.
Nguyen, who bid $900,000 for Buford, runs a trade and distribution company in southern Ho Chi Minh City. He said that although he is not exactly sure what he will do with the town just off Interstate 80, he expects to use it to sell items made in Vietnam.
"Frankly, I just see Buford as part of the United States: A large and potential market for Vietnamese goods," Nguyen told state-controlled media. "Buford is likely to be the showroom for such goods."
Nguyen, 38, has been quoted widely by local media since the April 5 sale, but he did not respond to emailed requests for comment from The Associated Press or return phone messages left with his company, International Distribution Services. An employee confirmed that Nguyen bought the town.
His purchase impressed many Vietnamese. Businessman Tran Thanh Tung said Friday in Hanoi that he was "surprised, but also proud."
It's "something that one could not imagine few years ago," he said.
Buford consists of a gas station and convenience store, a 1905 schoolhouse, a cabin, a garage and a three-bedroom house on 10 acres between Cheyenne and Laramie.
The town was formed as the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the 1860s. Up to 2,000 people lived there before the railroad was rerouted. Now, it's more of a stop off the busy interstate for passers-by eager to get a snapshot with the green road sign that reads "Buford, Pop 1."
The remote property is 8,000 feet above sea level, and Nguyen said that when he visited this month on his first trip to the U.S. that, "waves of skin-cutting cold blew into my face."
"However, I was undeterred because of the desire to own this town," he said.
Nguyen put down $100,000 and will have 30 days to complete the purchase. He says family members in the U.S. are helping to finance the investment, which will help overcome barriers faced back home.
Vietnam is a communist country with strict laws and a maze of red tape – foreigners, for instance, are forbidden from owning property here – and any land bought outside the country requires government approval and a license to transfer money abroad.
Not everyone in Vietnam thinks Buford is a smart buy.
Hanoi student Nguyen Hoang said it was "nonsense to invest such a large amount of money to buy a town in the middle of nowhere."
"It would make more sense if he invested the money in Vietnam to create jobs for his countrymen," he said.
The town was sold by Don Sammons, the self-proclaimed "mayor" who owned it for the past two decades and was its sole inhabitant. He now plans to retire and write a book about his life there.
Sammons served a tour in Vietnam from 1968-69 as a U.S. Army radio operator, and said at the time of the sale that his life has come full circle.
Nguyen is from the city formerly known as Saigon, the U.S.-backed capital of South Vietnam that fell to the northern communists in 1975, ending the Vietnam War. Some 58,000 Americans died, along with an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.
But much has changed in Vietnam since the days of bombs and jungle guerrilla fighting. It has attracted many American businesses and emerged as one of the fastest-growing countries in Asia, with people who once went hungry grabbing onto every opportunity available. Even in small-town America.
"To be honest, I do not have a specific plan for the town," Nguyen said. "But I think we Vietnamese should not feel inferior. Nothing is impossible!"
Associated Press writer Tran Van Minh contributed to this report from Hanoi. Follow Margie Mason at http://www.twitter.com/margiemasonap