Little Saigon begins to see Vietnam in new light

Some move back, form business ties

Timothy Thieng Chi Ngo, who had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, said some people forgot the past too soon. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)
By My-Thuan Tran
Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2008

WESTMINSTER, Calif. – Thirty-three years after the Vietnam War ended, the fallen country of South Vietnam lives on – in the streets of Orange County’s Little Saigon and in the minds of thousands of refugees who fled Communist forces and rebuilt their lives here. more stories like this.

The memories of hardship are still so bitter to some that they continue to mount street protests, fly the South Vietnamese flag from businesses and lamp posts, and rail against communism on radio talk shows.

Now there are signs of shifting attitudes in the historically anticommunist community, the United States’ largest Vietnamese enclave, which is in the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove.

Vietnamese-Americans are beginning to see opportunity in their home country and increasingly people are moving back, expanding their business ties, or starting humanitarian organizations to improve the lives of those in Vietnam – actions barely imaginable a decade ago.

Although the change is subtle and those who associate with Vietnam often keep a low profile, the movement is remarkable in a community where a statue of a South Vietnamese soldier stands near the civic center and street protests against perceived communist sympathizers are still routine.

“There is tension in the community,” said Linda Trinh Vo, a University of California, Irvine professor of Asian-American studies. “It shows the complexities of Vietnamese-Americans in terms of their feelings against the current Vietnamese government. At the same time, we have to understand the personal experiences of these people and what they have suffered.”

Bill Pham fled Vietnam on a plane with his family when he was 4. Now 37, he has no memories of his homeland.

He returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2006 and saw mothers peddling bowls of pho and hungry children without shoes. “I kept thinking, that could have been my life,” he said.

Pham decided to expand his Orange County-based clean energy business to Hanoi, a name that still smolders among refugees. His manufacturing company employs 80 Vietnamese.

Vietnamese-Americans who conduct business in their homeland are viewed with suspicion, seen as traitors who help prop up the communist regime. Vietnam’s human-rights record and crackdowns on political and religious freedom remain sore points.

And yet there are signs of change even in the supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores in Little Saigon, where silks and fabrics, fish sauce, souvenirs, peanut snacks, and pop music albums imported from Vietnam are displayed with growing prominence.

In April, Pham hosted a group of Vietnamese delegates looking for high-technology businesses in Orange County and San Jose to expand to Vietnam. The meetings were discreet, by invitation only. Pham and the delegates did not want to risk protests.

“Forget the politics,” Pham said. “What do you do to solve problems for people in Vietnam?” Pham sees increased business ties with Vietnam as a path to a better economy. Human rights, education, and political freedoms will follow, he predicts.

As ties between the United States and Vietnam deepen, Vietnamese government officials are reaching out to overseas Vietnamese – “Viet Kieu” – with promises of less red tape, investment incentives, and multientry visas.

United States and Vietnam did $12.5 billion in trade last year, up nearly 30 percent from 2006, according to US government officials. Vietnamese-Americans also sent more than an estimated $4 million in remittances to relatives in Vietnam last year.

Timothy Thieng Chi Ngo was among the hundreds who protested in June when President Nguyen Minh Triet of Vietnam visited Dana Point in Orange County. He takes offense to Vietnamese government officials trying to reel expatriates back and doesn’t believe a better economy will bring about democracy.

“I wish the people who rush to do business in Vietnam would have more responsibility,” he said. “I feel like they have forgotten the past too soon.”

Ngo hasn’t forgotten. He was a 25-year-old officer in the South Vietnamese Army when he fled Vietnam on a small landing craft and vowed never to return as long as communists were in power.

Ngo eventually came to Orange County and heard news of friends and relatives in the army being thrown into “reeducation” camps as political prisoners. Others died fleeing Vietnam. He organized protests to support and free political prisoners held in Vietnam.

“For my friends who spent 10, 15 years in prison,” he said, “their youth, that part of their life was gone forever.”

In 1998, Ngo broke his vow and went to Vietnam for charity work and to see the situation there for himself. His anger grew anew.

Vo said the wounds of war have healed slowly in the Vietnamese-American community.

“Especially for the first generation, they’re still tied to what happens politically and economically in the homeland,” she said. “That will always be a part of who they are, part of their history.”

http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2008/05/04/little_saigon_begins_to_see_vietnam_in_new_light/

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