THE VIET KIEU

WAR, NEAR FAMINE, ECONOMIC HARDSHIP, and rigid communist policies scattered the Vietnamese people. Geo-graphically if not spiritually, one people became two: those who stayed and those who left. The emigrants were called Viet Kieu, or “overseas Vietnamese,” and for a long time the Hanoi leadership viewed them as an enemy and potential political threat—a disgruntled, dispos¬sessed throng who had sought refuge in seventy countries, dreaming of the day the communist government would fall and the Vietnam of their memories would be reborn. By the time I returned to Vietnam, the Viet Kieu population had swollen to nearly 3 million—a community half the size ot Ho Chi Minh City—and if its members had a common denominator, it was that they were achievers. Everywhere they went, they did well, even though many landed in the United States, Canada, Australia, and France penniless, not speaking the local language, not knowing a soul, and not having ever been outside Vietnam before. More than 300,000 overseas Vietnamese have been awarded university and post¬graduate degrees in their adopted countries. More Vietnamese medical doctors work abroad than in Vietnam. In the United States, Vietnamese hold important positions in research institutions, universities, hospitals, the computer industry, and on Capitol Hill. More than a dozen are CEOs of high-tech Silicon Valley firms. Forty thousand in France are top-end professionals—doctors, lawyers, professors, business leaders. In Australia top-of-the-class honors go to Vietnamese Australian students with striking regularity.
Almost everyone who had a close wartime relationship with the United States left Vietnam. A few disenchanted revolutionaries, like Bui Tin, the North Vietnamese journalist who had accepted the surrender of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, also left. Bui Tin settled into a communist-voting suburb of Paris. Better educated and more prosperous than those who stayed, the Viet Kieu were a potential national asset for Vietnam. Hanoi estimated that the “Viet Kieu economy” generated $20 billion a year.
Even during the war, Hanoi worried about losing its best and brightest to other lands. Students sent to East Germany to study had to sign pledges they would not have “contact”—read: sex—with locals because of the fear they would fall in love, marry, and not return home. North Viet¬nam’s prettiest young women were often denied permission to travel to the Eastern bloc on the assumption they’d be the first to tumble. As Viet¬nam struggled through the postwar Dark Years, 12,000 young Vietna¬mese managed to ignore the call home and remained in, or returned to, Eastern Europe; 80,000 stayed in the Soviet Union.
When the Dark Years passed, to be replaced by the dot moi liberaliza¬tion of the late 1980s, Hanoi looked for ways to tap Viet Kieu resources. It established the National Committee for Overseas Vietnamese and said that to rebuild the country Vietnam needed the Viet Kieu, or at least those who accepted a communist Vietnam and understood that the old days weren’t coming back. Perhaps the government’s intent was sincere, but it did little to make Viet Kieu feel welcome. Hanoi required them to get visas, even if they had dual citizenship and held a Vietnamese pass¬port. It charged them the foreigners’ rate for hotels, transportation, and communications, not the greatly discounted rates non-Viet Kieu Viet¬namese paid, and it slapped a 5 percent tax on remittances they sent to their families in Vietnam. Every step returning Vietnamese took in their homeland was tracked by Hanoi’s pervasive internal security agents; everyone they visited became suspect. They had to stay at hotels and could make only daytime visits to their families. When Party officials spoke of “dark forces” trying to sabotage Vietnam, it was the Viet Kieu they were referring to.
But a Vietnamese never loses his or her Vietnameseness. “No matter where you go, you always have that feeling of longing to come back be¬cause you’re Vietnamese,” said Binh Nguyen, an American Viet Kieu who runs Vietnam’s FedEx operation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Viet Kieu started trickling back to check out the new Vietnam. Soon the trickle became a flood. They came—300,000 strong a year—to study, to do business, to visit families, and, if they were young, perhaps to search for their cultural identity. They added style, sophistication, and worldli¬ness to a country not keenly attuned to life beyond its own borders. And as more and more came, the government’s suspicions diminished a notch or two, and tax incentives, liberalized business codes, and the right to buy property were introduced in an attempt to entice them to invest in Vietnam.
“I know we made some mistakes in the past, and we are correcting them,” Pham Khac Lam, vice president of the National Committee for Overseas Vietnamese, said. “Our policy is now open. It is up to them to decide. If they think it is better to stay where they are, and just come back once or twice a year to visit, that is all right. If they want to come back and stay and participate in the reconstruction of Vietnam, then we wel¬come them as an integral part of the Vietnamese population. The over¬seas Vietnamese have an important role to play in our development. Theirs is a community that is strong in gray matter and deep in the pockets.”

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