THE VIET KIEU 3

It was Culture Lesson No. 1. Culture Lesson No. 2 was that Viet¬namese will tell you only what they want you to know. They always hold something back; nothing is ever completely up front. Westerners tend to associate this trait with deception, but I think that misses the mark. Viet¬namese simply don’t unload intimate personal details and what they’re re¬ally thinking on quasi strangers the way Americans are apt to do. They are skilled negotiators who drive Westerners bonkers because they never go in the front door. They will bicker over meaningless points for months—as they did in Paris in the early 1970s over the size of the table to be used for peace talks—in order to slip in a side door and win conces¬sions on something that counts. Relationships are built on trust and con¬fidence, not on written documents.
Thai was down to his last 50,000-dong note (about $3.50) and on a noodle diet after being shortchanged by his Vietnamese partners. His mother came to visit and cried. Her son had lost fifteen pounds and was living in an apartment furnished with only a chair and a mattress. But his wretched living conditions didn’t bother Thai. He was a workaholic who oozed confidence—not necessarily an attribute in Vietnam—and used words like “synergy” to explain his business plans. He was sure the can-do American attitude had applications, even in a business environment where entrepreneurs operated by the seat of their pants and where having well-placed contacts was more important than how much capital one had to invest.
Within days, he had leased the patio of a faded downtown villa owned by the wartime mayor of Hanoi and opened a new coffee shop that he called Au Lac Cafe. It proved a bigger success than the first place. I adopted it as my unofficial morning office. It was a hangout where I could learn all kinds of useful information about what was going on in Vietnam by hopping from table to table, and if my bosses in Los Angeles couldn’t reach me on the telephone at home, they knew they could find me at Au Lac. Thai brought Western concepts to an Eastern setting to make the cafe work. He talked to his young employees—most of whom were col¬lege students—about teamwork and focus and long-term goals. He set up “smiling workshops” and role-playing sessions to teach them customer service. He ran a two-week “academy” for new workers and established a school to teach local kids math and English. All his workers shared in profits, even the ragged street urchins he recruited to shine customers’ shoes and do odd jobs. After a while I noticed that the street kids started looking cleaner and neater. They dressed better, and their English im¬proved. I asked one of them what his job was, and he said, “Businessman.”
Thai, who went on to invest in a coffee plantation and a coffee-export business, shared something with most of the young Viet Kieu I met in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City: They wanted to contribute and make Vietnam a better country. They had come back for personal reasons as much as for business reasons. When they arrived many asked themselves, Am I American or Vietnamese? They usually decided they were both. They were at an advantage over native Vietnamese because they had foreign passports and could leave if the Vietnam experience turned sour. They were at a disadvantage because they didn’t have a political safety net; if problems arose, there was no uncle or cousin at one of the ministries to sort things out. But in returning, whether it was to visit or stay, the Viet Kieu had become an important stepping-stone between two worlds.
“Two years ago, I went back to the village [in what had been North Vietnam] where my parents were born,” said Vic Duong, a forty-year-old San Franciscan. “Some of my family is still there. They were curious to see what their cousin from America looked like, but our worlds were so different. It made me realize how far we’d traveled from the little village. They were still farming, tending the rice paddies. I guess that would have been me if we’d stayed. They couldn’t even imagine what my life was like in the United States.
“I’ll admit,” Duong went on, “that when I first decided to come back and get into business, my parents said, ‘Why? Why in the world would you want to do that? You’ve got everything you could possibly want in America.’ But, you know, my father returned to Vietnam for his first visit a little while back, and when I was taking him to the airport, he said I’d made the right decision. That made me feel good.”
Like virtually every overseas Vietnamese family, Duong’s had been sending money to relatives in Vietnam for years. It was an important source of hard currency for Vietnam: $1.2 billion in Viet Kieu remittances flowed into Vietnam annually through banks; another $2 billion came back in suitcases and through unofficial channels. Now the government hoped the Viet Kieu would invest in and help develop the country’s fledgling high-tech industry, which ranged from software development to website design. Vietnam’s young information-technology workers were so capable that the World Bank office in Hanoi used them not only to deal with local IT issues but also to fix problems emanating from the United States.

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