As Vietnam seeks to launch itself into the world's economic mainstream, the communist state is wooing the country's 2.7-million strong diaspora to bring home its capital and brain power.
Some 150,000 overseas Vietnamese were coming home for yesterday's Tet New Year, heading in from the US, Europe, Canada, Australia and other countries.
According to government estimates, the figure is 20 percent up on last year.
Many of the Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) fled during and after the Vietnam War that ended in 1975, often surviving harrowing journeys as boat people to start new lives in around 100 countries.
For many the memories are too bitter to ever return, and many emigres in Los Angeles, Paris and Melbourne today actively oppose the authoritarian one-party state and support Vietnam's pro-democracy activists.
But a growing number of overseas Vietnamese are making the track back, often to mix family visits with business deals in the country that has changed from a shattered war zone into Southeast Asia's fastest growing economy.
"It's changing very fast, the economy is booming," said Cong Nguyen, 44, who fled Vietnam via Hong Kong in 1979 to avoid the army draft and is now a property investor in London.
"Everyone is looking forward to the new year," he said.
To mark Tet, the government threw a gala event for more than 1,000 returnees last week at a new convention center outside Hanoi that was built for last year's APEC summit.
President Nguyen Minh Triet and other top party officials rolled out the red carpet for the emigres at the "Homeland Spring" event, treating them to traditional sticky rice cakes in a hall decorated with peach blossoms.
Triet announced another gift for the visitors, pledging that Hanoi would soon allow visa exemption for Vietnamese holding foreign passports, and saying the government appreciated their contributions to the homeland.
Vietnam wanted its expatriates to help "build a strong country with prosperous people and an equitable, democratic and civilized society," regardless of their ethnicity, religion or reason for leaving Vietnam, he said.
For their part, many Viet Kieu were enthusiastic about the changes in their homeland, where the economy has hummed along at over 7 percent a year for two decades, and which last month joined the WTO.
One of the guests, Billy Pham, who left in 1971 and now lives in Canada, said he was surprised to see the rise in mobile phones and chic cafes.
"Vietnam is opening up and ready to receive new ideas," he said. "There are many new opportunities, and I don't want to miss them."
The new goodwill is a far cry from the distrust with which both sides have viewed each other, a legacy of wartime division.
Many in Vietnam resented those who left the country during its darkest hour, while the first, often well-heeled, returnees were shocked to find that Vietnam had become an isolated communist state with a crumbling economy.
But the yearly number of visitors has risen from 150,000 in 1993 to 500,000 last year, said Tran Quang Hoan, deputy head of the Committee for Overseas Vietnamese.
In 2004, the government allowed Nguyen Cao Ky, former premier and vice president of the US-backed Saigon regime, to come home for Tet from Los Angeles.
Vietnam now greets visitors with youth volunteers at airports and puts on camps and language classes for second-generation Vietnamese emigrants.
Vietnam "welcomes Viet Kieu, without discrimination because of their past, their opinions and their reason for leaving the country -- providing they take no action against the Vietnamese state now," Hoan said.
Expats last year set up 400 new companies in the southern business hub of Ho Chi Minh City, from where many of their families hail, said the city's Committee for Overseas Vietnamese, the state-run Vietnam News Agency reported.
Hoan said Vietnam benefited from Viet Kieu capital and remittances, believed to be in the billions of dollars, but stressed that "the biggest potential of overseas Vietnamese is their brain power."
Viet Kieu can also "become a bridge between domestic enterprises and the world market," he added, because they speak the languages and understand the legal systems and markets of their adopted countries.
Pham, of Canada, agreed that Viet Kieu can help Vietnam by bringing local goods to world markets, overcoming today's economic and cultural barriers.
"As soon as we can work together," he said, "we can break the boundaries."
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