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Vietnam’s fast lane suits young returnees

Tran is a Times staff writer.

Tiffany Nguyen sauntered down Dong Khoi street, swatting mosquitoes in the sticky heat. Wearing 3-inch black heels, she plunged through a crush of motorbikes spewing smoke and blasting horns, dashing toward a nearby restaurant to meet a friend.

Nguyen, 28, grew up 7,800 miles from here in an Orange County suburb. But for the last year, she has worked along this boulevard known as the Fifth Avenue of Vietnam, where boutiques crowd against old Parisian hotels.

For years entrepreneurs stayed away from Vietnam, a poor country with scant business prospects, where visas were hard to get.

No more. Vietnam has flung open its doors and billions of dollars of foreign investments have poured in, clearing the way for a new generation of Vietnamese Americans who are finding both opportunity and adventure in the Communist country their parents fled.

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Viet kieu, as overseas Vietnamese are known, are so pervasive here that Cal State Fullerton formed a Ho Chi Minh City alumni chapter. Nguyen is a member. A friend of hers is creating a Zagat-like guide for the city’s growing number of restaurants.

Vietnamese expatriates are considered an important part of Vietnam’s future, said Trung Nguyen, counselor of overseas Vietnamese affairs in the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. Once viewed with suspicion by the Vietnamese government, overseas Vietnamese are now being wooed back with relaxed business laws and promises of less red tape. Overseas Vietnamese can now own land and get visa exemptions.

Tiffany Nguyen’s family fled this city when she was 9. Her parents never looked back. For a time, neither did their daughter.

“Never in my life,” she said, “had I planned on going back to Vietnam.”

Growing up in Fullerton, Nguyen quickly became Americanized. She changed her first name from Thao to Tiffany and had few Vietnamese friends. “I was kind of whitewashed in high school,” she said.

Nguyen stayed near friends and family for college, enrolling at Cal State Fullerton, taking a job with the American Automobile Assn., returning to Fullerton to earn a master’s in business administration.

An adventure

But a yearning for adventure prompted a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, two years ago. Amid the rampant poverty, she saw thriving night scenes and swanky apartments. She was captivated by the energy of the country’s largest metropolis, a place of 10 million people.

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Two days after graduation from business school, she moved here, settling in a charming hardwood studio on the edge of District 1, where neon lights lure people into posh clubs and restaurants.

In doing so, she became part of an influential trend.

There are no precise statistics for how many Vietnamese expatriates are returning to live here. But the number of overseas Vietnamese visiting for business or tourism have shot up -- about 270,000 last year, according to the Vietnamese government, triple the number that visited in 1990. Government officials say many of those people, like Nguyen, are deciding to stay.

The reverse migration of young Vietnamese Americans would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Their parents who escaped the Communist government after Saigon fell in 1975 still harbored deep bitterness. In Orange County’s Little Saigon, where many rebuilt their lives, merchants still display the South Vietnamese flag.

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Nguyen did not know what to expect when she arrived here. Her parents, who had escaped Vietnam after concluding it held no future for them, warned her not to go. But she argued that the country had drastically changed. Her parents relented.

Nguyen was thrilled by the city and the electricity it radiated, a place where mopeds whizzed at all hours. She could walk outside and buy furry orange rambutan fruit from sidewalk peddlers. She spent weekends in nearby Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand. The job she found in the booming real estate industry was fast-paced, and the money was comparable to her U.S. salary. She met a large network of overseas Vietnamese and businesspeople who introduced her to even more opportunities.

After less than a year, Nguyen jumped into the fashion industry, becoming the chief operating officer of one of Vietnam’s leading fashion retailers, Maison Co., which imports brands including Mango and Versace. She is considered a ranking corporate executive and travels frequently, from showrooms in Milan and Barcelona, and manages 250 employees. Such an opportunity, she said, would probably have been out of reach in the United States.

Dressed in a stylish red blouse and black pencil skirt, Nguyen stands out in the city when she walks past old women squatting on dirt roads peddling fruit and men lounging on broken plastic chairs drinking iced coffee. The air smells of pungent street food and diesel exhaust. Trash litters the streets.

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But Nguyen also sees evidence of Vietnam’s boom all around her: high-rise buildings, elegant hotels, flashy cars. For every restaurant still without a modern toilet, there is a trendy eatery with air conditioning.

Still growing

Like most of the world’s economies, Vietnam is feeling the effects of the global downturn. Still, last year, the country’s economy surged by 8.5%, among the fastest growth rates in Asia. Vietnam has benefited from several major economic trends in recent years, including the rapid growth of China, its huge neighbor to the north. Billions of dollars of new foreign investments have poured in. And compared with the last eight years, 20,000 more overseas Vietnamese visited in 2007.

Younger Viet kieu “are very popular because they are educated in the U.S.,” said Jos Langens, head of VNRecruitment, a private recruiting firm, “and they can implement Western values and ways of working.” Plus, he said, they bring language and cultural fluency.

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Although salaries tend to be lower, Langens said many young Vietnamese Americans are inspired to be a part of their adopted country’s development.

“In the U.S., they are one of many, like little wheels in a big machine,” Langens said. “Here, they can really help a company or partner or field to develop and expand.”

That’s what enticed Will Ngo, a friend of Nguyen’s who joined her for dinner recently.

“Vietnam is the hot story right now,” said Ngo, 32, who worked for a Los Angeles investment bank before moving to Ho Chi Minh City a year ago to join one of the country’s leading investment banks. “I would have had to put in another five years before I get to do what I do here.”

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After dinner, Nguyen and Ngo taxied to a nearby bar to meet friends, other recently arrived U.S. expatriates.

“Can you believe that I speak more English here than when I lived in Orange County?” Ngo joked, sipping whiskey and Coke as a woman warbled karaoke as Nguyen clapped and sang along.

Still, life away from one’s home can be difficult. Nguyen’s vibrant social life and career boost notwithstanding, the transition to Vietnam hasn’t been easy.

Unspoken cultural rules, such as allowing ranking officials to speak first in meetings, surprised her. Conducting business in both Vietnamese and English, she quickly learned to hand out business cards with both hands. She became frustrated managing Vietnamese employees with different ideas of productivity than in the U.S.

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As she grew more homesick, Ho Chi Minh City’s cramped pandemonium, which had seemed so exhilarating at first, became more of an annoyance.

Nguyen called her work here for Maison Co. a “dream job,” but the dream of picking up life in an exotic, vibrant place doesn’t always last.

Like others who move here, Nguyen finds that America still tugs at her. She misses her mother and her boyfriend in Orange County; her grandma’s cooking; browsing South Coast Plaza.

Earlier this year, Nguyen decided to return to Orange County. Much like her parents, she decided to leave her ancestral homeland for the country they adopted nearly 20 years ago. That is where she feels at home.

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“I miss driving,” she said. “And a good piece of rib-eye steak.”

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com


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