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Vietnam’s economy lures some who left in the 1970s

At age 9, Johnny Tri Nguyen fled by fishing boat from this war-torn land of re-education camps and rationed food. He and his family were captured twice — and jailed — before finally escaping and establishing a life for themselves in California.

Despite the harrowing experience, he holds little bitterness, just hope, for his homeland. After 17 years in the USA, he returned to Vietnam to make a movie based loosely on his grandfather’s life.

“Much has changed, and the whole reason we left in the first place is no longer there,” says Nguyen, a Vietnamese actor and filmmaker known for his role in The Rebel, along with his stunt work in movies such as Spider-Man. “I find it very comfortable to live here now.”

When the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago, millions of Vietnamese fled a communist country whose growth had been stymied by war, oppression and uncertainty, seeking a better life for themselves and their children in the USA, Canada and Europe.

Today, some of those who left years ago now look at Vietnam as a land of opportunity. At least 500,000 Viet Kieu, as they are known, return every year to this nation of 86 million, some to stay.

“Vietnam’s economic reforms and growth as well as the recent economic downturn in America may be part of the reason” why a growing number of Viet Kieu are returning to the country, says Nguyen Manh Hung, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “There is a sentimental reason, too: the feeling of being at home in a familiar culture with a familiar way of life,” he says.

The return here of some Vietnamese-Americans comes as the Communist Party that runs Vietnam continues to loosen state controls on the economy in an attempt to boost the standard of living here.

The fall of South Vietnam to the communist North in 1975 left the country bound by a totalitarian regime that stripped many people of their land and businesses. The legacy of the war and the party’s clampdown on free markets was rampant poverty. Change came in the mid-1980s, when Vietnam instituted reforms called doi moi that opened up the economy to foreign investment and introduced some forms of capitalism.

Today, Vietnam’s economy is the one of the fastest-growing in Asia. It may eventually claim the mantle of the fastest-growing emerging economy, based on its growth between 2007 and 2050, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the financial advisory firm.

‘The best of both worlds’

Some of those returning are people who risked their lives to leave.

Dang Tuyet Mai, who once was married to a former South Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Cao Ky, escaped by plane two days before the war ended. After three decades in the USA, Dang ventured back to her homeland to open a noodle shop.

“It’s a mixed feeling being here,” admits Dang, whose former husband was a prominent figure in South Vietnam’s fight against communism. “But when you are Vietnamese, you always think of going back to the country where you were born.”

During lunch time at her restaurant, Pho Ta, in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, the tables teem with Vietnamese businessmen and women. Steaming bowls of noodles are placed before them along with heaping mounds of fresh vegetables to dunk into the anise-scented broth.

In a country where a bowl of pho can be found as easily as a hamburger in the States, Dang says hers stands out because of the homemade noodles, low fat content and a broth simmered over a low flame for 12 hours. “Even the Prime Minister of Vietnam (Nguyen Tan Dung) has eaten at my store,” says Dang, whose beauty first captivated the country in the 1960s when she was an Air Vietnam stewardess. Even today, some customers are drawn to Pho Ta to catch a glimpse of her. Dang is hoping the next celebrity to grace the restaurant will be Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I really admire her, and I want to shake her hand,” Dang says.

Clinton came to Hanoi in July for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations but didn’t end up stopping by Ho Chi Minh City. Another local establishment, Pho 2000, gained followers and a new slogan, “Pho for the President,” after then-president Bill Clinton sampled a bowl there 10 years ago.

Like many new returnees, Dang hasn’t committed to living full-time in Vietnam but spends a quarter of the year in Southern California with her daughter and granddaughters.

Her ability to live in two countries — and to juggle dual cultures — isn’t suitable for the travel weary or the weak of heart. But for Viet Kieus such as Trung Dung, the founder of electronic payments company Mobivi, this freedom is a blessing.

“I have the best of both worlds,” says Dung, 43, who spends up to 80% of his time in Vietnam and the rest in California, where his son and sisters live.

The main draw of Vietnam, he says, is that it feels like home. But entrepreneurs like him also are captivated by the business opportunities stemming from a third-world country transitioning into one of the region’s most promising economic powerhouses. Dung is betting that as the country booms, its largely cash society will transition to electronic payments, benefiting companies such as Mobivi.

“I was very fortunate in witnessing the Internet revolution (in the USA), and it was an incredible time to be in the Silicon Valley,” says Dung, who became a billionaire in his 30s after selling his software company, OnDisplay, to Austin-based Vignette Corp. “The same thing is happening in Vietnam. We’re at the very early phase of creating things that will be here for a long time.”

‘The culture is so rich’

As Viet Kieu flock to Vietnam, the government is encouraging them to start up businesses and buy real estate to power the economy. It’s also stepping up efforts to attract foreign companies. U.S. companies including Intel and General Electric have already established a presence here, and others are exploring the possibility, attracted partly by Vietnam’s highly educated, skilled and young population (a quarter of residents are under 15).

Thuy Vo Dang, a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, believes the success of the government’s efforts to woo Viet Kieu will depend partly on its ability “to overcome the tension that still exists between the overseas community and the country.”

“It’s one thing to welcome visitors,” she notes, but the government needs to address corruption, which is widespread and entrenched in Vietnam.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2009, based on surveys of international businesspeople, considers Vietnam one of the world’s most corrupt countries, with a ranking of 120 out of 180 countries.

Property, construction and government contracts are reportedly riddled with bribery, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. The regulatory environment is not transparent and Vietnam’s legal system is not independent and hindered by corruption, it said.

Oppression and lack of religious and political freedoms are also causing concern among some of the Viet Kieu. Some people interviewed said they felt constrained about discussing injustices for fear of offending the government and inviting actions against them or their businesses. The U.S. State Department has criticized Vietnam for its jailing of political opponents and especially Catholic priests and bloggers who speak out in favor of the kinds of basic freedoms the Viet Kieu have enjoyed in the West. The Viet Kieu, because they have citizenship elsewhere, generally enjoy more freedoms than Vietnam’s citizens.

“The progress made on the economic front has not transferred in any way to human rights,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch‘s Asia division. “There are still significant restrictions on freedom of association and independent trade unions, and the government uses very broad national security legislation to go after dissidents.”

As a growing number of Viet Kieu invest in Vietnam, it’s creating jobs and fueling the country’s economy. But the investment may also be seen as “condoning the government’s lack of freedoms for the country,” Vo Dang warns. “Blind investment in the homeland could, in fact, create more problems than it solves.”

Yet the lure of their homeland is so powerful that for some Viet Kieu, it trumps memories, beliefs and politics.

Nguyen, the actor, remembers his family being so poor after the Vietnam War that he had to make his own toys from clay he dug up from nearby ponds.

But what struck Nguyen when he first returned to Vietnam was not the vestiges of war lingering in every city’s memorials to the departed, but the connection he felt to the country and its beautiful scenery. “This culture is so rich in cinematic” promise, he says.

On a sweltering July day, amid the ancient rock formations of Ninh Binh province in northern Vietnam, Nguyen’s brother-in-law, filmmaker Jimmy Nghiem Pham, seeks to capitalize on this cinematic promise.

Between scenes of a new movie he’s helping produce —Khat Vong Thang Long, a film that commemorates the 1,000-year anniversary of the nation’s capital moving to Hanoi and is being made in cooperation with the government — Pham describes how Vietnam has become a “land of opportunity” for independent filmmakers.

“If you don’t have a lot of money, Vietnam is the best place to make a movie,” says Pham, whose budgets have ranged from $15,000 to $1.6 million.

A graduate of the film school at Cal State Long Beach, Pham lived in Southern California — home to one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the USA — for more than a decade before returning to Vietnam. He feels strong ties to both countries, but says matter-of-factly that “if my movie career is better, then I will stay here.”

For Henry Hoang Nguyen, his ties to Vietnam are becoming more compelling than those to the USA.

In the spring of 2001, Hoang Nguyen, 37, landed a New York-based consulting job for McKinsey & Associates that was to begin in the fall. But the start date was delayed by six months because of the economic hangover from the Internet bust. This gave him time to explore opportunities in Vietnam’s emerging telecom sector.

Nine years and a few business opportunities later, Hoang Nguyen is now managing general partner of IDG Ventures, a $100 million venture capital fund focused on technology, media and telecom investments in Vietnam. He has married a Vietnamese woman who has no intention of leaving the country. And the former “all-American” kid is proudly rediscovering his extended family and his heritage.

Being a generation removed from the war has given him an unvarnished appreciation for Vietnam — free from painful memories still in the minds of previous generations. “I don’t carry any burdens or feelings of negativity,” says Hoang Nguyen, whose parents left Saigon, the name locals still use to refer to Ho Chi Minh City, long before he was old enough to remember life there. “I just feel a real strong attachment and patriotism for Vietnam.”

Such feelings are also felt by Viet Kieu David Thai, an entrepreneur who once dreamed about being a basketball player or snowboarder.

Thai grew up in Seattle but came back to the country he left as a toddler to study Vietnamese civilization. Business opportunities conspired to keep him here, including the launch of a Starbucks-like chain, Highlands Coffee, and of American icon Hard Rock Cafe in Vietnam.

Coming from Seattle, “I missed good coffee,” he says. But the overarching business goal, adds Thai, is “to build a national brand, to make Vietnam known for investment and business.”

Yet for every tale of business success in Vietnam, there’s another tale of failure in a market laden with government restrictions. And for those who choose to live and work in this country, there are compromises to be made.

Nguyen Qui Duc, who moved to Hanoi and started Tadioto bar and art gallery, doesn’t enjoy the same creative freedoms in Vietnam — a country where state censorship is widespread — that he had as a journalist and as an artist in the United States. Duc, who once hosted a radio show on Asian affairs in the United States, says he has learned to work within the system in Vietnam.

“I can’t change the system, but I work with artists to express themselves,” he says. “Freedom of expression is getting better in Vietnam.”

Despite the challenges, Nguyen Qui Duc says he’s glad he moved back because it has allowed him to rediscover the simplicity of life.

“I’m 50 years old, and I’m riding a motorcycle,” he says. “In the States, I was tired of living a life where I never talked to my neighbors. I prefer life here where you can walk down the street and talk to people.”