Forty Years after Escaping War, ‘Boat People' Find Fortune Back in Vietnam

By Lien Hoang 10 March 2015

HO CHI MINH CITY — As one of the Vietnam War’s final battles raged four decades ago, Quynh Pham lay with her mother in a field covered in a stranger’s blood. They survived only by pretending to be dead.

They were among an exodus of over a million South Vietnamese who fled oppression and uncertainty before and after US forces retreated and victorious North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon in April 1975, reuniting the two sides under communism.

Pham, 41, resettled in California and is now owner of an art gallery in Ho Chi Minh City, one of a stream of Vietnamese Americans who found their fortunes in a fast-changing Vietnam where capitalism is thriving under communist rule.

Pham runs leading art house Galerie Quynh. In the 17 years she’s lived in Vietnam, her mother has refused to visit.

“When I moved back to Vietnam, she disowned me,” said Pham. “She said, ‘You’re not my daughter.’”

They’ve since buried the hatchet, but Pham’s mother has bitter memories and can’t understand why she returned.

The war drove boatloads of Vietnamese to the United States, which had more than 1.5 million citizens of Vietnamese origin in a 2010 census. Others resettled in Australia, Canada, Britain and France via refugee camps in Asia, surviving perilous voyages on crowded, rickety boats on which thousands starved or drowned.

Now, many former refugees and their offspring are reaping the gains of Vietnam’s booming emerging market and middle-class growth, tapping a young consumer population that’s embracing Western culture.

The most notable is Henry Nguyen, a venture capitalist and former Goldman Sachs associate from Virginia who co-owns a Los Angeles soccer team and helped bring McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Forbes Magazine to Vietnam.

“Vietnam was in a certain place in its development and I was in a certain place in my life,” Nguyen told Reuters, referring to his return in 1995. “That was a good fit.”

He’s also famous for a marriage that brought together families on opposite sides of the war.

His wife, Phuong, is daughter of Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

“It forced people who share common values and culture to pick sides,” Nguyen, 41, said of the war. “It’s kind of like a tragicomedy.”

Not all Viet Kieu, or Vietnamese overseas, can move on. Some are scarred by war and persecution.

But for many, time has drained away that bitterness. US-Vietnamese relations are warming rapidly too, with Viet Kieu among US diplomats involved in Washington’s moves to make its former foe its newest Asian ally. Vietnam will send its party chief to the United States this year for the first time.

Though their role is often overlooked, the Viet Kieu have been a boon for Vietnam’s economy. Remittances are expected to reach $13-14 billion this year, central bank data shows, compared with $12 billion in 2014, worth 8 percent of a GDP that’s grown more than 5 percent a year since 1999.

More than half are from the United States.

Viet Kieu also bring know-how and capital vital to Vietnam’s trade and high-tech ambitions, contributions Nguyen said apparatchiks like his father-in-law recognise.

“He’s always been one of the more progressive politicians here,” Nguyen said of Dung. “I think all senior political leaders here realise the value of our Vietnamese community elsewhere.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship that presents Viet Kieu with opportunities they might not have in the United States, like new careers or investments in growth areas from coffee shops and restaurant chains to property, fashion, record labels and the manufacturing sector.

Jenni Trang Le has made her mark in the Vietnamese film industry, producing 13 movies, including box office hits, “De Mai Tinh 2” and “Teo Em”.

“It’s not like every movie I make here is Oscar-worthy, but just the fact it’s in Vietnam and it’s in Vietnamese already makes it worth it for me,” Le said.

It’s the kind of niche Andy Ho, managing director of asset firm Vinacapital, recommends Viet Kieu find to make their return easier. It’s common for Vietnamese Americans to feel anxiety about identity, in the United States and in Vietnam.

“You’re not a foreigner, are you?” said Ho, who was raised in Denver. “Yet you’re not Vietnamese either. You’re somewhere in between.”