Returning to homeland, Vietnamese Americans make their mark

A trickle of Vietnamese returnees from U.S. make mark in business world

Twenty-seven years ago, Lam Ton was living his American dream.

A former interpreter at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, Ton was a can-do Chicago restaurateur who helped revive a declining neighborhood. He was also making a trailblazing return — chronicled by a local TV crew — to the country where, in 1974, his infant son in his arms, he tearfully boarded an evacuating helicopter atop the embassy roof.

Today, Ton pursues his dreams for Vietnam, long after trouble, anger and violence drove him from Chicago.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon — the anniversary is Thursday — Ton’s story scratches at a scar that is still tender for many Vietnamese who were on opposing sides of what people here call “the American War.” The U.S. and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations 20 years ago, but many older Vietnamese here and those who fled to America still regard one another as enemies.

The hostility persists in a shared, tragic history. Today, more than 3.5 million people with Vietnamese ancestry live in the United States. The first evacuees, such as Ton, created a community that grew with the later arrival of “boat refugees” who escaped South Vietnam in the early years of communist rule. Since 2000, more than 335,000 Vietnamese have immigrated to the U.S. An additional 16,500 Vietnamese are in America on student visas.

The reverse migration of American Viet kieu, or “overseas Vietnamese,” to the homeland is far smaller. Official data is sketchy at best. Bloomberg News recently cited a Communist Party website asserting that from 2004 to June 2013 about 3,000 overseas Vietnamese returned from the U.S. and other countries to permanently live in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and an additional 9,000 were granted long-term residential permits for work and investment there.

In comparison, about 35,000 Vietnamese immigrants are claimed as alumni by Advance Beauty College in Orange County, founded by a former South Vietnamese military officer. (The skills the immigrants learned have helped them open and work in salons across America, earning money that contributes to some of the $12 billion in remittances that Vietnam receives from its global diaspora.)

Back in their ancestral land, several returning Vietnamese and some who shuttle between the two countries have made a significant mark.

Phuc Than, a venture capitalist and Intel’s country director in Vietnam, helped persuade Hanoi authorities and Intel’s top brass to forge an agreement that resulted in the opening of an Intel factory in 2010.

Others of note include David Thai, the Seattle-raised founder of a popular coffee chain; actor and filmmaker Dustin Nguyen; and Henry Nguyen, a Harvard-educated investor who married the daughter of Vietnam’s prime minister and last year brought McDonald’s to the country.

Hieu Tri Nguyen, who in 2005 founded First Vietnamese American Bank in Orange County, stirred controversy in Little Saigon when he tried to cultivate business ties with Vietnam. After the global financial meltdown prompted the sale of that bank, Nguyen, now 68, was enticed to return to Vietnam. He’s been active in guiding Vietnamese banks through the nation’s evolving financial system and in advising huge state-owned enterprises regarding pending trade agreements.

Vietnam’s leaders are trying to encourage more far-flung Vietnamese to return and help build the country’s economy, but the fratricidal history makes communication difficult.

For older Vietnamese, the war and its aftermath are emotional topics remembered and recounted with selective detail. Southerners, for example, tend to be familiar with and sympathetic to the perilous, often tragic experience of the boat refugees, an exodus in which, by some estimates, as many as 300,000 people perished at sea. Northerners, on the other hand, sometimes show only a vague awareness and express a harsh viewpoint, some calling those who left cowards who abandoned Vietnam in hard times.

To the north and its allies, the American War and the previous one with the colonial French were fought to unite and “liberate” the nation from interlopers. But whereas April 30 is celebrated as Liberation Day or Reunification Day in Vietnam, many Viet kieu consider it a day of mourning.

The Saigon government and its American backers preferred a two-state solution, not unlike Korea; to them, the war was a fight against communist hegemony. So in Orange County’s Little Saigon, the flag of the old South Vietnam still flies, and the phrase “Ho Chi Minh City” can provoke a dirty look, or worse.

Hieu Nguyen has lived for extended periods in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Little Saigon. Vietnamese who remember how civilians were killed in “Christmas bombings” of Hanoi and Haiphong, he said, are much more likely to forgive Americans for those attacks and other wartime horrors than they are unrepentant southerners.

“It is not very hard to understand why the feelings toward blood-related brothers are much harder than toward the stranger,” he said.

Hanoi’s desire for better relations with Vietnamese in the United States was demonstrated last spring when a major Vietnamese newspaper published an article that described how Nguyen Thanh Son, chairman of the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese, was seeking their participation in a special memorial that had a contemporary political edge: a retort to China’s claim on disputed maritime territories.

The diplomat hoped Vietnamese Americans would help lay two memorial wreaths at sea. One would be for South Vietnamese sailors who in 1974 were killed in a battle with the Chinese navy (Hanoi’s wartime ally) near a disputed island east of Danang. The other would honor boat refugees who perished at sea and who, he said, should be considered “victims of war.”

To some, the comments in state-controlled media represented a significant gesture of conciliation.

“Such a deep hole of hatred will always exist,” Son was quoted as saying, “if there is no breakthrough solution or there are no people who are ready to act as sincere bridges.”

But he also struck a wrong note. In explaining why so many people chose to leave the country, the diplomat cited economic difficulties and “the lack of knowledge of the new regime after 1975.” Refugees say there was no misunderstanding; they knew too well how life had become under authoritarian rule.

Sweeter words and perks may be insufficient to lure more Viet kieu home. Many say that Vietnam’s legal system needs to create, in Son’s words, “a more level playing field” and do away with centuries-old cultural practices that benefit people with personal connections. Several Viet kieu who made investments some years ago “got burned,” Son said, and that has made many others wary.

Lam Ton and Hieu Nguyen, who like Phuc Than are naturalized U.S. citizens, were among the few Vietnamese Americans who reached out to Hanoi years before the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, angering intensely anti-communist peers. Whereas Nguyen initially came back in 1991 as part of a California trade delegation, Ton first returned in 1988 under the aegis of a United Nations Development Program effort to lend cultural knowledge and business acumen to help Vietnam transition from a centrally planned economy to what Hanoi calls “market-oriented socialism.”

Ton’s visit was covered by a crew from WTTW in Chicago. The station aired a remarkable interview in which Ton sternly questioned Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach about the government’s responsibility for the misery he had witnessed. Thach acknowledged errors and spoke of a commitment to reform. Off-camera, Ton said, Thach told him that nobody had ever spoken to him in such a way and urged him to contribute to the reform process.

In Chicago, frequent trips by Ton to Vietnam led to suspicion and then protests at his restaurants when a Vietnamese newspaper quoted him as saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” An arsonist set fire to a 25-unit apartment building he owned. His home was firebombed, and his young children jumped from a second-story window, his daughter injuring her arm. After a priest warned him of more threats, he resettled his family in the San Gabriel Valley, blending in among the Asian immigrants.

Ton avoided Vietnamese circles but continued to shuttle to Vietnam, gradually building a new life in Hanoi. He divorced, remarried and had another son. In 2011, his eldest son, Michael, the one he had carried into the evacuating helicopter, returned to Vietnam and now works closely with his father. An ongoing project is to bring “green” energy technology to Vietnam.

Ton presides over diversified interests from his spacious garden restaurant known for California-style pho and pricey Saigonese meals such as “seven courses of beef.” And now it’s the state-controlled media that salute him. A magazine under the auspices of the Ministry of Planning and Development recently listed Ton among Vietnam’s top 100 business leaders. Another featured a profile of the “quiet pho Cali peddler” and recounted a story once shrouded in secrecy: how during his early travels he managed to relay messages between two governments that had no diplomatic relations.

One crucial message, the magazine reported, was delivered toward the end of Vietnam’s 10-year occupation of Cambodia, where it defeated Pol Pot’s murderous forces. The message, Ton recalled, signaled that the U.S. was willing to resume a dialogue if Hanoi agreed to fully withdraw.

Soon after, Ton said, Vietnam announced its withdrawal plan and relations were eventually normalized.

On a recent morning at his restaurant, Ton gestured with his Cuban cigar to new palm trees, transplanted, he explained, from the property of a high-ranking government minister who was expanding his home.

Working with people and not against them, he said, is how to get things done.

Harris is a special correspondent.

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