35 Years After War's End, Vietnamese Diaspora Finds Its Way Home

35 Years After War's End, Vietnamese Diaspora Finds Its Way Home

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Nguyen Qui Duc, a Vietnamese refugee who became an American radio host and the author of the memoir Where the Ashes Are, has found yet another incarnation in his mid-50s: Bar owner and art curator in Hanoi, Vietnam. Why would he come back to the country from which he once fled? “Home is where there’s a sense of connection, of family, of community,” he said after struggling to find a single answer. “And I found it here.”

But Duc is not alone. Every year, nearly 500,000 Viet Kieu—Vietnamese living overseas—return to Vietnam, many only to visit relatives, but others increasingly to work, invest and retire. The majority of them are from the United States, where the largest Vietnamese immigrant population resides. Indeed, 35 years after the Vietnam War ended, the Vietnamese Diaspora is now falling slowly, but surely, back into Vietnam’s orbit.

Not long ago, a Vietnamese living abroad had little more than nostalgic memories to keep cultural ties alive. During the Cold War, letters from the United States could take half a year to reach Vietnam. But 15 years after the United States normalized diplomatic ties with Vietnam, and three years after Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, Hanoi is but an 18-hour flight from Los Angeles, and Vietnamese thousands of miles apart chat online, talk on Skype, and text or call each other on the cell phone. Tourism from Vietnam to the United States is increasingly common. Hanoi is even considering granting dual citizenship to the Viet Kieu to encourage further repatriation.

Duc, like many Vietnamese overseas, is playing an important role in Vietnam’s economic and cultural life. In 2008, despite the global economic slowdown, Vietnam received more than $7 billion in remittances from immigrants living abroad, according to news reports.
That same year, the country’s Chamber of Commerce reported some $5 billion in pledges by international donors for official development assistance.

The Vietnamese government has credited the Diaspora with reducing poverty and spurring economic development. “But the overseas influence on Vietnam is for more than just remittances,” said Duy Tran, a Viet Kieu businessman visiting from Los Angeles.

Tran said he fled as a boat person in the late 70s because his cousin sent home photos of her new life in America showing sports cars and high-rise buildings and wealthy Vietnamese Americans. “I followed her footsteps. I knew if she could become successful, so could I.”

Vuot bien, the Vietnamese phrase meaning to escape or to cross the border, became a household word in the 1980s, Tran said. “Everyone wanted to vuot bien and come to America.” Now? “Now,” he said, laughing, “I’m back to invest in real estate.”

The irony is that in the 21st century, many are looking at Vietnam as the next big investment opportunity. Vietnam has the second-fastest-growing economy in Asia, after China. It ranks 20th in thew world in terns of Internet access.

Victor Luu, who fled Vietnam a day before Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to communist tanks on April 30, 1975, has become a successful software engineer who participated in several start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley. In 2006, he returned to his hometown and founded Siglaz, a software company with more than 50 employees. In his new office in a tall building in an area near the airport called E-Town, Luu could see the runway from which his plane full of panicked refugees took off 35 years ago. Of his workers, he said, “They are very quick learners, and they have a lot of Ph.Ds. [Many] went to Russia to study, and came back with very high degrees in math [and] artificial intelligence. These are the people [who] end up in our company.”

“I fully believe in Vietnam,” he added. “The future is here. And I want to help it happen.”

Diep Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back five years ago to help fight human trafficking in her home province, An Giang in the Mekong Delta. “I always remember my mother saying to us that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out what that reason is,” she said.

As the rich-poor gap in Vietnam has widened with the growth of the economy, human trafficking has become a scourge. Vuong’s programs are part of the Pacific Links Foundation’s effort to empower young women, providing education, skills training, scholarships and shelter to those at risk. “Increasingly, Vietnamese Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”

There’s another form of Viet Kieu contribution that is not so tangible, but arguably just as important. Nguyen Qui Duc’s bar, Tadioto, a narrow, three-story “tube” house on Trieu Viet Vuong Street in Hanoi, has become a gathering place for artists, writers and intellectuals—expatriates and locals alike. Avant garde pieces hang on walls or stand in the middle of rooms, including a green mannequin lying in an open glass coffin reminiscent of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. “I think I am pushing some envelopes. I am talking about issues that are generally not talked about.”

Visitors to Tadioto include ambassadors, human rights workers, and other members of the diplomatic communities. “Public space is not yet what it should be in Vietnam,” Duc added. “I’m aiming to change that—to bring real dialogue between different people.”

Andrew Lam is editor of New America Media and author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."  Check here for his speaking events in the west coast.