By Jackie Bong-Wright
Last April 30, 2000, the three million Vietnamese overseas who live in different parts of the world, commemorated the 25th anniversary of the “fall of Saigon.” Many felt sad at having been forced to flee their beloved homeland in shame when the northern Vietnamese Communists took over the South in 1975.
But all of them felt blessed at having the privilege to live in the most democratic and developed countries of the West, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and France. Firmly resettled, they now have the opportunity to enjoy the civil and human rights that Vietnam lacks.
Little by little, they have pooled their resources, worked hard, and found success in their new adopted lands. They have saved enough money to help relatives and friends, and last year alone sent over $1.2 billion back to their families in Vietnam.
But they wanted more. For various reasons, including a lingering nostalgia for their motherland, they want to go back to their roots.
After the United States renewed diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, the Overseas Vietnamese, as they are called, started applying for tourist visas for Vietnam. Armed with an overpowering urge to meet up with family members and friends, two hundred thousand to half-a-million Vietnamese flooded Vietnam with their dollars and good feelings.
Vietnam still lagging behind as the fourth poorest country on the globe with an annual per capita income of $350, has welcomed tourists with open arms since it announced its policy of renovation in 1986. Tourism is a source of foreign exchange, employment, and urban development for Vietnam. First class hotels, gift shops, restaurants, tour guides have proliferated, part of an effort to attract foreign tourists and to lure back overseas Vietnamese.
The latter tend to show up with lots of cash – from a couple of thousand dollars up to the limit of ten thousand — to spend or to give to family members.
In May 2000, Thuy Le, a former laboratory technician at the Pasteur Institute in Saigon, went back as a tourist for the first time since she left in 1980. All her immediate family members had migrated to the U.S., and she wanted to see the changes that had occurred in Vietnam over the past 20 years.
She took a guided tour to the five most visited places in Vietnam — Hanoi, Hai Phong, Hue, Hoi An, and Saigon. Thuy was struck by the beauty of the historical pagodas, the old imperial palaces, and the breathtaking natural landscapes. But she was also saddened by the poor conditions in which people lived. And she was overwhelmed at the multitudes on the streets and in public parks day and night, and at the overcrowding in the houses.
The 76 million industrious, hard-working Vietnamese, seemed to Thuy to be on the move, whether on their feet, on bicycles, on motorcycles, or in cars or trucks. To cross a street, Thuy had to hold out her arms, close her eyes, and walk into the chaotic traffic like a sleepwalker, finally finding herself on the other side. Vietnam Press has reported that, for the first six months of the year, there were 11,933 accidents that killied 3,920 people and injured 13,159. Thuy thought she was living out the James Bond movie “You only live twice.”
Thuy said that the 90 to 100 degree heat, the pollution, the noise, the disorder and the poverty did not bother people at all. They were living each precious moment of the day, and their motto seemed to be, “Carpe diem.” Thuy was satisfied with her “home coming.”
Since the U.S. embargo was lifted in 1995, the overseas Vietnamese, having the advantage of being bi-lingual and skilled, have gone back to open businesses and to work for multi-national corporations. Construction started to boom, and capital investment rose. Still, these Vietnamese complain that they had to abide by a double set of rules. On the one hand, they were legally considered Vietnamese once they set foot in their country of origin, irrespective of the foreign passports they carried from their adopted countries. On the other hand, they are regarded as foreigners when it came to money. They had to pay for everything in U.S dollars or the equivalent, which could be double to ten times what local people paid for the same product.
In 1995, a successful construction contractor in California, Van Do, went to Vietnam and invested around a million dollars in the sector he knew best. He signed a joint venture with the Vietnamese government, bought a dozen bulldozers, and cleared land to build houses. The government put up the land as collateral in the partnership.
After nearly two years spent clearing hundreds of acres of jungle, the government decreed that no land could be transferred into private hands without the permission of the local authorities. Van Do was then asked, retroactively, to pay property tax on the land that his company had acquired when he arrived. In addition, he was unable to transfer any of the land to anyone who wanted to buy it. He had no way out but to return to the U.S., broke.
The most successful businessmen have been the Chinese from nearby Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and China. They invest mostly in the packaging, food, and import export businesses. They have no political agenda besides making money, and they do not mind closing their eyes and keeping their lips tight as they conduct their business. They understand the subtle language of commerce, and at times can even dispense with written contracts.
Multi-national enterprises, on the other hand, have difficulty with Vietnam’s bureaucracy, the undisciplined implementation of the trade laws, the lack of coordination between the private and public sectors, and the growing corruption. Their dissatisfaction has contributed to an economic downturn. By 1998, many companies had started to pull out or stopped new investment.
In July of 2000, however, a trade agreement was signed between Vietnam and the U.S. to facilitate commerce between the two countries. It was hoped that this time, Vietnam would ease up the red tape, and facilitate private business activity. That should improve the country, including the status of a million street women and street children.
Seeing the miserable condition of Vietnam’s population under the country’s socialist system, some overseas Vietnamese groups have tried to help with free medical, educational, and other services for their less fortunate brothers and sisters.
For example, in 1993, a group in California established the Social Assistance Program for Vietnam (SAP-VN). They provided free corrective surgery for children suffering orthopedic handicaps. Thanh Nguyen, the head of the program, said that about 1,500 children with club foot or paralyzed by polio, were able to wear shoes, stand and walk straight. They have rewarded SAP-VN with their happy smiles.
Another such group is the Vietnam Health Education Literature Project (VNHELP). Anh Tran, a founding member, said that her volunteers have provided meals for homeless boys and girls, given remedial classes for young children and conducted vocational training for teenagers. They have awarded scholarships to elementary and junior high school students, and repaired schools which were in disarray. They have also educated children in basic first aid and personal hygiene.
Finally, to keep young women off the streets and give them the skills to go back to their rural areas to work, VNHELP has trained them in entry-level teaching and primary care services.
There are other reasons why the Overseas Vietnamese revisit Vietnam. Young men go back to marry their school or village sweet-hearts. After six months to a year of petitioning Vietnamese authorities and going through the necessary rituals, they have been able to bring back a bride. Others have risked imprisonment to fight for human rights and democracy in Vietnam. And some elder people have returned to Vietnam to retire in the land of their youth, where they can be buried with their families and ancestors.