Wed, Mar 11, 2015 - Page 11 News List

Finding a fortune back home

Many former refugees of the Vietnam War and their offspring are reaping the gains of Vietnam’s booming economy and middle-class growth, tapping a young consumer population that’s embracing Western culture

By Lien Hoang  /  Reuters, HO CHI MINH CITY

Andy Ho, managing director of asset firm Vinacapital, works at his office in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday. It’s common for Vietnamese Americans to feel anxiety about identity — in the US and in Vietnam.

Photo: Reuters

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 US, 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.

CAPITALIST LURE

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 vietkieu, or overseas Vietnamese, 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 vietkieu 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 US this year for the first time.

Though their role is often overlooked, the vietkieu have been a boon for Vietnam’s economy. Remittances are expected to reach US$13 to US$14 billion this year, central bank data shows, compared with US$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 US.

HIGH VALUE

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

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

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

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