Vietnamese boat people
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.


20120515-South_China_Sea..a mphibious_cargo_ship ietnamese_refugees_aboard_a_small...jpg
Vietnamese boat people
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.

Vietnamese in Cambodia

There are about 10 million Vietnamese (5 percent of the population) living in Cambodia. Most work at low-level jobs as laborers, construct workers and fishermen. The Vietnamese community is scattered throughout southeastern and central Cambodia. They were concentrated in Phnom Penh, and in Kandal, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham provinces.

Enmity has existed between the Khmer and the Vietnamese for centuries, but this antagonism did not hinder the growth of a sizable Vietnamese community scattered throughout southeastern and central Cambodia. According to an American scholar on Southeast Asia, Donald J. Steinberg, an estimated 291,596 Vietnamese, constituting more than 7 percent at the total population, resided in Cambodia in 1950. They were concentrated in Phnom Penh, end in Kandal, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham provinces. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

No close cultural or religious ties exist between Cambodia and Vietnam. The Vietnamese fall within the Chinese culture sphere, rather within the Indian, where the Thai and Khmer belong. The Vietnamese differ from the Khmer in mode of dress, in kinship organization, and in many other ways- for example the Vietnamese are Mahayama Buddhists while most of the Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists. Although Vietnamese lived in urban centers such as Phnom Penh, a substantial number lived along the lower Mekong and Bassac rivers as well as on the shores of the Tonle Sap, where they engaged in fishing. Much of the manpower on French-owned rubber plantations was provided by the Vietnamese, who also were employed by the French as lower level civil servants and as white collar workers in private businesses. *

Dislike of the Vietnamese in Cambodia

Cambodians generally don’t like the Vietnamese. One Cambodian student told the New York Times, "Vietnam will eat up Cambodia if it can." The Vietnamese are often blamed for any problems and are convenient whipping boys for frustrations. The derogatory word for Vietnamese is “yuon.” They are blamed for stealing resources and dominating the economy.

The Khmer have shown more antipathy toward the Vietnamese than toward the Chinese or toward their other neighbors, the Thai. Several factors explain this attitude. The expansion of Vietnamese power has resulted historically in the loss of Khmer territory. The Khmer, in contrast, have lost no territory to the Chinese and little to the Thai. No close cultural or religious ties exist between Cambodia and Vietnam. *

One of the things Buddhist Cambodians have traditionally not liked about the Confucian Vietnamese, other than being occupiers of Cambodia during the seventies, was the fact they ate dog. Nonetheless in the pre-war days dog meat sausages used to sell well in Cambodian markets. Vietnamese have traditionally been the butchers and fishmongers in Cambodia. They sold their products live to ensure they were fresh. Because it was considered taboo for Cambodians to ask for the an animal to be killed, the usual custom was for customers to point at what they wanted and say something like “too bad it is still alive” and then walk down the street, with the Vietnamese vendor catching up with them and giving them what the wanted freshly killed and telling them it just died.

Vietnamese in Laos and Thailand

A significant number of Vietnamese live un the provinces that border Vietnam and the main cities. Many are traders and run small businesses.

Three broad categories of Vietnamese are found in Thailand. The first are the descendants of persons who fled from political upheaval and persecution during the precolonial era in the late eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century. Most of them settled either in Bangkok or in the area southeast of it, and many of their descendants were absorbed into Thai society, although some still lived in villages that were identifiably Vietnamese. Many who came in the nineteenth century were refugees from anti-Catholic persecution by rulers in Cochinchina (southern Vietnam, around the Mekong Delta) before the French established political control over that area.

The second category consisted of persons who opposed the establishment of French domination over all Vietnam in 1884 and presumably expected their stay in Thailand to be short. With some exceptions, however, their descendants and those of other Vietnamese who came to Thailand in the first decades of the twentieth century remained. The earliest arrivals in this category, like their predecessors, mostly came to southeast Thailand. Later immigrants tended to go to the Northeast. The third category included those who fled from Vietnam between the end of World War II in 1945 and the consolidation of North Vietnamese rule over all of Vietnam in 1975. For those who came after the Second Indochina War had ended, Thailand was simply a way station en route to somewhere else, usually the United States.

In the mid-1970s, the number of Vietnamese in Thailand was estimated at between 60,000 and 70,000, most of them in the Northeast.

Most of the 40,000 to 50,000 Vietnamese who came in 1946 and shortly thereafter were driven from Laos by the French, who were then reimposing their rule over all of Indochina. More Vietnamese came later, and, like those who came in the 1920s and 1930s, they expected to return to Vietnam. Between 1958 and 1964 (when the intensification of the war in Vietnam inhibited their return), arrangements were made for the repatriation of Vietnamese to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and an estimated 40,000 left Thailand. Over the years a few families went to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The movements of this period, both voluntary and involuntary, left between 60,000 and 70,000 Vietnamese in Thailand, an undetermined portion of which were post-World War II migrants who could not or would not return to their homeland.


About 3 million overseas Vietnamese live in 80 countries. They can be found in the United States, France, Australia, and Canada. There are also many Vietnamese in Laos and Cambodia. Some are from early migrations to northeast Thailand and New Caledonia. The were 57,000 Vietnamese in Germany in 1990s. North Vietnam and East Germany were very close in the Cold War era. More than 2 million Vietnamese have worked and studied in Germany.

In Vietnam overseas Vietnamese are known as Viet Kieu. a Sino-Vietnamese word literally meaning "Vietnamese sojourner." The majority are connected to the diaspora that left Vietnam as refugees after 1975 as a result of the Fall of Saigon and the takeover by the Communists. Ethnic Vietnamese living outside of the country rarely use the term Viet Kieu for self-identification. They prefer the terms Nguoi Viet Hai Ngoai (literally translating to Overseas Vietnamese), or occasionally Nguoi Viet Tu Do (Free Vietnamese).

For a long time overseas Vietnamese have been regarded by Vietnamese in Vietnam with suspicion, esteem, resentment, envy and contempt. They have been treated with suspicion for several reasons: 1) they may have had ties with the South Vietnamese government or been Chinese; 2) they left their homeland; and 3) they likely have become more affluent than Vietnamese who stayed in Vietnam.

When Viet Kieu visited their homeland in the 1990s they were often treated suspiciously by Vietnamese officials, charged higher prices for everything and were required to pay bribes that other foreigners didn't have to pay. Many Viet Kieu feel uncomfortable traveling in Vietnam at that time. After returning to Vietnam, one 27-year-old American Viet Kieu told AP, "They can tell by the way you walk, the way you dress. We've got the same blood and hair, but the way you look at things is really what's different."

Vietnamese are often wary of doing business with Viet Kieu. Viet Kieu known as "spacemen" travel back and forth between the U.S. and Vietnam making deals and robbing people of money in business scams; some even arrange bogus marriages between Vietnamese women and Americans so they can enter the country.


Types of Overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu)

According to a group called Saigon Parents: "Generally, Viet Kieu’s can be categorized into five groupings that may or may not interact with each other: Group 1 refers to people who have been living in territories or countries outside of Vietnam prior to 1975. They often reside in Cambodia, Laos, and China. Some migrated to France or Quebec, Canada during the French colonial days. Many Vietnamese in Vietnam do not consider them as Viet Kieu.Group 2 refers to Vietnamese who escaped Vietnam after 1975 as refugees. Their descendants also considered to be part of this group. These Vietnamese people immigrated to United States, Canada, and Australia. [Source: SaigonParents ]

"Group 3 refers to Vietnamese who worked in the former Soviet Union and opted to stay there. This group mainly resides in Eastern or Central Europe. Group 4 refers to Vietnamese who have recently moved to other Asian countries for economic reasons, such as Japan and Taiwan. This group also includes women who marry men from Taiwan and South Korea (many through marriage agencies), and follow their spouse back to their country. Group 5 is a newly emerging group of Vietnamese who attend high school and/or college in the United States or other countries. After they complete their education, they opt to stay in those countries to live and work as permanent residents.

Many Viet Kien have western first names. Other have switched their family names to western-style order so that Tran Nghia becomes Nghia Tran. Some have returned to Vietnam to start businesses, live cheaply or retire. Around Saigon some live in American-style middle class homes with swimming pools. These reverse immigrants began coming after a new law was passed in 2001 that allowed them to own property. Even those who live on $1,000 a month American social security can afford a chauffeur, servants and cook.

On her feelings about labeled as a Viet Kieu, one Vietnamese-American wrote: "Viet Kieu is not a term for self-identification for many overseas Vietnamese. As a Vietnamese refugee, I often use it loosely to self-identify myself as a Vietnamese-American without all the hassles of answering about my background. It is a term that may have a negative connotation for some ethnic Vietnamese, who live overseas. However, for me, this phrase explains why I look Vietnamese but do not speak the language nor have a strong cultural connection. Whenever I meet a Vietnamese person on the street or in a store, they stop and stare at me. Some may ask if I’m Singaporean or Thai. Then proceed to say, "But, you look Vietnamese." As soon I speak in my "pigeon" Vietnamese, "I am Viet Kieu." The people stop staring and asking questions as though that little statement makes so much sense why my speech or characteristics do not seem to match with my Vietnamese physical appearance. Some people add a clarifying nationality, such as Viet Kieu Mi for Vietnamese-American, Viet Kieu Phap for Vietnamese-French, or Viet Kieu Uc for Vietnamese-Australian depending on where they reside. **

"I have no problem considering myself as a Viet Kieu Mi. I am not considered Vietnamese by the Vietnamese people nor am I really considered American by the American people. I’m both. For many people, this may present an identity crisis. I did have those crises growing up in the U.S. with my strange eating habits and Vietnamese name that no American seemed to pronounce accurately. However, having been back in Vietnam and knowing that I cannot really be fully Vietnamese, I am proud to be from both cultures. Overseas Vietnamese is just the right term for me—Vietnamese in heritage but have very ‘overseas’ beliefs and educational background. **

French Vietnamese

Jane Le Skaife wrote in newgeography, "France, the largest non-English speaking community in the Vietnamese diaspora with about 300,000 strong, illustrates a much more complex tapestry of Vietnamese immigration that started well before the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The diversity among the migrant stock from Vietnam has led to a notably divided Vietnamese community in France. This has worked against attempts to develop a sense of ethnic solidarity in the community over the years. [Source: Jane Le Skaife, newgeography, July 15, 2011; Jane Le Skaife is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. She is currently conducting her dissertation research involving a cross-national comparison of Vietnamese refugees in France and the United States. ]

"The Vietnamese first began immigrating to France in large numbers in the early 1900s as a direct result of French rule over Indochina from 1885 to 1954. With colonial ties to the West, the Vietnamese initially migrated to France as soldiers, workers and students long before the arrival of the refugees. As a result, there were already tens of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants living in France even before the onset of the Vietnam War. At least 20,000 Vietnamese workers had immigrated to France during World War II alone. These pre-war Vietnamese immigrants differed greatly from the post-war Vietnamese refugees that followed them.

"The older wave of Vietnamese immigrants did not share the same anti-communist fervor as the newer wave of Vietnamese refugees who had been forced to flee their homeland after 1975. In fact, some of the older immigrants openly supported the communist ideals and even desired to one day return to communist Vietnam. The existing pro-communist sector of French Vietnamese community in France soon fell into conflict with the staunchly anti-communist new wave of Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War. According to some sources, this division initially manifested through violence in the late 1970s with several Vietnamese on both sides being hospitalized after physical altercations. Today, the Vietnamese community in France is still divided, but the division no longer expresses itself through overt violence but instead through covert avoidance.

Recent conversations with those in the community depicted much calmer relations involving the evasion of politics in Vietnamese public places such as cultural events. Yet separation within the community still exists. There are, for example, two completely separate events for holidays such as Tet (i.e. Lunar New Year); one for the pro-communists and one for the anti-communists. The apparent political division among the Vietnamese in France also has made it difficult to progress as one cohesive ethnic community with political influence. The Vietnamese in France have excelled in economic and educational achievements as individuals. However, at the community level, they have been unable to achieve any notable successes.

The pro-communist vs. anti-communist division in France explains, to a certain extent, the lack of a Vietnamese voice in French politics. In the United States where most Vietnamese came after 1975 as refugees and are more politically homogeneous, the community has attained various political seats in several states. Former U.S. Representative Joseph Cao of Louisiana is just one of nine Vietnamese Americans who either had or currently have prominent political positions in the federal government. In contrast, Vietnamese representation in French politics has been largely absent. Some Vietnamese in France commented on how, unlike in the United States, there were no well-known Vietnamese politicians in their country.

In an attempt to change the Vietnamese political track record in France or lack thereof, the Union des Vietnamiens Republicains (i.e. Union of Vietnamese Republicans) recently held an open debate in Paris to address issues concerning the Vietnamese community and the Asian population, in general, in France. The UVR, which was formed in the last couple years, seeks to act as a liaison between the Vietnamese community and the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (i.e. Union for a Popular Movement), a center-right political party in France, which openly opposes the largest opposition group, the Parti Socialiste (i.e. Socialist Party) as well as the Parti Communiste Francais (i.e. French Communist Party), a party supported by the pro-communist Vietnamese.

Vietnamese Drug Gangs in Europe

In 2005, AFP reported: "Police are being overwhelmed by a rapid influx of aggressive Vietnamese drug gangs who are flooding London with high-grade cannabis. The gangs, mainly comprising illegal immigrants, are making huge sums by renting houses from unsuspecting landlords and converting them into sophisticated cannabis factories, the Observer newspaper said. [Source: Agence France Presse, September 11, 2005 :::]

Using artificial lights, gangs can grow cannabis crops worth 120,000 pounds every six weeks in a single house. The drugs gangs have been linked to murders, people smuggling and kidnapping. Such was the scale of the problem that at just one London court, five separate cases involving Vietnamese drugs gangs were being heard on the same day. Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur from London's Metropolitan Police told the paper that his officers were working with the city's Vietnamese community to combat the problem. :::

Racists Kill Vietnamese Student in Russia

In 2004, Reuters reported: "Racists stabbed a 20-year-old Vietnamese student to death in the city of St. Petersburg, police said in the latest violence blamed on extreme Russian nationalists. His death was at least the fourth racist murder in Russia this year. A nine-year-old Tajik girl was stabbed to death in broad daylight in St Petersburg in February. A student from Guinea-Bissau and an Afghan trader were killed in other cities. [Source: Reuters, October 14, 2004 ]

"Police said Vu Anh Tuan's body was found with at least five knife wounds after a group of 15 to 20 youths attacked him late at night. Prosecutors said 15 people had been detained. Around 100 Vietnamese students gathered at the murder scene to protest against the killing and demand protection from the police against racist attacks, which are linked to a growing number of fascist and racist organizations.

"We came to study in this country, which we thought was a friend of Vietnam. We do not have drunken fights, we do not steal, we do not sell drugs and we have the right to protection from bandits," said one demonstrator. Students who witnessed the stabbing said the attackers wore semi-military uniform, leather jackets and boots, and had shaven heads.

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.

Last updated May 2014

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