When John Rockhold drew a low number, No. 12, in the 1971 draft lottery, his adolescence in the San Fernando Valley forever changed. Seeking to avoid the Army, he signed up for the Navy just after graduating from Granada Hills High School. As an enlisted petty officer, he spent months operating boats that dropped off SEALs at night along long and humid Vietnamese shorelines where American troops were trying to stop the communist north from taking over the south.
More than 58,000 U.S. service members died in the war, and since it ended in 1975, innumerable American veterans have returned to Vietnam, seeking understanding, forgiveness or reconciliation. Now some are coming for more mundane reasons: inexpensive housing, cheap healthcare and a rising standard of living.
After his military career, Rockhold worked as a defense contractor, operating mostly in Africa. He first returned to Vietnam in 1992 to work on a program to help economic refugees. He settled in Vietnam in 1995, the same year the United States and Vietnam normalized relations. He married a Vietnamese woman in 2009.
In fact, he liked it so much that he persuaded his mother to move to Vietnam from Santa Maria, Calif., also in 2009.
“She came for the wedding, and decided to stay,” he said with a laugh. She lived in Vietnam until her death in 2015 at 94.
Rockhold, now 66, sits on several boards and is raising two children, 10 and 9, with his wife, Tu Viet Nga. The children were born via caesarean
section; the procedure, including a four-day hospital stay, cost about $1,200, far less than it would have in the United States. The family lives in a 20th-floor condominium overlooking the Saigon River and the sprawling city beyond. They bought the four-bedroom, 3½-bathroom unit, measuring about 1,840 square feet along with a separate veranda, for about $250,000 in 2011.
Rapid growth in Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors has created a situation that would have been unthinkable in the past: Aging American boomers are living a lifestyle reminiscent of Florida, Nevada and Arizona, but in Vietnam. Monthly expenses here rarely exceed $2,000, even to live in a large unit like Rockhold’s, including the help of a cook and a cleaner. The neighbors are friendly: A majority of Vietnamese were born well after the war ended in 1975, and Rockhold says he has rarely encountered resentment, even when he talks about his service as a combat veteran.
The vast majority of the owners in his apartment building are members of Vietnam’s burgeoning urban middle class; many work in government or in education, and can afford to take vacations abroad. He estimates that no more than 1 in 5 residents in the 25-floor complex are foreigners.
“The Vietnamese were extremely nice to me, especially compared to my own country after I came back from the war,” Rockhold said at a coffee shop recently inside a polished, air-conditioned office tower that also houses a restaurant and cinema.
In semi-retirement, Rockhold keeps busy: He helps Vietnam import liquefied natural gas, and is involved with a charity that provides solar energy to low-income households. His wife’s family farm is about a 45-minute drive from where he once saw combat. “It didn’t ever pass my mind that 30 years later I was going to own some of Vietnam,” Rockhold said with a chuckle.
Vietnam has relaxed visa rules to lure American retirees like Rockhold, along with their savings. Geopolitics are a factor; Vietnam has seen spillover benefits from the economic boom in China but also has an ambivalent relationship with its far larger and more powerful neighbor, with which it fought a brief war in 1979. Expatriates tend to consider Vietnam more hospitable than China; Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, retains a cosmopolitan character.
The government won’t say precisely how many American retirees live in Vietnam. Interviews with about a dozen such retirees suggest that some are here on one-year tourist visas; others are here just for a season or two; and still others have qualified for long residence by marrying Vietnamese citizens, as Rockhold did.
One Army veteran, Michael Gormalley, a former platoon sergeant, returned to Vietnam as a volunteer English teacher for rural high schools in 2008. In 2014 he started teaching at a Vietnamese university.
He arrives at school at 7 a.m., before it gets too hot in the classrooms, which are not air-conditioned. He leads groups of blue-uniformed, necktie-wearing, exam-wary teenagers who might have classes six days a week. The 71-year-old former school principal in Pittsfield, Mass., said he had added teaching hours to “show respect for the Americans and Vietnamese people who lost their lives during the Vietnam War.”
Frederick R. Burke, a lawyer with the law firm Baker McKenzie who is well-connected in the American expatriate community here, remarked on the number of veterans living in Vietnam. “They want to come back and want to reconcile,” he said. “Often they’ve married a Vietnamese woman, and their Social Security and veteran benefits go a lot further here than they do in Los Angeles.”
Vietnam has joined other Southeast Asian countries to lure retirees from wealthier parts of the world.
Cambodia, another nation that struggles with the legacy of United States military intervention, is also attempting to attract American retirees. The country’s per capita GDP is about $1,400, and for that sum, an expatriate can easily pay a month’s rent, energy costs and a housekeeper’s wages.
Sri Lanka, where a brutal civil war ended in 2009, is issuing renewable two-year visas to retirees 55 and older if they can support themselves and have at least $15,000 in a local bank account. A typical expatriate cost of living is $1,000 to $2,000 per month.
Historically, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia were more common destinations for American retirees. But a higher cost of living, especially in coastal areas like California and New York, has pushed many farther afield.
Rockhold, the Navy veteran, said that healthcare had vastly improved in Vietnam. He added, “This is one of the safest cities in the world; petty pickpocketing is almost unheard of.”
Remarkably, he said, some of his friends are Americans who never served in Vietnam. “The cost of living is so low,” he said. “It’s a communist country, but if I blindfolded you and put you in downtown Saigon, you wouldn’t know it.”