OVERSEAS VIETNAMESE (VIET KIEU)
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 Nguo
i 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.
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.
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 saigonparents.com/ ]
"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. **
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, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBCand various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022