There are about one million Chinese in Vietnam (two percent of the population). There used to be more but many were forced to leave. Many of the so-called Boat People that fled Vietnam during a much-publicized exodus between 1975 and 1980 were Chinese Vietnamese (See Boat People).

The Chinese in Vietnam are called the Hoa or Han. They live in all parts of Vietnam from north to south, in both urban centers and rural regions but are concentrated mostly on the south. There were 862,371 of them in 1999 according to the census taken that year. Ho Chi Minh City alone is estimated to have about half a million Cantonese-speaking ethnic Chinese residents.

The Hoa, or ethnic Chinese, are predominantly urban dwellers. A few Hoa live in small settlements in the northern highlands near the Chinese frontier, where they are also known as Ngai. Traditionally, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Chinese have retained a distinctive cultural identity, but in 1955 North Vietnam and China agreed that the Hoa should be integrated gradually into Vietnamese society and should have Vietnamese citizenship conferred on them.

The Chinese did well in the colonial period. French laws discouraged participation in commerce by the native population but encouraged Chinese participation. In 1970, Chinese Vietnamese made up 5.3 percent of the population but controlled 70 to 80 percent of the commerce. After the Vietnam War, the Chinese were targets and many fled or were driven out.

At one time, assimilation was easy for Chinese in Vietnam, where people speak a language somewhat related to Chinese, practice some Buddhism, follow Confucianism, and have many Chinese influences in their culture. Many Chinese intermarried with Vietnamese, took Vietnamese names and spoke Vietnamese at home.

Vietnam’s Chinese community has traditionally lived mostly in urban areas on the south and centered in the Cholon district of Saigon. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, they "quietly play a pivotal role in finance...Everyone relies on overseas Chinese." Many of the hardworking and enterprising Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are descendants of people originally from the southern Chinese province of Fujian.

Vietnam’s Chinese community has traditionally lived mostly in urban areas in the south and have traditionally been centered in the Cholon district of Saigon. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, they "quietly play a pivotal role in finance...Everyone relies on overseas Chinese." Many of the hardworking and enterprising Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are descendants of people originally from the southern Chinese province of Fujian.

History and Influence of Chinese in Vietnam

As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Chinese minority wields great influence in the economy. Before 1975 the northern Hoa were mainly rice farmers, fishermen, and coal miners, except for those residing in cities and provincial towns. In the South they were dominant in commerce and manufacturing. According to an official source, at the end of 1974 the Hoa controlled more than 80 percent of the food, textile, chemical, metallurgy, engineering, and electrical industries, 100 percent of wholesale trade, more than 50 percent of retail trade, and 90 percent of export-import trade. Dominance over the economy enabled the Hoa to "manipulate prices" of rice and other scarce goods. This particular source further observed that the Hoa community constituted "a state within a state," inasmuch as they had built "a closed world based on blood relations, strict internal discipline, and a network of sects, each with its own chief, to avoid the indigenous administration's direct interference." It was noted by Hanoi in 1983 that as many as 60 percent of "the former bourgeoisie" of the south were of Chinese origin. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Chinese did well in the French colonial period in the 19th and early 20th century. French laws discouraged participation in commerce by the native population but encouraged Chinese participation. There was a substantial increase in the Hoa population. The country's limited foreign and domestic trade were already in the hands of Chinese when the French arrived. The French chose to promote the Chinese role in commerce and to import Chinese labor to develop road and railroad systems, mining, and industry. French colonial policy that lifted the traditional ban on rice exports at the end of the nineteenth century also attracted new waves of Chinese merchants and shopkeepers seeking to take advantage of the new export market. Vietnam's growing economy attracted even more Chinese thereafter, especially to the South. Already deeply involved in the rice trade, the Chinese expanded their interests to include ricemilling and established a virtual monopoly. *

Assimilation was easy for Chinese in Vietnam, where people speak a language somewhat related to Chinese, practice some Buddhism, follow Confucianism, and have many Chinese influences in their culture. Many Chinese intermarried with Vietnamese, took Vietnamese names and spoke Vietnamese at home. In addition to be influential in business, the Hoa have traditionally practiced various occupations including agriculture, handicrafts, trading, fishing, and salt-making. Hoa farmers have a long tradition of cultivating submerged fields. They also worked as laborers, teachers, cadres, and other professionals.

In 1970, Chinese Vietnamese made up 5.3 percent of the population of South Vietnam and controlled 70 to 80 percent of the commerce. In mid-1975 the combined Hoa communities of the North and South numbered approximately 1.3 million, and all but 200,000 resided in the South, most of them in the Saigon metropolitan area.

After the Vietnam War, the Chinese were targets and many fled or were driven out. Beginning in 1975, the Hoa bore the brunt of socialist transformation in the South, especially after the communist government decided in early 1978 to abolish private trade. This, combined with external tensions stemming from Vietnam's dispute with Cambodia and China in 1978 and 1979 caused an exodus of about 250,000 Hoa, of whom 170,000 fled overland into China from the North and the remainder fled by boat from the South. Many "boat people" left when the government closed down private businesses in 1978. The 1989 census counted 962,000 Chinese, barely changed from the 949,000 recorded in the 1979 census.

Hoa Chinese Culture

Chinese in Vietnam have traditionally build houses usually with three rooms and live close together. The families of the same lineage always reside together. In a Hoa family, the husband is the head of the household. The right of inheritance is reserved for the sons only. The eldest son always gets the greater part of the property. Parents decide the marriage arrangement of their children, and early marriages are common. The choices of a husband or a wife are often based on the desires of the family to have equal social standing or are dictated by business considerations.

According to customs, funerals must go through several rituals. The cycle starts with informing others of the mourning process, wearing mourning clothes, wrapping the corpse, opening the road for the dead soul, burying the dead, bringing their soul to the "country of Buddha in the west", and the last rite is the completion of the mourning process. Since respect for the dead is very important, in all villages and hamlets, there are temples, pagodas, and shrines built for veneration of the dead.

Traditionally, Hoa men have adopted a dress similar to the Nung, Giay, Mong, and Dao. Hoa women's garments consist of a pair of trousers, a five-panelled vest which falls to mid-thigh, and a short sleeve shirt with five-panels.


After the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than a million people left Vietnam, about 5 percent of South Vietnam’s population, most of them by boat. Many sailed long distances in overcrowded small boats, at risk of shipwreck and pirate attacks. Many were Chinese Vietnamese. Some didn’t make it to their final destinations. Some died. Most settled in the United States, which accepted political refugees but turned back economic refugees. Many of those who didn't make it were detained at camps in Hong Kong or the Philippines.

More than 3 million people fled Communist-controlled Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. More than a million Southerners, including about 560,000 "boat people," fled the country soon after the communist takeover, fearing persecution and seizure of their land and businesses. The plight of the so-called "boat people" turned into a humanitarian crisis as they came under sometimes deadly assault. More than 125,000 refugees from Vietnam were resettled in the U.S. between 1975 and 1980, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

For this privilege of leaving Vietnam Chinese had to pay the Vietnamese government about US$2,000 a head in gold. At the time these fees were Vietnam's main source of hard currency. At that time the Chinese owned many businesses in Vietnam and there was a lot of hostility towards Chinese in Vietnam. China and Vietnam have long history of animosity. Many Chinese were thrown out of Vietnam at the time China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979. In the early 1970s there were about a half million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. In the early 1980s there were practically none. Vietnam made US$2 billion from the forced migration. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

Suffering of the Boat People

Many of refugees crowded onto unseaworthy boats. Large ships with over 2,500 passengers were organized by Vietnamese racketeers. Smaller ships were purchased by people who pooled their money. Life savings were paid for a place on a boat. Families split up. Fat people were sometimes denied a spot because they took up as much room as two smaller people that paid as much.

People died of thirst, hunger, exposure. Some people who got very sick were pushed over the edge. Some boats had engines that conked out at sea. Some of the boats lost more than half their passengers to exposure, drowning, starvation and attacks from pirates.

About 90 percent of the boats didn't make it. Those who made it to Hong Kong, Thailand or Malaysia were often turned back, driven from shore or towed back to sea. In Hong Kong authorities tried to prevent the ships from landing. One ship was moored in Hong Kong harbor for 20 weeks until someone cut the anchor. When the boat drifted into shore hundreds of people jumped overboard and fled to the hills where they were later rounded up and placed in a camp.

Many Vietnamese refugees who made it out of Vietnam are still suffering from problems related to traumatic experiences. A large number of families were separated, fortunes were lost, and many who fled on small fishing boats perished at sea. Some people already had a pre-war trauma in Vietnam, and had to acculturate in a new country, learn a new language, find jobs, and raise their children in a new place. Now, 30 years after the war, there are still people having related health problems. Most of them experienced trauma and torture in the past but were wary of seeking help for mental health issues because it is seen as taboo and is rarely spoken about. For older Vietnamese people, seeking help is more of a last resort. They do not do it until they feel so helpless that they do not know where else to go. [Source: Vietnamese Cultural Profile, Diversicare, March 2009]

Many Vietnamese from the second wave of immigration had severe health problems on arrival to this country as a result of poor living conditions during the war and in camps, injuries, starvation, abuse, and little access to health care. Health problems experienced in this population include TB, hepatitis B, malaria, malnutrition, conjunctivitis, trichinosis, anemia, leprosy and intestinal parasites. Once arriving in the U.S., poverty and crowded living conditions posed health risks, along with under-utilization of health care. [Source: Pamela LaBorde, MD, Ethnomed <+> ]

Boat People and Pirates

Many Vietnamese boat people sought asylum in neighboring countries. Instead, they were turned away from shore and often robbed by pirates. The photographer Eddie Adams boarded one of the boats being towed away from Thailand. The 10-meter craft was packed with 50 adults and children. The pictures he took were widely published and then presented to Congress by the State Department. According to Mr. Adams, his images helped the government decide to admit as many as 200,000 South Vietnamese to the United States. [Source: Andy Grundberg, New York Times, September 20, 2004]

Piracy surged during the boat people exodus for Vietnam in the 1970s. Boat people were robbed, raped and even murdered by pirates. They were easy targets. The women on these boats were often raped, and men were robbed of everything they had. There were reports of being people being killed so gold teeth could be ripped out their mouth.

Many of the pirates were Thai fisherman who took up piracy because it was easier and more profitable to prey on fleeing Vietnamese than fishing. Vietnamese boat people that escaped from pirates often attributed their good fortunes to large fish or whales that they believe saved them. Whales are considered sacred to the Vietnamese.

Most of the time the victims of piracy were dropped on shore. Sometimes however the boats were cast adrift, drifting into land by chance was the only hope of survival that the passengers had. Sometimes all the passengers were shot or stabbed out right. Survivors that somehow made it to shore had horrible stories to tell.

A Vietnamese painter who painted my house told me about how pirates stripped all men naked on a boat he was on. They were shown a Playboy magazine foldout. If a man got an erection he was shot. There is no way to tell if this story is true. Most pirates carried fishing nets so that if were tracked down by police it was difficult to distinguish them from fisherman.

Boat People Refugees

During the Boat People saga many Vietnamese refugees in camps in the Philippines and Hong Kong were denied political asylum in the U.S. and other counties and were were forced to return to Vietnam. Some refugees were dragged kicking and screaming on to planes which carried them back to their homeland. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

As of 1979, 65,200 boat people went to Hong Kong, 9,500 to Thailand, 49,500 to Malaysia 49,600 to Indonesia, 5,900 to Philippines. Some countries turned away the boats and made them go back to sea. Overland, 233,000 went to mainland China. At that time 233,300 were resettled in the United States, 53,700 in France; 23, 500 in Australia and 16,400 in Canada. Germany repatriated 40,000 mostly North Vietnamese in East Germany

In Hong Kong the Orderly Departure Programme started in 1979 and implemented in the 1980s, was set up to deal with the boat people that arrived there, When the boats arrived in Hong Kong harbor they were first checked for rats because Vietnam at the time was having a problem with the the plague.

In Hong Kong boat people that were allowed to come ashore were housed in warehouses, prisons and factories. In some places 200 people were assigned to a room where each person was allocated a surfboard-size space to live in. They were given twice-daily rations of rice, meat or fish, bread and an orange. Some of refugees made money by performing jobs such as stringing cotterpins. With the new immigrants the population of Hong Kong jumped by half a million people, an increase of 10 percent, in 1979.

Many Vietnamese ended up in the Philippines. When the Philippine government decided in 1993 to repatriate them some of the Vietnamese involved threatened to commit suicide if they were forced to return to Vietnam.

Boat People Return Home

1995, about 40,000 Vietnamese boat people were still in detention camps: half in Hong Kong, the remainder in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and Thailand. In the camp refugees suffered from boredom, depression, hard board bunks, cockroaches and rats.

The camps shut down at the end of 1995 after the United Nations refugee agency determined it was possible for the migrants who faced deportation to experience a "decent life' in their home country without fear of prosecution.

After being refused admission to the U.S. because they were not deemed political asylum seeks, thousands of Vietnamese stranded at refuge camps in the Philippines were forced to return to Vietnam. Some of them were carried kicking and screaming onto planes.

In June 1995, 100 Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong were placed on a chartered Royal Brunei bound for Hanoi. Some were carried aboard the plane in handcuffs. When the plane landed in Hanoi, most of the people refused to disembark. It took eight hours to get all them off the plane.

Boat Person Who Survived Pirate Attack Reunited with Son After 34 Years

Ben Dobbin of AP wrote: "Hao Truong was tossed into the South China Sea after pirates attacked a boat taking refugee families to Thailand in December 1977. He said he managed to stay afloat for 16 hours before being rescued by a fishing boat. In a Thai refugee camp, Truong learned weeks later that his wife had died – her body washed up on shore along with another female victim. But he said he'd long assumed that their 7-month-old baby, Kham, had survived and was raised by someone else. [Source: Ben Dobbin, AP, November 21, 2009]

Truong resettled in the United States in 1978, sponsored by an uncle living in Louisiana. On a trip to Thailand in June after hearing Kham might be alive, a social worker helped him locate his son, now a 34-year-old father of two named Samart Khumkhaw who lives in Surat Thani province. "At this minute, I feel so excited and happy," Truong said as he stood next to his son at Rochester's airport surrounded by two dozen relatives and friends waving tiny U.S. flags and "Welcome Home" balloons. "We're going to have a big Thanksgiving holiday! "When I found him in Thailand, I stayed with him for almost three weeks. Then we know each other well, without asking anything, just like we know (each other) a long time ago."

In late 1978, Truong traveled to Rochester to meet his late wife's siblings and stayed. He remarried, raised four children and was a metalworker for 30 years. During four days of captivity before being pushed overboard, Truong said the pirate boat crew seemed enthralled at how cute his child was. "That's why he never think for a moment that anybody would kill this little baby," said his sister, Hong Truong. While the circumstances of the child's passage to safety remain murky, he was given to a bereft young couple in Thailand whose daughter had died two days after birth. "A lady – we don't know the relationship – told the couple she had a little baby boy and asked if they would raise him," Truong's sister said. "The foster mom saw the baby and wanted to adopt him, but she can't ask where the baby come from."

Boat Person Become a U.S. Navy Commander

On the day South Vietnam lost the Vietnam War, Hung Ba Le fled his homeland at the age of five in a fishing trawler crammed with 400 refugees. Thirty-four years later, he made an unlikely homecoming—as the commander of the USS Lassen, $800 million, 155-meter U.S. Navy destroyer with a crew of 300, which docked in Danang. [Source: Ben Stocking, Associated Press, November 8, 2009]

In April 1974, as Saigon was falling to the Communists, Mr Le and his family embarked on an uncertain journey in a fishing boat piloted by his father, who was a commander in the South Vietnamese navy. They were rescued at sea by the USS Barbour County, taken to a US base in the Philippines, a refugee camp in California and finally to northern Virginia, where they rebuilt their lives.

Mr Le grew up in Hue, the historic former capital on the central coast about 105 kilometers north of Danang where he still has relatives. Wen he fled in 1975 only four of the eight chldren in his family made it out. The others stayed in Vietnam until 1983 when the family was reunited. His family settled in northern Virginia where his father got a job at a supermarket and worked his way up from bag boy to manager.

Fleeing Vietnamese Boat Person Becomes an Optometrist in California

Rachel Raskin Zrihen wrote in the Times Herald, "She could have been captured by pirates. She could have drowned or perished from thirst or starvation. But fate had other plans for former Vietnamese "boat person" Bach-Kim Nguyen". She became an optometrist in Vallejo, California. The second of 10 children and a single mother of two, Nguyen escaped her native Vietnam in 1982, at 22. [Source: Rachel Raskin Zrihen, Times Herald, January 21, 2004 ><]

"I didn't want to escape," Nguyen said. "I wanted to become a doctor in Vietnam. I love my country so much and I don't believe anyplace else would appreciate a good doctor with a good heart as much. I never wanted to leave." Nguyen said she applied for and was the only person in her province to pass the medical school entrance exam, but she was blocked from attending by a local government official who had a grudge against her family. "My family wasn't communist enough," Nguyen said. "Plus my father had a disagreement with (this bureaucrat's) business partner once, and those things combined, they wouldn't let me go. So I started to plan my escape." ><

Nguyen tried and failed to escape twice before succeeding. "The first time, some of us planned to steal a boat, but too many people showed up and it became too dangerous," Nguyen said. "The second time, we paid for a boat, but it never came. We waited for hours, all night, hiding on the beach. One little boy died when he woke up from his sleeping pill, and his mother had to suffocate him to keep him quiet." Nguyen said she almost gave up, and in fact, took accounting classes, but didn't like it. ><

"My uncle convinced my parents that I have a calling and they should let me go if I could find a way," Nguyen said. "Some people my mother knew were planning an escape, and I went with them, even though getting caught would ruin not just my life, but my family's, too." Nguyen and a friend boarded their secret craft on a beach on the appointed night, and waited for the men to load supplies. However, she said, they were discovered, and the boat hurriedly set sail without the men or the supplies. ><

"We had to cut the rope," she said, "and 59 women and children, and about 10 older men, left alone. We met some fishermen and they sold us some food and after a week, we were rescued by an American cargo ship. "They took us to Subic Bay in Manila and we registered as refugees and were sent to a refugee camp," Nguyen added. "The only reason I'm in America is that we were rescued by an American boat." Nguyen said that without a sponsor in the United States, she could easily have languished in the camp for years, like thousands of others. But fate had other plans. ><

"You can be in a camp forever if you have no one in another country to sponsor you," Nguyen said. "I had no one outside Vietnam. It was just luck or chance that I got here. Being rescued was like being born a second time. Everyone on the boat felt that way. "I thought I was so smart and brave and I learned I didn't know anything," Nguyen said. "People died on these trips. Sole survivors ended up eating human flesh. Sometimes the boats were overtaken by Thai pirates and the girls sold into prostitution. It's kind of a miracle that I'm here." ><

Nguyen said she met her oldest daughter's father in the camp, and moved with him to San Francisco, where he had an aunt. The relationship didn't work out, but Nguyen started working toward achieving the goals that brought her here. "My only goal was to get into medicine," Nguyen said. "Getting rescued solidified my determination to do something with my life. Nothing was going to stop me." ><

On welfare, Nguyen took classes at San Francisco City College, where she made grades good enough to earn her scholarships. After four years, she transferred to the University of California at Davis, where she earned a degree in biochemistry. But by then her second marriage had produced another daughter and another divorce, and study time was at a premium. "Someone suggested optometry school," Nguyen said. "I volunteered at an office to see what they do, and I liked it. It wasn't as long a program and is still medical-related. It was possible to do as a single mother." Nguyen said she applied and was accepted to the optometry program at U.C. Berkeley, from which she graduated. ><

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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