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Copyright © 1994--2014Venture Group, Inc.  All rights reserved.   Updated January 7, 2003

VietKieu - Who Are You?

By Peter N. Sheridan

Reprinted from "Laws and Customs Affecting Foreign Investment In Vietnam"  10th Edition  1999 V V G


[Note: This article first appeared in 1995 and was updated continuously until late 2000.  Since that time, as more VK have been in country for longer periods of time, we find that many of the "old hands" overcame the problems discussed here.  Many VK are even marrying into domestic families that enhances their position as "domestic" Vietnamese. However, there are still so many VK who are not able, or who refuse, to assimilate that this article has relevance in the new century.  It is therefore retained not merely because of its historical importance.]

This very sensitive issue has not previously been addressed in any published or private work that we could find. Accordingly, a caveat is deemed necessary.

1.  We have the highest regard for overseas Vietnamese. The founder of VVG has sponsored almost twenty families from Vietnam in the past twenty years. He came to Vietnam principally because his closest friends in America are overseas Vietnamese. It was their families still in Vietnam who asked his support be given to help this nation grow well and strong into the 21st century. He adopted two Vietnamese orphans who themselves are now Vietkieu.

2.  Associates of VVG include overseas Vietnamese who are in positions of substantial responsibility. Vietkieu have special opportunities and unique problems working in today’s Vietnam. To overstate the opportunities, or to deny the problems, is to court potentially serious trouble for foreign investors who depend upon the work of "Vietkieu."

3. In years intervening from the time this article was first published in 1994,   some Vietkieu show a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing us all as foreigners in Vietnam. In particular, the caliber of Vietkieu seen in Vietnam more recently indicates that many have either read our writings, or been better briefed and prepared by others than were the early arrivals.  However, still far too many Vietkieu return to their native land with an attitude that is not conducive to the goals they and others seek to achieve here.

 

Called "Vietkieu," a literal translation of overseas Vietnamese, the phrase is completely without any clandestine, cunning, derogatory or evil connotation. Overseas Vietnamese are of critical importance, and are recognized as such both by the State and by foreign investors.

The position of the State is that Vietkieu represent an important National resource and treasure for all the people of Vietnam. There is a separate ministry-level office established to handle opportunities and problems of Vietkieu. Many intelligent and highly skilled Vietkieu have returned to Vietnam. Some seek to resettle as citizens of Vietnam. Elder Vietkieu desire to acquire retirement homes in their native land.  Others want to live and work as permanent residents. Many more simply wish to accept overseas assignments in Vietnam from foreign companies in order to re-establish cultural and family ties to the country of their birth, and work at high levels to advance their careers.

Vietkieu have been appointed to key management positions in large, foreign companies that have opened important offices here. Others have taken a lead position in developing, with the aid of their local relatives, small and medium business enterprises, often with a capitalization of less than one million dollars. Vietkieu are thus able to open and manage mini hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, tailor shops, laundry facilities and similar enterprises closed to other foreigners.

 

In addition, Vietkieu have for decades, sent hard currency to help support their families in Vietnam. A US$5,000 donation can pay the entire cost for a local family to accomplish all of the following: redecorate their home; upgrade the electricity and purchase an air conditioner, refrigerator, washing machine, and color television; install a telephone line and a phone; purchase or restore a 50cc motor bike and  a Honda Dream; and purchase copy-designer clothes for the family.  There may still be money left over to send children to high school, or even the best university that costs approximately US$100 per quarter.

To appreciate the differing monetary values in Vietnam, most Vietnamese own the use of their own house or apartment. In Hanoi or HCMC, a family will pay $5-$10 in tax each month for a 1,000 square foot, 6 room apartment or house. In the outlying provinces, the tax for land use right owners is less than $1 per month. Domestic transients, or young folks breaking tradition and living on their own, may rent the same space in HCMC or Hanoi for between $50 and $100 per month. In the provinces, the cost can be under $20 a month.

In contrast, in the early and  mid 1990s a typical foreigner spent upwards of US$6,000 each month to rent a moderate (by US standards) 4,000 square foot house on a 1/3 acre plot of ground. Office rental then cost another $5,000 per month. Is it any wonder that foreigners are universally thought of as wealthy? 

In the late 1990s and into 2000, with a glut on housing and offices with a slow down in regional investment, prices are substantially lower.  The villa can now be rented for under $1,000 a month while luxury high-rise apartments once seeking $12,000 monthly are "down" to under $2,000.  

While the "dual price" system is officially over, most government and private enterprises still charge all foreigners multiples of the cost for the same product to domestic Vietnamese. 

Consider too the cost of entertainment packages.  Domestic Vietnamese drive around for a few hours on their motorbikes or bicycles.  If they stop at all, it is to pick up a new friend.  Occasionally they may have coffee at a local stand and spend about 20 cents for a cup. If they eat out, it is a rarity.  A street-restaurant meal of meat, rice and vegetables, with a glass of ice tea, can cost as little as 50 cents. A night at a karaoke shop amounts to an hour or two charged at $4 the hour.

Foreigners seek out golf ($50 grass fees), tennis ($10 an hour) and restaurant dining (up to $40 per person).  A night out will include a disco (up to $10 entry) and drinks there or at a local pub ($4 each).  

An urban domestic Vietnamese family feeds a family of 6 for one week, all they can eat (a lot), for $35.

 

The average (2000) monthly income for a domestic, city wage-earner in a Vietnamese company is under US$50. In the country (provinces) the monthly wages are less than $20. The minimum wage for all city workers in a foreign-invested business is $45 per month. A local Vietnamese hired by a foreign company in a city position will earn from $100 - $200 for clerical work. It tops at $2,000 for a senior manager. In contrast, a mid-level manager of an American business will receive a typical expatriate package that will cost his employer (for income, benefits and services) upwards of $300,000 for one year. The disparity between Vietnamese and Vietkieu goes far beyond their salaries.

 

Very Expensive Expectations Of Others. Readily available money in America and other foreign countries is legendary. It cannot be denied by the foreigners. The contrary will never be believed by the local, financially impoverished, domestic Vietnamese. Many Vietnamese hear and believe that all Americans earn fabulously large salaries, and have extra money to squander. No matter how much money has been sent before, the families here believe their American relatives have more funds available. They believe it is being hoarded. That is how they have lived their lives in Vietnam for generations. They expect their Vietkieu relatives to be doing the same.

The local Vietnamese expect all foreigners to be wealthy, and by their standards, we are. Accordingly, foreigners are all charged higher prices for absolutely everything. From oranges in the market, to airline seats sold by the government. For land and building rents, and contributions to foreign investments, all foreigners are expected to pay at least twice the local price. Often, we are asked to pay in higher multiples.

 

Many Vietkieu return to Vietnam and know they are expected to give money away. A middle-class Vietnamese-American tourist, who works hard for his $40,000 annual income, and who has in the past 10 years saved or borrowed to travel here with his family here, will spend $1,000+ for each family member's travel expenses and still arrive with $5,000 or more in cash for making gifts or small investments. The Vietkieu will be expected to:

Pay small but illegal sums to corrupt officials who can make the airport entry process difficult if the payment ($5-$20) is not offered. We urge all visitors to follow the laws and refuse these payments. It's taken you 5 -25 years to return and 24 hours for the flight.  An extra hour won't hurt you, even if your bags are inspected and you are stripped searched.  Don't pay the bastards anything. Bring nothing illegal, don't pay bribes, and watch how fast things will change.

Give a cash gift to every relative in Vietnam, no matter how distant or how well or poorly remembered, starting at no less than $100 each. Siblings, parents, grand-parents and uncles/aunts expect far more.

Pay for expensive group meals, renting a van at $50+ per day and all expenses to take the family on a holiday, buying new clothes, outfitting the home, rebuilding the home, buying motorbikes and otherwise supporting the extended family that is, by American standards, financially destitute.

 

Jealousies.  Many Vietkieu enhance the perception of wealth, and their own problem, by an understandable desire to show-off. They left here as refugees, arrived poorer than poor in America, Canada or France, and now want to enjoy their time without worrying about the costs.  Things are cheap by home standards, but be careful.

While wealthy, world travelers usually shuck fancy clothes and jewelry when visiting a developing nation, many Vietkieu too frequently pile it on. Arriving with the expected large bundles of clothing and cash for the family, dressed and outfitted with accessories to-the-nines, Vietkieu enhance the image of great wealth by spending and giving away the cash they brought with them in the short period of their visit.

In still more situations, the Vietkieu are treated deferentially by the local people. With a growing middle class, Vietkieu are watched, sought after, and copied in terms of fashion, style and behavior.

It can be said that the elders and women seek out the Vietkieu to learn of their foreign experience, to speak of new worlds, and learn from their overseas friends and relatives. This is no doubt true in many cases. However, there are situations where Vietkieu are sought-out for less honorable desires -- to get married as a means to leave the country, or as a source of money. These practices make most people, Vietnamese and Vietkieu, uncomfortable.

 

Identity Questions. Are Vietkieu Foreign or Domestic? Where do they fit in? What is their role in Vietnam? The answers depend more upon the questioner than the objective facts.

Almost one-half the population of Vietnam was born after the end of the war, more than 25 years ago. The vast majority of the estimated 80 million people are under 25 years of age. Because of the war and following exodus, there is a shortage of people in the age brackets typical of middle-management (35 - 50) and senior management (50 - 65). The elders, who only in early 1998 relented control (70 - 80), have a serious need to train the youngsters.

 

The current leadership (in their mid 60s) have now made educating the nation a leading goal. This is mandatory for the under 25 majority population, as they are expected to form the bulk of middle and senior management positions that will become available in the next twenty years.

The selection to fill those positions in State owned companies and the government will be from those Vietnamese who remained, either by choice or circumstance. They are being nurtured as the future leaders of Vietnam. They will control Vietnam in the next 20 years, when they are 40 to 50.

Within this framework, the returning Vietkieu are facing and competing with those Vietnamese who stayed the course. Where do the Vietkieu fit in? Some Vietnamese who stayed and who still struggle to survive, may be jealous of the Vietkieu wealth. But those who stayed and who have achieved some power and wealth may wish to jealously guard their positions from the Vietkieu.

The following section is about a subject that is rarely discussed but often felt by domestic Vietnamese. This is not a polite subject, but it is open and perhaps brutally honest.

Those who left Vietnam as adults and now return may do so with well-founded but unrealized fears of reprisals. They have personal recollections of the rout in 1954 and/or the horrors of the post-1975 era. Yet, they find, but for a few police and customs agents, a polite welcome by the government and people of Vietnam.

The younger set who left as infants or young teens may not have clear recollections of the war, but they have been told. Some can remember the fear and hardships suffered in their imprisonment and subsequent escape.  Others may have put the past deep down in the recesses of their minds. They can arrive with an almost Pollyanna approach that does not allow them to see the reality of the current situation.

 

What do these returning people actually know of Vietnam today?  If they live in a politically-charged community of exiles, many may still look upon the Vietnamese government and business leaders as traitors, if not the enemy.

Is it so strange that many domestic Vietnamese may look upon the returning Vietkieu the same way? It is actually worse, for many domestic Vietnamese look upon Vietkieu with both anger and envy. The domestic population often fail to consider the long suffering by the former refugees who are now looked upon only for their accumulated wealth and education.  Such domestic Vietnamese are short sighted due to their own shortcomings, their lives filled with propaganda from the State, or a Soviet-style inherited hatred of success by others due to their own inability to even hope for their own success.

 

Culture -- Whose?  Many middle-age Vietkieu who adopted the customs of their new nationalities over the past 15 to 40 years, forgot many of the customs and much of the culture of Vietnam. The younger Vietkieu, those now in their late 20s or 30s, did not complete a full Vietnamese education. 

Old and young Vietkieu find the spoken and written Vietnamese from their exile communities does not cover the heavy, economic-based and techno-language of Vietnam today.

Many Vietkieu have never learned the long, rich cultural and literary history of this land. It is as foreign to them as was their new country’s culture and history when they first arrived as refugees. Such Vietkieu face a problem, particularly if they are not aware of their own dual cultural short-comings. 

Consider a simple differences and then imagine the more complex ones:

Speak to a person on a telephone, and we foreigners become frustrated at the low volume of their speech. Sit across a table from a Vietnamese business person and suffer the same problem. Far too often, street noise drowns out all comprehensible speech. Go to a coffee shop and the loud sounds of music and talk make even sipping a drink near to impossible - - you must uncover your ears to hold the cup.  

And because the locals speak so softly, the sound of a quiet fan at low speed can dampen the voice of a domestic Vietnamese whether family member or  business or political leader. 

And how do we foreigners sound to the domestic Vietnamese?

 

"He sounds so mean," is a frequent complaint by Vietnamese of foreigners. We normally speak louder, with more emphasis, and our speech and tones sound more self-assured than is the sound of domestic Vietnamese. 

But for the police or the unsophisticated country person, no urban dweller in Vietnam raises his voice except in extreme anger. Even then, difficult situations for Vietnamese are met with a smile on one’s face. We foreigner’s often wear a scowl on our face when confronting problems.

Some Vietkieu are no longer, if they were ever, fluent in written and spoken Vietnamese to a legal, or even to a commercial, proficiency. The accent of the north is difficult to understand for many Vietkieu whose families came from the south. And northerners are seemingly in control, everywhere.  That is a perception enhanced by favoritism in some State-Owned companies that hire northerners. However, the perception is not always the reality.

Bright, accomplished, wealthy (by comparison to the domestic Vietnamese), and in positions of substantial responsibility, Vietkieu can yet feel they belong to neither culture. However, they are depended upon by many companies in the foreign community to bridge the cultural gap.

 

Accountability.  Some Vietkieu pass as domestic locals. The sun darkens their skin. They wear local clothing, speak softly, and remain calm in very trying circumstances. Many no longer gel their hair, although that is a growing fashion in the cities.

While Vietkieu enjoy the live song and dance shows so popular in the south, and join in making fun of the phonetic singers’ mispronunciation of English, many we know also become aware of their own grammatical flaws in English, their own lack of an in-depth knowledge of American and Vietnamese history, and a confusion about cultural "standards and norms."

Living among other recent immigrant or ethnic groups in lower-middle or under-class America, many Vietkieu bring with them the fashions, goals, ideals and standards of the American ghetto. They are not aware how others from America and Europe, and the developed Asian nations can look upon them.  Even those VK (as well as other Asians) who have achieved great success in education and jobs feel a "rice-ceiling" back home that can nurture confusion if not frustration about their own abilities in Vietnam.

 

Should there be a confrontation with the domestic police here, a Vietkieu who tries to pass for local may wish to forget he is Vietnamese. However, from a legal point of view, Vietkieu are treated "equally" with other Vietnamese. Anyone born in Vietnam is a Vietnamese by operation of law. All Vietnamese are expected to know and abide by all laws and customs. Other foreigners can play the game of being truly foreign and proclaim their lack of abilities in language and lack of knowledge of customs and laws.

Not so the Vietkieu. "What’s the matter with you?" the Vietkieu are asked by the police. "You are Vietnamese. Why are you so stupid. Why do you show such disrespect?" the police often ask to intimidate the Vietkieu. Commit a crime, innocently or not, and a Vietkieu will be imprisoned with restricted rights to seek the protection of a foreign embassy. Some Vietkieu now in prison may be thinking it was a folly to seek to pass.

It makes no difference. The State holds all Vietkieu accountable as are other citizens of Vietnam. The State does NOT recognize that any person born in Vietnam is other than Vietnamese. This is no different in many other countries. All Chinese, whether born in Beijing, Singapore, or Seattle are considered Chinese. It is particularly difficult for Vietkieu who do not hold foreign passports.

However, it is not much better for naturalized citizens.

 

One gets the clear sense with even casual observation that Vietkieu are tolerated more than accepted. Foreign-born citizens, particularly former enemy soldiers, are given more leeway and greater opportunities.

This makes many Vietkieu upset when other foreigners, particularly former enemy soldiers, are more easily and better accepted by government and business leaders in Vietnam, than they are.

Some foreign companies are beginning to perceive a potential liability in hiring Vietkieu. Polite acceptance by the State of a company manager or representative is not the same as the respect needed to get a job done well, the first time.

There is both a mountain of opportunity and a pit-fall awaiting returning overseas Vietnamese. Being aware of their perception, their opportunities and their problems will help the Vietkieu. The domestic Vietnamese also need to be less critical of others, and more optimistic about their own future. Time will tell how the Vietkieu will fare in Vietnam.

 

The Way Out.  The best method of curing a problem is to capitalize on one’s strengths. The way to certain defeat is to deny a problem exists. Paraphrasing an old saying*:

He who knows-not and knows he knows-not is capable.
    He can learn.
He who knows-not and knows-not he knows-not is in trouble.
    He should be more aware.

 

*He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool. Shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a child. Teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows is asleep. Wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is a wise man.  Follow him.


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