Vietnam’s new economy and old culture drawing back children of U.S. immigrants


JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to Vietnam.

Relations between the United States and its former enemy have warmed since the end of the war more than 40 years ago. Now some Vietnamese who fled as children and became Americans have begun to go back. And the country they find is one transformed.

From Ho Chi Minh City, special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

HENRY NGUYEN, IDG Ventures Vietnam: We got one of those calls early one morning from a friend who contacted the embassy. He said, the embassy car is coming, pack the family into the car, only have one bag, and get ready to go.

QUYNH PHAM, Art Gallery Owner: My mother told me one story of how the Vietcong were coming after us and we had to just lie down and feign death basically. She told me that she covered all of us in other people's blood.

COL. TUAN T. TON, U.S. Army: If I look back, that's probably one of the most dangerous parts of my life, because we see death every second we're on that boat. My job was just scoop the water out all day long. And it was the fifth day, and I start passing out, because I didn't eat for five days.

MIKE CERRE: An estimated million-and-a-half Vietnamese have migrated to the United States since the end of the war, often at great personal and professional sacrifice. But for most first-generation Vietnamese-Americans there is little interest in coming back, save to visit relatives.

But for a younger generation of Vietnamese-Americans who have little reference to either the war or the communist takeover, the draw of the new economy and the old culture is creating a reverse diaspora.

HENRY NGUYEN: I wouldn't say my parents were jumping for joy when they heard that I was interested in spending more time in Vietnam.

MIKE CERRE: After fleeing Vietnam with his family when he was 2, Henry Nguyen's parents worked multiple and often menial jobs as refugees in Northern Virginia in pursuit of the American dream for their children.

Playing in rock bands and working at McDonald's, Henry's came true by going to Harvard and earning his medical degree and MBA at Northwestern.

But, Henry, growing up in Fairfax, Virginia, you actually worked in a McDonald's?



HENRY NGUYEN: Just part-time one summer. Like, it's like every kid's first summer job, right?

WOMAN: Welcome to McDonald's Vietnam.

MIKE CERRE: Since moving back to Vietnam full-time 12 years ago, he's now an owner of the first McDonald's in Vietnam, the local pro basketball team, and runs one of the country's largest venture capital funds as a V.C., an ironic twist on wartime shorthand for the Vietcong guerrillas, which overthrew his South Vietnam homeland.

HENRY NGUYEN: Yes, but I want to make sure people understand that means venture capitalist. And, in some ways, it's funny because even here you could argue that capitalism, because of socialist ideology, was kind of a dirty word.

But, fundamentally, I think, if you really look at the underlying kind of culture and drive of people here, like, it's always been very market-oriented anyway.

MIKE CERRE: Henry's initial motivation for coming back was to better understand the Vietnamese culture he largely ignored while growing up in America. He's now married to the daughter of a former prime minister and raising his family here.

What keeps him here are the professional challenges and opportunities in the new Vietnam.

HENRY NGUYEN: There's so many ways to really make a contribution, to make the life of people here in Vietnam better, to make the country better in terms of accelerating its development, and whether it's the economy, whether it's society, et cetera.

QUYNH PHAM: I can totally see the influence like from Hopper.

My mother, who I am very close to, she actually flat-out told me that I'm no longer her daughter if I come back to Vietnam. She has a different history from me. And I totally realize that she couldn't fathom then her daughter, who she risked everything for.

We fled this nation, and for me, as this conscious adult, to say, OK, wait a minute, I'm going to go back to this country that we fled from — I was really curious, and that was the reason why I came back to Vietnam.

MIKE CERRE: Quynh Pham left a comfortable and prestigious job at an art institute in California to start a gallery of her own here in Ho Chi Minh City.

QUYNH PHAM: This is a developing nation, and there aren't many contemporary art galleries that work at this level in the country.

MIKE CERRE: She believes the vibrant contemporary art scene is a reflection of Vietnam's creative renaissance, as well as its economic emergence from nearly a century of colonization, war and unification.

COL. TUAN T. TON: My father was a major in the South Vietnamese army and my wife's father was a colonel in the Vietnamese air force.

MIKE CERRE: Tuan T. Ton is a colonel in the United States Army. He moved back to Vietnam as the American defense attache, the U.S. military's chief representative for our new defense agreements with the Vietnamese, to counter China's expansion efforts in the South China Sea.

COL. TUAN T. TON: When I left Vietnam, I never thought I would return here, because the image that imprint in my head was so deep, I pretty much looking forward to what America had to offer. And America definitely had offered a lot.

And not until a few years ago, when I started working on Vietnam issue from Washington, D.C., I realize that it's an opportunity for me to serve here in my new capacity.

MIKE CERRE: He and his Vietnamese-American wife, Thu-Ha, live in this four-story villa the U.S. maintains for its defense attaches.

This is pretty nice living for army living.

THU-HA TON, Wife of Col. Tuan T. Ton: Yes. Pretty nice, the best we have ever lived in.

MIKE CERRE: The best you ever live in the Army, obviously, over here.

COL. TUAN T. TON: Yes, because we host a lot of foreign guests here.

MIKE CERRE: Many of them recognize the South Vietnamese military insignias of their parents' former units.

COL. TUAN T. TON: I display that proudly. My Vietnamese counterparts see it. Here, it's only American. And we just talk about history.

MIKE CERRE: It has taken some time for the local Vietnamese to fully embrace the returning Viet Kieus, as the Vietnamese-Americans are known here.

After nearly 40 years of tough economic times and living conditions since the war, the local Vietnamese are just now enjoying the benefits of peace and prosperity.

COL. TUAN T. TON: I think people deserve it. There's hardworking people here.

QUYNH PHAM: It's just unreal.

I mean, when I first came back to Vietnam, Viet Kieu was — it was a derogatory term. So, Viet Kieu are considered people who left Vietnam. But it's changed, this perception of who Viet Kieus are, because the government here, the people here see that we have been educated abroad. We have a more international, more global vision.

We are able to bring these resources, these networks, this knowledge into this country. And they see that it's contributing to economic growth, and so there's much more support for what everybody is doing.

HENRY NGUYEN: So many people from Vietnam now travel extensively. And, reciprocally, there's so much more economic activity, so much many more people, whether it's of Vietnamese origin or whether who are not of Vietnamese origin, have come to Vietnam and done business.

And this country has changed dramatically, socially, politically, economically, you name it.

QUYNH PHAM: Having certain freedoms in the U.S. and then coming back here and perhaps feeling a little bit more restricted, I don't really feel we're being hindered. I'm just very aware. And, at times, to be honest, I'm cautious. You have got this old communist ideology, but yet we have really embraced capitalism here.

MIKE CERRE: As much as he enjoys living and working here, there's no confusion in Colonel Ton's mind over who he is.

COL. TUAN T. TON: I'm an American officer. There's no such thing as Vietnamese-American officer. It's only an American officer. Over two-thirds of my life have been grown up in the United States. I served in the United States military. It's where I belong.

HENRY NGUYEN: I feel like my experience is not uncommon, in the sense of, I may have grown up in a time when I felt very isolated or separated from that identity, but now that I have lived here, wow, there is something special that we can be a part of, and this is still our country.

MIKE CERRE: For the "PBS NewsHour," Mike Cerre in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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