Nha Magazine, Q & A, Christine Buckley, Jul 26, 2006

“Viet Kieu,” asserted my HCM City neighbor, his mouth turned down with distaste, “are simply no good.” He would not elaborate, but merely shook his head as if to say I’d never be able to understand.

His is a sentiment one hears less often since Viet Nam’s economy started booming, but still there remains a barely palpable undercurrent of resentment here towards the millions of Vietnamese who whether by choice or circumstance have made their homes outside of the country. A new generation of Viet Kieu, however, are pouring into this emerging market economy and doing something to reverse that negative image.

Not unlike the “ugly American” stereotype that hangs over the head of every Yankee visitor to Paris, stories about wicked Viet Kieu have been woven into the fabric of local urban legends since the country opened its doors to the outside world nearly two decades ago. Such tales usually star a pleasantly plump middle-aged Vietnamese American fresh off the plane, overdressed and flaunting his purported wealth for all hungry eyes to see. He’s come back, we are told, to wed a young virgin and whisk her back to a life of manicures and spa treatments in southern California… He can’t speak a word of his mother tongue, but money still talks in the former Saigon, and instead of visiting his relatives, Mr. VK treats himself to a suite at the Las Vegas-style Rex, special “massages,” lavish dinners and bottles of the finest liquor before stepping gingerly over the beggars who stare up at him from the sidewalk and ask why he has been chosen instead of them.

Was there ever a grain of truth to this picture? Maybe. But even locals without overseas relatives wiring money home have begun to realize that the second generation is somehow different.

In the two years I’ve lived in Saigon, I’ve spoken to hundreds of Viet Kieu: from around the world. Ten of those people from my generation agreed to talk in detail about their experiences coming back to live in a Viet Nam drastically different from the war-scarred nation many of their parents fled over 30 years ago. Instead of summarizing their viewpoints in a tidy package, I’ve decided to let them tell their own stories, in their own words.

Laurence Nguyen, the youngest of the group at 23, was born in Montreal and moved to Saigon just over a year ago. After a stint at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, she is now a client relationship exec with Fraser’s law firm.

Twenty-seven-year-old Christine Van was born in Hue but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She came back to her country in 2004 to find her “Vietnamese” self, after realizing how assimilated she had been in the U.S. She now lives sandwiched between her aunt, uncle and cousins in HCM City’s District 3, and since July has been the general manager of a new restaurant called Hideaway Cafe.

Dao Xuan Loc, 35, a software development manager born and raised in Paris, has lived in Saigon for two years. He lives alone but sees his relatives every other day.

Nguyen Trung Hoang, a 42 year-old filmmaker, left Viet Nam at 18 and returned home in January 2005 after spending more than half his life in France and America. Now known as Ouater Sand, he recently married a local girl (who was introduced by her aunt in the U.S.) and took her back to San Francisco, where he runs a restaurant. He’s the only married one in this group of 10.

Linda Pham, 27, left her birthplace in Melbourne to gain international advertising experience in her parents’ hometown of Saigon. Now an art director at Saatchi and Saatchi, Linda (whose Vietnamese name, Hien, means gentle and virtuous) is one of the few members of the group at ease in the language, and seems to have found a happy balance between her Western and Eastern values.

In 1975 Landon Carnie was adopted as a toddler by American parents as part of “Operation Babylift,” which saw almost 3,000 Vietnamese orphans flown out of the country to families around the world. Now 32 and teaching at an international university in HCM City, he recently returned from a trip through China, Mongolia and Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad. He says the most valuable lesson he’s learned in Viet Nam is that yelling never gets you anywhere.

Voughn Nguyen, 33, Director of Marketing for Norfolk Group (real estate), grew up with traditional Vietnamese values in Canberra, Australia, even though her parents left their country as children for Laos. Now a busy businesswoman, she’s at peace with Saigon but can see her future elsewhere.

Twenty-nine-year-old Quoc Doan recently moved back to San Jose after three and a half years in Saigon, where he held various creative positions, most recently as an art director for McCann Erickson. Although he misses life in Viet Nam, he’s getting by just fine without the traffic and pollution, thank you very much.

Quoc’s former roommate Tho Vu, who is as French as they come, also moved back home this fall after spending a year teaching French-speaking elementary school kids in HCM City’s expanding suburban district of Phu My Hung. The 30-year-old enjoyed his time here, but is happier back with his nuclear family in Paris.

Van Linh Siharath, who just turned 34, was born in Laos to Vietnamese parents and grew up in the mountains of central France with a loving French stepfather. She recently returned to Paris after spending a year living with relatives in Hanoi in an effort to improve her language skills and “find a part of myself that I didn’t know.”

NHA: What made you come (back) to Viet Nam?

Landon I was looking for something new. Teaching is not very well-paid in the U.S., and I could never save money there. Here I can save 60 percent of my income, or about $1,000 a month. In Saigon, I get a high standard of living at low cost. I’ve gained simplicity. Every day something new happens here. At home I felt caught up in the monotony of life.

Hoang: I came back to meet my fiancee, change my perspective a bit and get inspiration for my latest film. Vietnamese people generally don’t like Vietnamese films. I want to change that impression by making a realistic one. But it’s hard to break in here.

Quoc It was after the 2002 dot.com crash. All of my friends were unemployed. I came back on vacation and decided to stay. I was interested in working, period.

NHA: How did you feel the first time (back)?

Quoc: I found out that my paternal grandfather had died on a Monday, and I was on the plane that Friday in 2001. We went straight to his village, Quang Bien, an hour outside of Saigon, to the house where I was born. Then straight to the cemetery, where I met 26 people with my facial features—some with my teeth, others with my eyes—standing there. They were waiting for me to seal the coffin. From there we walked to my dad’s grave. I didn’t know that would be part of the plan. For me that was the most transparent moment of my life. I had always been used to the idea of my family being just my mom and two older sisters. Seeing the grave was tangible. It was as though my life had two pillars for the first time. I cried like a baby. Then we went and ate, of course.

Voughn: The first time I set foot in Viet Nam I was 21 and cried for two weeks wanting to go back to Oz. I’m not sure where home is now. I don’t miss either place when I’m away from it now.

Van Linh: I met my family in Ha Noi for the first time in 1998. I just showed up at their house in a cyclo one morning. I spoke less Vietnamese than I do now, but when I told them who I was, and I had photos of my grandmother with me, the women started crying. I didn’t have authorization to stay with them, so I was in a hotel, but only for a few days, and when we separated again we all cried. But I’ve been back several times since then and now when I leave we all know we’ll see each other again.

Christine:When I first came back [for a visit] I loved it. Everything was taken care of—I have a big family here, so I didn’t have to worry about money—it was a different experience. Since I’ve moved here I’ve had to learn to communicate with outsiders. At first I was scared, really uncomfortable. It took a lot just to get out of bed and go to the supermarket. It was kind of like high school, with everybody staring and looking at you. I still get looks, but I just don’t care anymore.

Linda: I was 12, and I just remember 50 people at the airport and my mom crying—the whole family was there. At that age, I didn’t appreciate my culture. I just thought of it as a big family reunion.

NHA: Can you describe your living conditions here? How often do you see your relatives?

Christine:I live next door to my maternal aunt and uncle’s house in a one-bedroom apartment they own. Next door is another uncle, his wife and kids. I have plenty of cousins around the same age. I eat lunch at noon with them every day, and occasionally have dinner out with friends.

Loc: My uncle and cousins are here. I prefer to have my own house, but I see them every other day, and we eat together often. It’s fun to stay with them on holidays. We don’t have too many problems communicating—they are used to my Vietnamese.

Hoang: I was close with my cousins when we were younger [he left VN at 18]. But now I’ve got to get to know them all over again. We go out together, but they’re all married with kids. They are shocked that I would want to come back to live here. For them it’s not fair. They’re dying to go to the U.S. and work and make money. In a poor country, the focus is always on making money. If we grow up poor then naturally we want to show people that we are rich.

Landon: I live alone and am glad I don’t have to deal with family here. I have no desire to look them up [he was given up for adoption as an infant]. If the opportunity fell into my lap, I wouldn’t deny it, but I’m not going to pursue it.

Laurence: All of my relatives went to Canada before I was born. When my grandparents came back for a visit they would only go to expensive French restaurants. They were afraid of ice and eating on the streets, and took malaria tablets. I was surprised, since this is their country, but I found myself taking care of them.

Linda: My mom has nine brothers and sisters, and Dad has eight siblings. It’s full on. When I first got here, I stayed with my auntie and uncle. They insisted. I had always lived at home with my parents, but I only lasted two months with them. They couldn’t understand why I worked late or went out at night. They thought it meant they were bad hosts. It was hard, because I didn’t want to insult them. I used to see them every week, and now it’s more like once every month or so, because I’m busy at work. On the weekend I need to rest and relax with friends. Visiting them takes a lot out of me, and it’s not how I want to spend my weekend.

NHA: How does working in Viet Nam differ from your experience elsewhere?

Loc: First of all, it’s not easy to find an interesting job here. In France, employees take initiative, and want to move higher, to achieve. Here they wait to be told what to do. The culture is not as individualistic, which is sometimes tiring. I wasn’t prepared for that. All the Vietnamese I know in France are different… here people are hardworking, but they have different methods. I think they need to learn to take on responsibility and make decisions.

Landon: Among our Vietnamese staff, there is little proactivity. Self-motivation doesn’t exist. Of our 30 VN staff I’d say only two are really hard workers. My Vietnamese assistant argues with me about how to do everything, sometimes for 30 minutes. I get the feeling people always want to do things the fastest way, not necessarily the right way.

Laurence: Big time. People here are not as work-oriented as we are. It’s a collective society, so family comes first, and you wait for the boss to tell you what to do. As in: “The boss told me to do this, but I don’t think it’s a good idea, so let’s go out to lunch.” Or: “Let’s put newspaper on the floor and sleep.” I would sit and read my email while my former colleagues were napping.

Linda: Creative departments overseas are wild, outspoken, blast music in the office and dress crazily. Here the work culture is much more conservative. I don’t wear clothes to work that show my tattoo, because I’m worried what my colleagues would think, and because I respect them I want to adapt to their workplace. My company is relatively open-minded, though, and we have heaps of fun. The General Director is a Vietnamese American. And lunch hours are great in Viet Nam. In Melbourne you’re lucky to have half an hour.

Voughn: There’s a bit too many hierarchical hang-ups [and too much] nepotism here. It’s not what you know that matters but who you know, or how pretty you are. Being intelligent or talented doesn’t necessarily add up to much in Viet Nam.

Christine:Doing business with Vietnamese people has given me a harsh view of them. To put it mildly, they have an unorthodox way of doing things. Nothing is systematic or organized. But those who have a grasp of the different ways East and West conduct themselves are great to work with.

NHA: Are you fluent in Vietnamese? How are you coping with the language and culture?

Quoc: Every Viet Kieu:, I think, uses a certain kind of baby talk, since we’re used to speaking to our mothers. Being back here on the street is another thing. The problem with the language is that it’s not standardized—it’s still in flux. The terminology is different than the words our parents were using in the ’60s. I read in English for amusement—Vietnamese material is too heavily censored, anyway.

Voughn: I can only talk about basic things. My parents never chatted about nuclear science or the current state of economic affairs at home . . . both my grandmothers are here. I love them, but it’s hard to get close to them due to the language and cultural barrier. We can speak about everyday things, but can’t really express deep feelings or truly understand each other. To be close you have to really be able to communicate.

Christine: My family and I don’t talk about our love lives, swap personal details, or have deep spiritual conversations. They just think differently. One of my cousins, who’s 22, is dating a girl, and the way he views courtship is so ancient to me. Holding hands and giggling—it’s so junior high.

Hoang: I’ve lost a bit of vocabulary, but learned more since I’ve been back. The language is evolving . . .people know I’m Viet Kieu:, because I’m polite and say “thank you,” which most people don’t do anymore. They also can guess I’m VK because my shirt is never tucked in. [He indicates the men around us in the cafe, who are all wearing the standard dress for men: white shirt tucked into black pants with a belt and black shoes.] And I’m happy to own my freedom of speech. I can speak about politics without worrying because I have an American passport.

Tho: I usually understand what people are saying to me, but I lack technical terminology. So it’s hard to get beyond superficial stuff and deepen my relationships.
Landon: I am essentially paid not to speak Vietnamese for eight hours a day. After work I’m too tired to study the language. I would like to, because everywhere I go people instantly speak Vietnamese to me. My foreign friends speak in Vietnamese to the waiter, yet he’ll always look to me for the answer. And I don’t have it.

Laurence: People tell me I speak with a northern accent from 30 years ago. They can hear it right away. So I’m always classified as Viet Kieu I can describe what I want and express myself. It’s getting better. My former boss was Vietnamese, and I wanted to tell her how I felt about certain things, but it was really hard because my words don’t have the same impact. I have a few local friends, but communication is an issue. They go deeper into something and I don’t understand the vocabulary they use. So our conversation always rests on the surface, and as a result I feel like I don’t really know them. I guess I just need to put more time and effort into learning the language.

NHA:: Have you encountered prejudice in Viet Nam as a VK? What about overseas?

Christine:Ninety-five percent of the time I pretend I don’t speak Vietnamese. I get more respect that way. If they know I’m Viet Kieu. I’m treated with resentment. Once I was in Hoi An at a restaurant with a foreign male friend, and the waitress said to me, “Don’t you feel the cold?” which was a way of criticizing my tank top and the fact that I was with a Western guy. Some people assume I’m a taxi girl.

Voughn: Certain Viet Kieu come back here and think they rule the earth just because they speak English, which has generated a negative stereotype. I either get treated really badly here because I’m a VK or so well I don’t deserve it. No matter what happens, I’ve learned to take it with a grain of salt.

Loc: Sure, there is prejudice here. When you try to bargain, the starting price is higher. Sometimes they think I’m a foreigner, which I prefer. But I don’t want to be seen as Viet Kieu. Here [in a Highlands Coffee shop] the staff automatically speaks to me in English, so I go along with it. It’s easier, because then I don’t have to explain myself.

Tho: People know right away we’re VK, so they treat us differently. We don’t know how they’d treat us if we were just regular Vietnamese. I think American VK have given us a bad name—they talk a lot.

Hoang: I’m treated differently now. On the surface people are kind to VK—they take us out and appear to make friends with us, but we are never sure whether there is something behind it. They invite us to Highlands or places where they can’t normally afford to go, and then expect us to pay. People also make promises they can’t keep, just because saying you’ll do something even if you know you can’t is the path of least resistance.

Landon: I encounter prejudice more here than I do in the U.S. Mostly because I can’t understand what people are saying. People talk behind your back. I see discrimination the most at the English language schools around town. They won’t hire Viet Kieu. They correctly assume that Vietnamese parents won’t accept a Vietnamese face teaching their children English. My university isn’t like that. But the others are. They offered me a Vietnamese wage… There are so many different types of VK, like the really Westernized ones who come back driving a Wave Alpha. Maybe they went overseas for a few years, worked really hard at manual jobs to save money and then came back here to flaunt their wealth. People here are so naive about how easy life is in America. They have no idea. They categorize us, but they can’t tell the difference between us. Unfortunately, I’m treated better when I speak English.

Laurence: Sometimes I get ripped off by xe om drivers and taxis. I know the price, but they often try to overcharge me. I don’t care about the money, but it’s the principle. They seem to be asking, “Why was it you and not me who had a chance to have a better life?” I think some people think we are traitors and say that we left because we didn’t want to fight for our land. I can understand their point of view. But we’re not back here because we want to exploit people. We’re back here to make things better. At home I could make much more money. I’m here because I’m Vietnamese and I want the country to go forward… But not everyone is hard on us. A lot of people encourage me and support my learning the language. They’re curious. When they meet you, it’s always the standard questions: age, family, salary. It makes me so uncomfortable, but you have to answer. I lie, because I don’t want them to think that I think I’m better than them.

Linda: Sometimes people don’t guess that I’m VK. I have a lot of local friends, and I think I act like them. . . I’ve adapted really well. I feel like my local friends are rooting for me when they tell me I have very Vietnamese characteristics: I’m outspoken, I want to take care of everybody and make sure everyone is having a good time. However, trust is a bit of an issue. Saigon is a very money-hungry place. For instance, I had just met my friend’s mother when she asked if my parents could sponsor one of her relatives to Australia. That’s not cool.

Quoc People from the countryside here are always excited to meet me. But city people spit on us—I can sense it. I used to be sensitive to that, but now I don’t care so much.

Van Linh: I’ve traveled widely in Viet Nam and never felt any racism—quite the opposite—but that may be because I’m not really living in one place and can explain who I am and why I’m here. I grew up in a small French town where I was the only Asian girl. Everyone wanted to protect me. My name was difficult [to pronounce]. I always wanted a French name like Sophie or Isabelle, and it was only as a teenager that I understood my differentness was an advantage. Since then I’ve been attracted to people who were marginal, not normal. Those kind of people know more things, speak other languages and understand other cultures…

NHA: Would you say you identify more with a Western or a Vietnamese perspective on life?

Voughn: Before coming here at 21, I always thought of myself as Australian. I denied my Asianness because I thought it wasn’t cool. But now I’ve realized I’m not a circle or a square. Maybe that makes me star-shaped. It’s hard to date men here because I can’t totally identify with either local or Western men. It’s tough to find someone with a perfect complement of both cultures raised overseas.

Tho: Europeans share a certain mentality. We have a future. Here the majority of people are living day-by-day. They can think only of their tomorrow. I’m between both cultures. It’s easier for me to speak French, but I don’t share their outlook completely either.

Quoc: I identify more with Westerners because of a shared experience. Some might say I’m whitewashed, but I am Vietnamese. You can move a grasshopper to the desert, but he’s still a grasshopper. He’s just learned to adapt to the desert.

Loc: My close friends here are mostly Anglo and Francophone expats. Vietnamese don’t go out very late—and if they do it’s all men drinking beer to get drunk. I don’t really know any Viet Kieu here. I don’t like them too much. American Viet Kieu have given the word a negative connotation. I get the feeling they want to show off.

Christine: Almost all of my friends here are foreigners. I don’t have many Vietnamese friends outside of my family. I just can’t relate to most Vietnamese people. At the end of the day it’s always about money with them, and I don’t want to build a friendship around that.

Van Linh: I am not completely either one. I am very French. But I want to know the other part better. I am proud when a stranger here takes me for a Vietnamese. If I can walk down the street without someone saying “buy this!” or taking me for a foreigner, that’s an amazing feeling.

Hoang: I feel more like a foreigner. People expect me to act like one. If I act or dress like a local, they think I am lower-class. With my old friends, I’m still Vietnamese. But with strangers, I’m a foreigner. Because the fact is, the minute I show the passport, I get to walk right into the consulate instead of having to line up with everyone else on the pavement.

Loc: I was raised French. We never celebrated Tet at home, didn’t have a family altar or religion. I always felt at home in France. But my second home is still Viet Nam.

Landon: I have no problems with my identity. I feel American when I’m in the U.S. When I’m alone I feel American, and sometimes when I’m walking the streets alone here I feel Vietnamese. I think my students relate to me better because I’m Vietnamese.

Laurence: I guess I identify more with Westerners because we have to deal with the same frustrations here, like being ignored or overcharged. There’s a real bond between Canadians in Viet Nam. But I’m a citizen of the world. Thanks to globalization, you can have a dad from Morocco and an Italian mom. Montreal is so multicultural that you can be five different colors. When I’m here, though, Vietnamese people tell me I’m Vietnamese, not Canadian. It depends on who I meet. I don’t feel lost. I see this country through Canadian eyes. I feel at home here because I decided to make it home, but I could be at home anywhere.

Linda: I consider myself Vietnamese. I always say I’m Vietnamese when people ask my nationality, because that’s the way I look. With my Vietnamese friends, I can’t just sit and chill and not say anything. They’re always hyped up and chattering about past experiences and fun times. We go swimming, fishing… but after my first year I started to miss Western friends, and felt I needed a bit of a balance. With foreigners there’s a wider range of conversation—we can talk about politics, sex. Now I see my local friends every day for lunch and my Western friends on weekends. My local friends are very caring and into helping me. I’m lucky.

Quoc: Growing up, the idea of Viet Nam was a repressive one, not on a political, but on a personal, familial level: obey your elders. We had less freedom than American kids, which was always a point of contention with my mom. She’d say: “You can’t do what your American friends do because you’re Vietnamese.” Mom didn’t understand when my sister wanted to go to a dance—we were simply not allowed to date. So when I was a kid I felt like a Vietnamese growing up in America; now I feel like an American in Viet Nam.

NHA: How do you find the food here? Do you go to the market and cook?

Voughn: The C word? I’m hardly ever at home, and going to the market for cheap, tasty food is more feasible.

Landon I have my favorite pho place. It costs more to go to the market and buy ingredients
than to eat out.

Loc: I love eating things that are considered strange in France, like durian and dog meat.

Laurence: I eat every meal out. Food is cheap and good, and I don’t have the time to cook. Besides, we only have one pot, no rice cooker and four forks.

Linda: A typical night out with locals is all about eating—and fast. After dinner we’ll stop to drink sinh to [smoothies], then go and eat more. I spent my first year here eating outside on tiny lanes, places I’d never have found on my own.

NHA: What do you miss about “home” when you’re in Viet Nam? And vice versa?

Loc: Cheese and foie gras. I prefer the weather here. It’s always cold and rainy in France. And my family here is bigger, which is fun.

Van Linh: Cheese, friends and Ba ngoa [grandma]. The last time I got back from Viet Nam the Parisian streets seemed sad to me, empty. Here there’s noise, action, vendors, it’s animated. People+crowds+noise= vui [fun].The people are on the streets. In France, people come home from work and go inside. There’s an emptiness there. And you can’t get pho in the morning so easily.

Tho: I miss sport. It’s difficult to work out in the heat. And the sports I like are reserved for the elite here: fishing and gymnastics. France is definitely home, because I understand the system and how it functions. Here everything is vague. People say that Viet Nam has evolved, but I’m not so sure. We don’t know our place as Viet Kieu. People have no confidence in the system. Everything changes on a whim. But people are open and accessible, which I like. You can contact them at the last minute and see them whenever —they’re more spontaneous than we are.

Voughn: Rules, regulations, politeness and being able to walk down the street without fearing someone will run me over. Fresh air, huge movie theaters and well-stocked supermarkets. I don’t plan to be in Viet Nam for the long term. I feel another challenge coming on.

Quoc: Cleanliness, modern conveniences, sexual liberation, freedom of information and speech. I want to turn on the TV or read books and see things I’m interested in without limits. When I go to Thailand from Viet Nam my eyes bug out—I’m elated. Thank God for the Internet. I read the BBC website religiously… but there’s something about driving around on a motorbike late at night that I’ll miss when I’m gone. And here I’m part of the upper-middle class. I can afford to go out every night. It’s also good being stripped of familiarity and materialism. I used to feel the need to fill my house with a bunch of crap, like a Surround Sound system. Maybe life here is simpler. Some days I’m Vietnamese, other days I’m Western. Every day you start over. As a Viet Kieu you can float through all classes and circles, each with its own range of people, enough to keep life interesting. But the highs and lows are extreme.

Christine: I miss being able to converse with people, and being anonymous. Beef. Variety. Clothes that fit—fashion here sucks. My cousins are always calling me fat. When I leave I’ll miss the ease of life here and the people I love, who I know will never leave this country.

Hoang: The law. Organization. Here a red light has no meaning. Everyone does whatever they want. When there’s a traffic cop, they obey. But when he’s not there, there’s no more law. When I’m back in the U.S. I miss the food, fruit and climate here, but not the lifestyle.

Landon: I do miss things at home. Like waiting in line and knowing you will eventually be served. Here you may never get your turn. People keep cutting you. You can’t be polite, but have to push and shove. I hate it. I also miss people saying “sorry” and the ability to just go off into the wilderness or go hiking. I grew up in a rural area with snowboarding and waterskiing. Here you can only go to a coffee shop and drink beer. Walking is a nightmare. Saigon South is a bit better, kind of like suburban America. The first thing I do when I get back to the States is drive for an hour with the radio on. Oh yeah, and the bookstore—new books and magazines. But the benefits here still outweigh the negatives. I have a passport and go back whenever. When I do, I’ll miss the simplicity of life here, and the street stalls—I love them. I hope they never lose things like that, but I’m afraid they will.

Linda: I love Melbourne, but it never changes. It’s always the same.

Laurence: When I leave I’ll miss drinking coconuts and eating at street stands. And low prices—like being able to afford a massage once a week. My quality of life is so much better here than at home. For $200 a month we have a maid who cooks and cleans, a big, nice house… and a beer costs a dollar!

NHA: Do you share your parents’ views/politics in terms of Viet Nam?

Christine: At first my parents were surprised and not too happy about my coming here to live, but as long as I have a good job and am doing well here they’re fine with it. The Vietnamese government isn’t really an issue for me. I don’t think about it, but I do share my parents’ anti-communist stance. I experience communism firsthand every day and it’s not working. Viet Nam could be growing faster and more efficiently but can’t because of the government.

Voughn: I was very fortunate that my parents did not impose any politics on their kids. Ho Chi Minh’s original communist ideals, which I admired, were very different from the current regime’s.

Van Linh: My mom did not understand why I wanted to come here. She said: “Why? There’s nothing there but misery. Women are always at home, you’ll have no independence, no social security. Here you have your work, us, your friends, and in Viet Nam there’s nothing!”

Landon: Since I was raised with American parents, I’ve never had the same anti-communist feelings many other Viet Kieu do. I actually detest those kinds of sentiments. Those people wave the banner of freedom and justice, while most only get their U.S. passport so they can collect Social Security and unemployment. Sure, I have my moments with the Vietnamese government and people, but who doesn’t living in a foreign country? When I read stories about anti-communist Viet Kieu and war veterans all I see is bitterness. They need to let go. They’re going to spend their whole lives bitter, trying to make others feel the same way instead of accepting things for what they are and moving on.

Quoc: For my family, the Vietnamese government conjures up cruel memories of the war era… but the government is changing policies to accommodate economic growth (Stalin would roll over in his grave if he knew that today’s “communism” was powered by capitalism). Viet Nam is finally starting to share in the benefits the rest of the world has been enjoying and it’s not going back. Today’s government is not bent on control and suppression the way it once was. A Vietnamese friend recently told me “Nobody cares whether you call it communism or democracy. As long as our country is prosperous, it’s good for everybody.”

NHA: What aspects of Vietnamese culture do you love/will you teach your kids? Which parts do you find contradictory/will you leave out?

Christine: If I have kids I’ll teach them the language and culture but definitely not the Vietnamese mentality. I feel like they’ve taken the MTV version of our culture and run with it. Like the importance of having the latest motorbike or cell phone when you have no money to buy a phone card or fill the tank. Unfortunately, I learned more values growing up with my Vietnamese family in New York than I have here.

Hoang: Women here are amazing. They go to work and then come home and cook and clean and take care of the husband and kids. I have absorbed both the French and American culture in addition to the one I grew up with, and I plan to educate my kids with all three. American kids have too much freedom. You can’t correct them, and they have no respect for their elders.

Landon: I’m starting to see Vietnamese losing the unity of their nuclear family. Now both parents are going to work. Luxury products are available and people want to buy. In the U.S. there are too many latchkey kids on Ritalin. Here students still respect teachers and parents and understand the value of education.

Laurence: I like that they’re more collective and attached to their elders. But I pity the woman who isn’t allowed to get married because she has to take care of her mother. She just accepts it as her fate and criticizes us for our freedom. Maybe she’s only 32, and she’s an old maid not allowed out of the house after 10pm. That’s unfair.

Van Linh: Here no one in your family is left alone or in need. In France there’s only my mom, grandma, stepfather, and brother. In Viet Nam the family is all-encompassing. I missed that growing up, and would like to have that in the future. I also like the mix of modernity and traditional values. Like a businesswoman in a suit going into a pagoda to worship. Or women going to the market in pajamas without thinking about it.

Linda: The West is very materialistic, and it looks like Saigon will become like that. It’s happening fast. I have the image of the banh mi lady pushing her cart, and am afraid she’ll disappear. The countryside is still so different.

Loc: I like the focus on family and values. Family ties are stronger here. My parents raised me like that. In Viet Nam the emphasis on success is high. America is more about freedom and being happy. Here you are driven to succeed, earn money and start a family. There are some advantages to that, especially the focus on education, which helps kids come out ahead. I’ll teach Vietnamese to my children. It is the key to their past and their heritage. But other than that I will only retain the nuclear family values. A close-knit family provides a great support network.

Growing up, I was taught all the conservative Asian values. Living in Viet Nam has shed a whole different light on my culture. We learned the pure values, but now I’ve seen how they are applied and the contradictions that result. Face and reputation are important, so in public everyone wants to appear more honorable than the next person. But in private it’s a different story. While a woman must remain obedient and chaste, men go out drinking and chase women. And although no one will talk about sex, all you have to do is look at the size of their family to know what’s going on. The Vietnamese population didn’t surpass 80 million by abstaining from sex.

Tho: Vietnamese people always talk about their traditional culture. But you can only find it outside the city. Just like in the French countryside, the people are self-sufficient and have a simpler life. Happiness is dependent on minimizing your needs. If you don’t know about something you don’t need it.

Voughn: I’m finding out that I possess a firmer grip on Vietnamese cultural values than my local friends, who are dying to break away from tradition. Our household, despite being in Australia, was steeped in customs that have virtually been forgotten in a rapidly modernizing Viet Nam. My Dad is very Confucian and into respecting the ancestors and traditional etiquette. If I have kids, I hope they’ll be respectful, honest and dignified no matter what cultural environment they absorb. But with all due respect, most of the values I’ve discovered in Viet Nam are not ones [with which] I’d raise a child.

Our generation of Viet Kieu is lucky because we have a chance to build a bridge of understanding between Vietnamese here and those who have chosen to stay in their adopted countries. To foster understanding and healing.

Sadly, in Saigon people are trying so hard to Westernize, and in doing so they’re losing a sense of themselves as Vietnamese. Why knock everything down? Development is good, but you have to preserve history too. It’s sad to see Vietnamese denying their Asian heritage and natural features for plastic counterparts.

My parents painted a rosy picture of Viet Nam, and I thought it would be like all the songs my parents listened to. Women were tame, meek and mild, and men were gallant. People got on like a house on fire. They stayed faithful to each other and married for life. Youngsters respected elders, and were pure. But I was proven rather wrong. We all have misconceptions of countries we never knew.

July 26, 2006, 7:04AM

Food Email this storyPrinter friendly format



Bich Tran teaches her daughter, Mary Vuong, how to make Banh Xeo, a stuffed Vietnamese crêpe. Click through our photo gallery for a step-by-step guide.

Christian Vuong: For the Chronicle



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Copyright 2006 Houston ChronicleEditor’s Note: This is an installment in our occasional series about food, family, tradition and culture. The cooks we feature usually live in or near Houston, but this time our writer returned to her California hometown to learn the traditional Vietnamese dishes she was raised on.





–>She started without me.

I flew 1,400 miles so my mother could teach me how to make Vietnamese food, and discovered that she’d hit the kitchen she began 90 minutes before I woke up.

Instantly cranky, I marched back to the childhood bedroom I hadn’t slept in regularly for nine years. I was overreacting, sure, but it was only 7:28 a.m.

Was this a good idea? I wondered.

I traveled home to Redondo Beach, Calif., this summer determined to master family recipes and create delicious memories so that I could pass them onto on to the next generation. Eating has always been my favorite pastime, but I didn’t develop an interest in cooking until I began writing about food a few years ago.

A series of stories I wrote called Cooking With . . ., in which Houstonians happily reminisced about making significant dishes from their past, made me nostalgic for the Vietnamese dishes I was raised on.

I rarely eat such food in Houston. Nothing here compares to my mom’s cha gio, egg rolls that she stuffed, rolled and fried in party-size quantities, or her ca kho, a homey catfish stew bursting with the nuoc mam (fish sauce) ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine.

I was almost 5 years old when my mother, Bich (sounds like “bit”) Tran, became a stay-at-home mom with the birth of my brother, Christian. Our routine was the same each day: After my dad, Hoan Vuong, arrived home from work, we sat down to a home-cooked meal. I never gave it a second thought.

Now, two time zones away and too exhausted to cook from scratch after work, I’ve come to realize what a luxury those dinners that my mother labored over were.

One of my most vivid memories is of my mother standing at the stove during parties so that every guest would have a perfectly crisp banh xeo, a crêpe stuffed with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, onions and mung beans. They ate them as quickly as she could swirl the batter.

So I asked her to teach me that and another dish. Goi sua tom thit is one of my all-time favorites, a lively, herbaceous salad with shaved vegetables, pork, shrimp and jellyfish. Though a it’s a common offering at Houston Vietnamese restaurants, I haven’t found a version to my liking; the celery is sliced too thick, or the typically pungent fish sauce is disappointingly bland.

I learned to cook in my mid-20s by closely following recipes until I felt comfortable enough to improvise. My mom, already preparing meals for her family at age 10 or 11, learned by observing her mother, analyzing restaurant meals and reading cookbooks and newspapers. I use my digital kitchen scale daily; she eyeballs nearly every ingredient.

We speak Vietnamese to each other, with liberal use of English words on my part. I call her me (pronounced MAY-eh), Vietnamese for mother.

Drastic measures

I tried learning to cook from her years ago, but it backfired. When I asked for measurements, she replied, “as needed” or “to taste.” I was an inexperienced cook with minimal kitchen skills, and such vague instructions were enough to make me quit.This time, however, I was prepared. To be able to write accurate recipes and re-create the dishes solo, I insisted on digging out her rarely used scale and measuring spoons and cups.

But my need to measure everything and to ask “why?” stalled the process. Over two days of cooking, this was a cycle we couldn’t break:

“Each person can do it their own way,” she’d say.

“But I want to know your way!” I’d cry, exasperated. “I need a solid starting point; I can’t improvise from nothing.”

A friend but always Mom

Cooking with Mom forced me to realize that the mother-daughter relationship may never blossom into an adult-adult relationship, no matter how old the child. She still has the I’ll-cook-and-you-play-or-do-your-homework mentality from my youth. She gives me the easier, less messy duties, such as peeling carrots and daikon, while she deveins shrimp and expertly slices slippery pork.She’s subtly critical of my work, taking over the shaving of the carrots because I’m not making them thin enough. For her, it’s easier to do all the work than have someone else try.

I’m the same way.

Our similarities start with our Vietnamese names. She is Bich-Ngoc and I am Ngoc-Bich.

Food is a key

We express love and affection through food. She tucks homegrown satsuma oranges and frozen banh bao (meat-stuffed buns) into my luggage as I’m heading back to Houston. I leave Los Angeles with fleur-de-sel caramels for friends here.We also share a rarely broached fear. My maternal grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for my mother and, ultimately, me. It’s not just the unwritten recipes I want to preserve but the memories they evoke.

I was in my mother’s womb when she and my father fled Vietnam in December 1978 for a refugee camp on Pulau Bidong, a Malaysian island. I was born the next year on a hospital ship run by Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization.

That’s the edited version of history. It wasn’t till last summer, during my first trip to Vietnam, that the more gut-wrenching stuff emerged.

A link in history

My dad and I were sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room, watching a CNN reporter wade through water during Hurricane Katrina. When I remarked on the awful conditions, my father said the tiny island they lived on with 40,000 other refugees was miserable, too.My father’s English students, the sons of fishermen, were experienced swimmers and helped him gather mussels in rocky areas. He and his brothers-in-law also would drag mosquito netting through the water to catch tiny fish along the shore.

But that wasn’t enough to survive on. He was forced to sell his wedding band so he could buy food to supplement the rations provided by the Red Crescent (Malaysian Red Cross), buying a chicken neck to make soup or a precious egg. (Eggs are my favorite food. Coincidence?) They splurged on the occasional 7-Up, under the odd but widely held belief that it would make their baby’s skin light. Someone stole my mom’s soda one night after she and my father dozed off on the beach.

I was just 1 1/2 months old when they arrived in California, where we first settled in the working-class city of Cudahy in Los Angeles County. Three homes later, they purchased their current house in Redondo Beach.

Which is where Mom and I spent these two days cooking.

Preparation, perspiration

The prep work was tedious. For the salad, my mom and I boiled pork and shrimp and shaved and sliced endless vegetables.”How much pork are you using?” I asked her. “We have to weigh it.”

“Oh, maybe this much,” she said. “If we have too much, we’ll subtract.”

“How about shrimp?” I pressed her, knowing her answer would be the same.

The crêpes turned out to be tricky. Mom’s first one was perfect, thanks to an experienced wrist, but it took several tries before I produced one that was unbroken and golden-brown.

Division of labor

As soon as my father returned from work, she tasked him with making the fish sauce we would drizzle over the salad and dip the crêpes in.”I can’t take it anymore!” she declared. “All day it’s been measure this, weigh that.” I burst out laughing. She did, too. So I had been driving her crazy the past eight hours, as well.

The tension melted away and we relaxed. My mom finished tossing the salad as I continued to pour the crêpes. My brother snapped photos, and my dad made a comical production of using measuring instruments to produce a dipping sauce that is very much “to taste.”

When we sat down for dinner, I learned to eat banh xeo the traditional way. With my fingers, I placed a piece of hot crêpe onto a cool lettuce leaf, then added shredded herbs. I rolled the pile into a tight bundle and lightly dunked the wrap in fish sauce. It was brighter-tasting than I remembered, thanks to the spicy, minty herbs I had rejected as a picky child.

The goi sua tom thit, despite the many ingredients, was light and clean. The tart lime juice and sweet-and-salty fish sauce pulled everything together, from the subtly sweetened shrimp and pork to those distinctive herbs.

Mung bean wars

Back in Houston, I tested the recipes in the comfort of my familiar kitchen, referring to my notes for cooking times and temperatures.10:02 a.m.: Beans with water on medium. Mostly covered. When starts to boil, reduce to simmer. Stir occasionally.

10:26 a.m.: When beans are somewhat cooked but still hard, drain any remaining water and return to stove to continue cooking at low heat (mostly covered). Stir occasionally.

10:37 a.m. Stop cooking when beans are tender and slightly mashed. Remove from the heat. Let sit 10-15 minutes.

Despite my meticulous notes, I overcooked the mung beans.

Some things I still need Mom for.


Chronicle kitchen-tested recipe from Bich Tran.

Use a 10-inch nonstick frying pan to make these stuffed crêpes, which should be served immediately, while crisp. To eat, tear a portion of a crêpe, place it in a lettuce leaf, top with shredded herbs, roll and dip in Fish Sauce. You can find the flour, labeled “banh xeo,” at Vietnamese and Chinese stores, as well as any other ingredients not in your local store. Plan ahead: You’ll need to soak and cook the beans before you start cooking.

  • 1/2 of a (12-ounce) bag dried, peeled and split mung bean, picked through
  • 1 (12-ounce) package banh xeo flour
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 3 stalks scallion, in 1-inch pieces
  • 2/3 pound small shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2/3 pound semifatty pork, sliced into thin, bite-size pieces
  • Sugar, to taste
  • Salt, to taste
  • 2/3 pound onions, thinly sliced (about 3 cups loosely packed)
  • 2/3 pound bean sprouts, washed and dried (about 5 cups loosely packed)
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • Leaf lettuce
  • Assorted herbs such as cilantro, mint, red perilla, Vietnamese coriander and crab-claw herb
  • Fish Sauce (recipe above)

Rinse beans and soak in lukewarm water for 2 hours.

Strain beans and put in a 2-quart nonstick pot. Add water to slightly more than cover. Cook, partially covered, on medium heat until water comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are semicooked but still firm. Drain any remaining water and return to the stove to cook over low heat, covered. Stir occasionally. The beans are ready when they are tender. Remove from heat and allow to sit 10 to 15 minutes, covered, then fluff with a fork.

Prepare the batter by stirring together the flour, 3 1/2 cups water and coconut milk until free of lumps. Add the scallions.

Combine the shrimp and pork in a bowl, season with sugar and salt, and divide into 12 to 14 equal portions, depending on the size you’ll make the crêpes.

Combine the onions and bean sprouts, then divide into 12 to 14 equal portions.

Heat about 1/2 teaspoon oil in a 10-inch frying pan on medium heat. Add 1 portion of shrimp and pork, turning to cook both sides and evenly spacing the pieces.

When the shrimp and pork are light golden, pour in about 2/3 cup of the batter, starting at the center and swirling the pan until the batter is about 1 inch from the edge. Scatter 2 tablespoons mung beans over the batter, then add 1 portion of the onions and bean sprouts.

Cover the pan and cook for about 5 minutes or until the crêpe’s underside begins to develop golden brown spots and the edges are crisp. Carefully slide a spatula under half the crêpe and fold like an omelet.

Cook for another minute, then slide the crêpe onto a plate. Serve immediately with lettuce, herbs and Fish Sauce. Using fresh oil each time, repeat until you have used up all the ingredients.

Makes 12 to 14 crêpes.


Chronicle kitchen-tested recipe from Bich Tran.

There are many versions of this dish. My mom’s, which includes pork, shrimp and jellyfish, is light, refreshing and well-suited to summer. Plan ahead: The jellyfish, available in or near the freezer aisles of most Chinese and Vietnamese markets, must soak for several hours.

  • 4 ounces jellyfish, soaked and cooked (see note)
  • Marinade (recipe follows)
  • Fish Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 of a (12-ounce) can CoCo Rico Coconut Soda
  • 3/4 pound shell-on large shrimp, deveined
  • 2/3 pound lean, boneless pork
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/2 pound carrots, peeled and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 3 cups loosely packed)
  • 2/3 pound daikon (Japanese radish), peeled and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 4 cups loosely packed)
  • 1/2 of a (15- or 16-ounce) jar young lotus root in water, drained, rinsed and cut crosswise into bite-size pieces (slice larger pieces in half lengthwise first)
  • 1/2 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 large sweet red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, seeded and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 2 1/2 cups loosely packed)
  • 1 or 2 stalks celery, sliced thinly on the diagonal
  • Cilantro and assorted herbs, such as mint, red perilla, Vietnamese coriander and crab-claw herb, to taste
  • Red chiles, seeded and thinly sliced, for garnish
  • 1/4 cup shelled peanuts, toasted and crushed, for garnish
  • Lime wedges
  • Shrimp chips

Allowing plenty of time, prepare the jellyfish and set aside. Prepare the Marinade and Fish Sauce; set aside.

Heat the CoCo Rico in a small pot until boiling, then add the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp are pink, about 2 minutes. Remove the shrimp and set aside to cool. Don’t throw away the broth.

Place the pork in the pot with the CoCo Rico, adding enough water to cover. Season the liquid with salt. Simmer, partially covered, until the pork center is lightly pink, about 10 to 15 minutes (if pork is in multiple pieces, reduce the cooking time). Remove the pork and allow to cool, reserving the broth for another use, if desired.

Cut each shrimp lengthwise to yield 2 pieces. Slice the pork into thin, bite-size pieces. Refrigerate.

In a large bowl, combine the carrots, daikon, lotus, bell pepper, onion, cucumber and celery. Add the Marinade and toss well. Refrigerate.

Before serving, drain the marinade from the salad. Shred the herbs and mix into the salad with shrimp and pork. Lightly dress the salad with Fish Sauce to taste and toss. Garnish with chiles and peanuts.

Serve with lime wedges and additional Fish Sauce — so diners can adjust the flavorings to their taste — as well as shrimp chips.

Note: To prepare the jellyfish, soak it in water for 3 hours to remove the salt, changing the water every 30 minutes. Boil water and blanch the jellyfish for 5 to 8 seconds. Then soak the jellyfish in fresh cold water for 20 minutes before thinly slicing.
Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.


  • 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients and mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved.

This recipe makes enough for the banh xeo (recipe follows) as well.

  • 4 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons bottled fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Chile garlic sauce, to taste

Combine all ingredients with 1 1/2 tablespoons water and mix until the sugar is dissolved.


HoustonChronicle.com — http://www.HoustonChronicle.com | Section: Food
This article is: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/food/4066533.html


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9:32 a.m. July 28, 2006

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – It’s a little after noon, and a crowd has started to gather in Boston’s Chinatown. Some are reading the Sing Tao Daily or Ming Pao Daily News. Others clutch plastic bags filled with snacks. All look up whenever the deep roar of an engine sounds like it’s coming their way.Ip Kachuang and two of his friends share a smoke while they wait. It’s a routine Ip knows well. Five days a week, he makes the four-hour round-trip bus ride to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.


“It’s a happy place,” Ip said in Mandarin Chinese. “It’s very easy and relaxing, and it’s open all the time.”Ip represents a group of customers aggressively being courted by casinos around the country.

Every day, Foxwoods and nearby rival Mohegan Sun combined send more than 100 buses to predominantly Asian neighborhoods in Boston and New York. The number of buses doubles on Chinese New Year, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Foxwoods, the biggest casino in the world based on gambling floor space, estimates that at least one-third of its 40,000 customers per day are Asian. Mohegan Sun says Asian spending makes up a fifth of its business and has increased 12 percent during the first half of this year alone.

The number of Asians in the United States increased by 17 percent between 2000 and 2004, the fastest growth of any ethnic group during that period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And few industries have catered to the Asian boom with as much cultural competency as the $75 billion U.S. gaming industry.

In 2000, Foxwoods, which is run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, hired a vice president specifically in charge of Asian marketing. In 2005, Mohegan Sun, owned by the Mohegan tribe, hired an international marketing executive who would target the Asian demographic.

“Our Asian blood loves to feel the luck,” said Ernie Wu, director of Asian marketing at Foxwoods. “We call it entertainment, we don’t say it’s ‘gambling.’”

The two casinos target Asian customers with ads in ethnic media and sponsoring community activities such as the Boston Dragon Boat Festival, the Toronto Asian Beauty Pageant, and the Southeast Asian Water Festival in Lowell, Mass.

But buses are key to the marketing strategy. Riders pay $10 for round trip fare, and Foxwoods throws in a $12 food coupon and a $40 gambling coupon, while Mohegan Sun gives them a $15 meal voucher and a $20 betting coupon.

On a recent weekday afternoon, one Foxwoods bus picked up Ip, his two friends, and more than 40 other passengers from Boston’s Chinatown. During the 100-mile journey, some watched a Hong Kong soap opera on television sets throughout the bus. Most caught up on sleep.

Some say the casinos are filling a void in entertainment options for low-income Asian immigrants.

Gambling doesn’t require language skills or a high upfront cost, and casinos including Foxwoods have set up dozens of tables featuring favorite Asian games such as Pai Gow poker, Pai Gow dominoes, Sic Bo and Baccarat.

Next to the popular noodle bar, the entrance to the massive “Asian Pit” at Foxwoods is one of the liveliest sections of the massive casino. And when customers aren’t gambling, there are Asian concerts and shows to keep them occupied. Mohegan Sun has brought superstar singers A-Mei from Taiwan and Sandy Lam from Hong Kong to perform at its 10,000-seat arena.

“This is a way of demonstrating the casino’s sensitivity and understanding of the market,” said Joe Lam, president of L3, an advertising agency that works with Mohegan Sun.

Zheng Yuhua emigrated from southern China to New York City eight years ago. She works six days a week, 11 hours a day, preparing takeout orders at a restaurant in Chinatown. On her day off, she takes one of the Foxwoods buses.

“All of our friends come once or twice a week,” Zheng said, speaking Mandarin as she rested near the noodle bar with her brother-in-law. “Life in America is hard. Our English isn’t good. Even if we have time off, there’s nowhere else to go. We don’t have cars.”

Asians make up roughly a fifth of the 13,000-person staff at Foxwoods. Wu says dealers know not to touch Asian customers on the shoulder, a sign of bad luck. They don’t say the number four, which in Chinese, sounds similar to the word for death. The casino also has omitted the No. 4 seat at Pai Gow and Baccarat tables, which have numbered seats.

The model of attracting and retaining Asian customers is being watched carefully as casinos reach out to other untapped markets.

Mohegan Sun’s senior marketing vice president, Anthony Patrone, said the casino is interested in expanding its Latino marketing. On July 21, Mohegan Sun hosted a boxing match that was broadcast on the Spanish-language channel Telefutura.

Some say the casinos are going too far to market to people who are vulnerable to excessive gambling.

“If casinos didn’t market to Asians, they’d market to someone else. It’s just that right now, the market is Asians,” said Dr. Tim Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program.

But those marketing strategies to attract customers aren’t without concerns. Fong, who began studying gambling addiction among Asian-Americans in 2005, called it a “subtle epidemic. It’s out there, it’s insidious, slowly damaging families.”

Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun both have taken voluntary steps, such as training employees to read signs of addictive behavior and referring problem gamblers to psychiatrists.

Steve Karoul, who until earlier this month was vice president of casino marketing at Foxwoods and has spent 30 years in the casino business, said Asians aren’t significantly affected by compulsive gambling.

“Honestly, we find it’s not as prevalent in the Asian community as it is in the non-Asian community,” said Karoul, who worked in several Asian countries. “Of all the markets, I would say it’s the least affected by problem gaming. Gaming is part of the culture, but problem gaming is not widespread.”

Back in the Asian Pit, Ip Kachuang decided to take a break after three hours at the Baccarat tables, his favorite game at Foxwoods. He said he hadn’t won much money yet, but he was still in good spirits.

“It’s fun,” he said, “as long as you don’t gamble big.”

 On the Net:
Foxwoods: www.foxwoods.com/
Mohegan Sun: www.mohegansun.com/

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Several years ago, a friend brought his family to a beach house in Oak Island. His daughter, maybe 13, was greatly bored by everything around her until I mentioned that Dawson’s Creek was filmed in Wilmington. Her eyes widened.
“Really? Dawson’s Creek? Take me there!” she said.
That’s when I realized that the film industry brings us far more than the $300 million a year productions spend in North Carolina.
It brings us prestige, free publicity and, in past years, thousands of adoring fans.
So I was pleased that the state House passed the film incentives bill in the form that gives a full 15 percent tax credit to productions spending at least $250,000 in the state.
Because of a technical glitch, a similar bill last year only refunded 8.1 percent.
Mark Schreiner, our man in Raleigh, tells me that it took determined back-room maneuvering by Rep. Danny McComas, R-New Hanover, and Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, to get the full 15 percent credit sought by Sen. Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, and not a 12 percent credit that appeared to be on the way to enactment as a compromise.
We need those incentives to compete against other states bending over backward to lure productions.
Francine DeCoursey offers tours of Wilmington’s locations and the EUE Screen Gems Studio, although she’s cutting back this year for personal reasons.
She said when Dawson’s Creek was in its heyday, she placed the studio tour on the show’s Web site.
“We started getting tour groups that wanted to see where Dawson and Joey hung out,” she said. “Thousands and thousands of teenage girls would show up just to see that.”
She said she led tour groups from Italy, France, England and even Vietnam. That’s right, Vietnam.
Connie Nelson, spokeswoman for the Cape Fear Coast Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the agency has handed out several thousand “frequently asked question” sheets put together for Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, giving background information on the productions with a self-guided tour of locations familiar to fans.
Surface, which lasted a season before being canceled, generated only a few inquiries. But it sure made our waterfront look pretty, even with a monster swimming by.
Nelson said our film business has sparked film festivals and generated stories in national filmmaking publications and travel magazines on us. Movie magic is a new angle.
“How many ways can you write destination pieces?” she said.
You can find the Common Sense column on Sundays only, at least for the foreseeable future.
Our business editor and my friend, Bonnie Eksten, is leaving the paper. We won’t be filling her position right away. So I’ve been asked to become interim business editor, the position I held for seven years before becoming local news columnist. I’ve been writing Common Sense for five years.
I hope eventually to return to the column full time. Meanwhile, writing for the Local page on Sundays will keep my foot in the door.
You can reach Si Cantwell at 343-2364 or si.cantwell@starnewsonline.com.


A woman in central Vietnam was more than a bit surprised when she found her small child watching pornography instead of the music DVD her husband said they had been watching.

N.S, a man from central Vietnam’s Hue city, bought his Calitech DVD player in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003. Since then, it has been running smoothly…

But when N.S. and his small child were recently watching a music show on the DVD player, his wife called him into the other room urgently.

Hurriedly, he ejected music disk but did not to turn the DVD player off.

A short while later, he had forgotten about the DVD when his wife then scolded him for playing a porn film in front of their young child.

Confused, he found the player’s tray empty. But when he closed the empty tray in, the player automatically played a porn film.

He then dissembled the player and found that there was a VCD hidden above the tray.

He realized that when there is a disc in the regular tray, the player plays both the sneaky VCD and the regular simultaneously, though the player’s eye under the tray can only read the regular disc.

But when there is no disk in the tray to obstruct the tricky porn VCD above, the ‘eye’ reads the illicit VCD, thus playing the erotic movie.

Reported by Bui Ngoc Long – Translated by Hoang Bao


condoms BAD?

aids GOOD??

– donny t.



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Hanoi (ANTARA News) – Guest houses in Vietnam may be allowed to sell
condoms without fear of prosecution next year under a new law on prevention of AIDS, activists and local media said Friday.

However, the plan is likely to face opposition from police, who said Friday they are against a pilot project distributing condoms to guest houses in one Hanoi district.

Condoms themselves are legal in Vietnam, but police in the communist-run state often use possession of a condom by a woman or a guest house as evidence in prostitution cases, the online newspaper VNExpress reported Friday.

The newspaper quoted Ministry of Health official Nguyen Huy Quang as saying that a new law on HIV/AIDS passed by the National Assembly this year and taking effect on January 1, 2007, will mandate “harm reduction” programmes including distributing condoms to prostitutes and providing clean needles to drug addicts.

“This is the result of a long process of changing the opinion that loosening management over condoms is the same as accepting prostitution,” Quang, who is deputy director of the ministry’s legislation department, told the newspaper.

Especially targeted by the programme will be Vietnam’s many thousands of “nha nghi” – literally meaning “rest houses” – which unlike larger hotels can be rented by the hour, making them popular among young, unmarried couples as well as hideaways for illicit married lovers.

Quang said that preventing sexual transmission of the deadly HIV virus that causes AIDS took precedence over combating prostitution and drug use, which Vietnam terms “social evils.” In the past decade, 10,000 Vietnamese have died of AIDS and more than 100,000 are infected with the virus.

A pilot project to distribute condoms to guest houses in Hanoi’s Long Bien district, approved by the health ministry and run by the anti-AIDS activist group Bright Futures, has made slow progress, VNExpress reported.

“The owners of the guest houses often told us to go away before if we brought condoms to them,” a Bright Futures’ volunteer named Hung told the on-line paper. “They are afraid that I am an undercover policeman.”

In the year since the programme began, however, some 30 guest houses have started selling or giving away condoms, Hung said.

However, police in the district told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) that they do not support the pilot programme and warned that condom possession is still grounds for arrest.

“If we find a nha nghi providing condoms to customers, we will crack down on it,” Dinh Van Toan, director of Long Bien district police, said Friday by telephone. (*)


July 28, 2006

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Singers My Linh  

Conquering the global market is what all Vietnamese singers really want, but the reality is that they face many obstacles to realizing their dreams.

Foreign music directors and managers have shown interest in popular Vietnamese singers like My Linh, Hong Nhung, Quang Dung, My Tam, Lam Truong.

These kinds of performers are seen as musical ambassadors that can help promote Vietnam globally.

My Linh has already released an album in the US, and Lam Truong is gearing up for the Asian music market.

But the road is long and difficult, with exposure and financial support difficult to come by.

 “I want to gain more exposure by releasing an album in English, but am waiting cause I need a lot of help to do so,” said female singer Dong Trang.

Duc Tuan, a newly emerging singer with songs from music veterans like Trinh Cong Son and Pham Duy, is also set to launch a new album overseas.

Lam Truong put it frankly, “I think Vietnamese singers have a long way to go to catch up globally, after my tours to Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong.”

“We cling to the idea that the reason is language, but this is only one small factor,” Truong added.

“A big part of it is performance and high tech studios to produce an album on par with the rest of the world,” Truong said.

Reported by Da Ly – Translated by An Dien



Vietnamese gangster says punishment for shooting rampage ‘cruel’

By R. Scott Moxley
Thursday, July 27, 2006 – 3:00 pm

Si Tien Nguyen selected his gang nickname, Hitler, at the age of 12, after a family trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It was twisted and frightening and, he thought, funny, so funny that he bragged about it, even around cops.

Like his namesake, Nguyen is diminutive—just five and a half feet tall and 117 pounds. Despite that, police say Dragon Family Junior, the gang he helped lead, was Little Saigon’s most active criminal street gang in 2002.

The most salient feature of his leadership profile might have been his hair-trigger temper. When he heard that a rival gang had surrounded his boys at Fountain Valley’s Mile Sqaure Park, he rushed in with a semi-automatic pistol, announced his gang affiliation, and began firing. He hit one man in the shoulder and sent scores of people—allies, enemies, picnickers, a park ranger—fleeing. And then his gun jammed and the rest of his life was pretty much established: rival gang members were after him—armed with bats, hammers and guns. Police got him first, arrested Little Hitler and brought him to trial. He was convicted, he appealed and, last month, he lost. He’ll get 40 years.

That’s a lot of time, but he’s got plenty of it.

The day he shot up Mile Square Park—Aug. 23, 2002—Hitler was just 15 and a junior at Westminster High School.

*   *   *

Hitler lives with 5,000 other inmates in Kern Valley State Prison, a maximum-security facility in central California. From all appearances (and limited correspondence, obtained by the Weekly) he seems very angry and hungry for revenge, blaming the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs for wrecking his young life. But it seems like the course of his life had been set long before. He abused alcohol and drugs and was prone to violent outbursts, once punching a middle school teacher in the face.

Westminster Police Detective T. Walker (he asked us not to print his first name), perhaps the top police expert on Vietnamese gangs in Orange County, says that many Vietnamese gangsters are polite, articulate, straight-A students—one convicted gang leader was valedictorian of his Orange County high school. Nguyen wasn’t one of those. Three months before the Mile Square Park shooting, he used a large wrench to beat the head, face and body of an unarmed Vietnamese teenager with ties to the Asian Crip Boys. Doctors used staples to reattach the victim’s scalp.

Nguyen and public defenders called his 40-year sentence “cruel and unusual” and asked the state court of appeal in Santa Ana to overturn it. They noted that people who’ve committed far worse crimes have received lighter sentences. They argued that nobody had been killed and that the defendant’s youth should be taken into consideration; after all, the day of the shooting, he had to get his older sister to give him a ride to fellow DFJ gangster Eric “Sleazy” Pham’s home because he was too young to drive. (Pham, a convicted methamphetamine dealer, gave Nguyen a ride to the park. He also gave him a Ruger 9 mm pistol.)

Last month, the three-member panel at the appeal court agreed with Nguyen—sort of: his prison sentence is severe, they concluded, but it was deserved. The justices also said the punishment did not violate sentencing guidelines. In fact, they pointed to a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sanctioned a 25 years to life sentence for a man who’d stolen three golf clubs.

According to the panel, Nguyen had “demonstrated a continual pattern of criminal behavior . . . The defendant’s sentence is unquestionably long and severe,” wrote justices Eileen C. Moore, William W. Bedsworth and Kathleen O’Leary. “However, under the circumstances presented in this case [the beating and shooting cases had been combined], it is not out of proportion to his individual culpability and does not shock the conscience or offend fundamental notions of human dignity. . . . Defendant not only put his friends in further danger by escalating the situation, but he also put numerous uninvolved bystanders and a park ranger in harm’s way.”

*   *   *

During his February 2005 trial, Nguyen portrayed himself as a hero. He claimed he’d gone to the park after a cell phone call from fellow DFJ members. They’d been surrounded by two rival gangs, the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs. Nguyen insisted that he drew his weapon only after a rival gang member reached for a gun. Even when he didn’t know deputies were recording him after his arrest, he told jail mates he had no intention of killing anyone.

But Nguyen’s story was self-serving fiction, according to Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, who specialized in Asian gangs until he was recently promoted to the DA’s homicide unit. In the last roughly 40 months, Baytieh won convictions against 22 gangsters, decapitating several of Little Saigon’s toughest gangs. He boasts that many of those gangsters are now serving life sentences in a California prison, a fate he says Nguyen deserves too.

“Here’s what happened: Hitler’s sister was driving him past Mile Square Park that day,” Baytieh told the Weekly. “He saw rival gang members there, decided with premeditation to kill some people and then went to get a gun to carry it out. He never got a call from the other DFJ because he didn’t own a cell phone. . . . He is as vicious as they come. He has utter disregard for the value of human life.”

Jurors agreed with Baytieh. After guilty verdicts, Superior Court Judge William Froeberg sentenced Nguyen to 40 years to life in prison for his gang activities, including the shooting. He won’t become a candidate for parole until 2040. He’ll be in his middle 50s.

“I have no sympathy for someone, whether they are 15 or 55, if they take a handgun to a public park in the middle of the day and run around shooting at people,” he said. “These gang members think there are no ramifications to their actions, but there are. By the time they get to 21, many of them are either dead or in prison. Before that, their lives are an endless cycle of violence.”

*   *   *

Normally tranquil Mile Square Park, the site of a wild gang battle in August 2002. Photo by Tenaya Hills
Normally tranquil Mile Square Park, the site of a wild gang battle in August 2002. Photo by Tenaya Hills

Detective Walker says much of his work involves crime investigation and gang intelligence. He also works to form non-hostile relationships with gang members. His hope is that he can steer some of them away from crime. “It’s really important to give them hope for a better life,” he said.

The personal contact allows the detective to see the characters as well as trends. His subjects are typically between 15 and 18 years old, although authorities have identified an 11-year-old gangster in Little Saigon. The Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs are allied, while there is little distinction between Dragon Family Junior and Nip Family Junior (NFJ), and both are closely tied to junior members of Tiny Rascal Gangsters (TRG) in Little Saigon. There are many other local Vietnamese gangs (including VNF or “Vietnam Forever”), and they’re involved in everything from murder and graffiti to home invasion robberies, extortion and drug trafficking.

But Vietnamese gangs have unique characteristics in the underworld, according to Walker. They’re extremely secretive (read: hard to infiltrate) but not territorial (like Southern California Hispanic gangs). They often use MySpace.com or instant messaging services to communicate with each other about their criminal activities. Like all gangs, though, their world revolves around a single word: respect. Any sign of disrespect—however slight or imagined—from a rival Asian gang member can mean death.

“Violence is a tool they use to enhance their gang reputations,” Walker says. “The more violent the act, the more respect you get. Disrespect [from a rival gang] doesn’t go unanswered because if you don’t retaliate, you are looked upon as weak.”

That valedictorian gang leader once unloaded 30 rounds of bullets inside a restaurant, wounding four people.

“They lead double lives,” Walker said. “But don’t be fooled. They have no problem killing.”

*   *   *

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has primary jurisdiction over Mile Square Park, but it’s often county park rangers like Lorrie Zuczek who handle actual patrols, either in trucks or on horseback. On Aug. 23, 2002, Zuczek approached a large group of Vietnamese teenagers in the park. They assured her everything was cool.

But minutes later, five Vietnamese males between 15 and 16 years old—Nguyen’s DFJ associates—ran to Zuczek. She’d later describe them as “frightened and agitated.” One of them said, “Those guys are going to kill us. You’ve got to call the cops! We think they have guns.”

Zuczek then saw the larger group of gangsters—the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs—flashing gang signs. While the ranger made an emergency call to police, the DFJ members hid behind her truck. Five minutes later, everyone heard gunfire in a different section of the park.

The day of the shooting, Silvia and her fiancé, David, (we’re withholding their last names) went to Mile Square Park for a picnic. The 600-plus-acre, suburban park is normally tranquil. The couple found a spot on the grass with a view of a lake and spread a blanket for a picnic.

But they’d inadvertently chosen front-row seats for a shootout. Less than 50 feet away, a young Asian male with short, spiky hair, a white T-shirt and dark baggy pants climbed from the back seat of an Acura and began yelling at a crowd of Asian teenagers. Then the kid—he looked barely into his teen years—pulled a gun out of his waistband and started firing.

It was mayhem, and then it got worse.

“My fiancé told me to duck down and stay down,” Silvia later testified. She watched screaming people scatter. One fleeing teen took off his sneakers in hopes of running away faster. He got hit anyway, and from her spot on the picnic blanket, Silvia watched as the victim tore off his shirt, moaning, held his gunshot wound with both hands and ran at her. The angry shooter was running right behind him, still firing.

*   *   *

Leon “Tommy” Tran claims he didn’t know that he’d gone to the park that Friday afternoon with three carloads of Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs. He says he’d merely wanted to go fishing with two of his friends, Kevin and John—admitted gangsters and sworn enemies of DFJ. Tran says he was retrieving his fishing pole from the trunk of his car when an Acura raced up and slammed on its brakes just a few feet away on Euclid, next to the park.

Tran remembers freezing when “an angry guy” emerged from the back seat of the car, walked in his direction and yelled, “DFJ! You got shit! DFJ! DFJ! DFJ!” The angry guy then pulled a pistol from his waistband and began firing.

Tran says the first two shots “whizzed” past his head. He ran, pausing only to take off his sneakers for additional speed. It didn’t help. A bullet hit his left shoulder, exiting through his armpit. He cried out in pain. With the shooter still in pursuit firing a half dozen more rounds, he ran directly at a couple lying on a blanket and jumped over them.

The surprise attack had originally thrown the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs into chaos. But as Nguyen chased people around the park, his rivals regrouped. They went to their vehicles and retrieved baseball bats, hammers and, according to at least one witness, guns. This did not escape Nguyen’s notice. Adding to the drama, his gun was misfiring. Nguyen turned and ran back to Pham, his getaway driver. He made a chilling discovery.

After hearing gunshots, Pham had sped off.

Silvia and David, the couple on the blanket, remember seeing a panicked Nguyen sprinting down the street after the Acura. At some point, he stopped in the grassy center divide on Euclid, believing—praying?—that Pham would make a U-turn to pick him up. Instead, the Acura drove out of sight.

*   *   *

Little Hitler had a problem.

Armed, angry Young Locs advanced in his direction, and it’s likely he heard the dopplering scream of police sirens. He hid his gun in the bushes of a house facing the park, ran through several yards and eventually crawled behind some bushes in a back yard. Fate was against him. The female homeowner spotted Nguyen and screamed until he fled. By this time, he could hear a police helicopter searching above. Minutes later, a Fountain Valley patrolman stopped him on the street. The gangster acted nonchalant, claiming he’d been shopping at a gaming store. The officer doubted the story. Nguyen was out of breath, his shirt and face were dirty, and dried leaves and twigs poked out of his hair.

Even in lockup, Nguyen stuck to his story.

But five days later, deputies put him in a bugged cell with Tony Van Nguyen, a DFJ member jailed on unrelated charges. They hoped Nguyen would confess and reveal the whereabouts of the hidden gun. He did. Nguyen bragged to his cellmate that the cops “don’t have shit” and then gave a detailed account of events, including the precise location of the gun.

“We were set up,” Nguyen explained in a mix of Vietnamese and English during the taped conversation. “I told my sister Han to take me to Sleazy’s house, coming to pick up a piece. Let’s do this! They got my homeboys trapped! I got out [of the Acura], shot [a guy]. Boom! Boom! Boom! I ran. I chased him!”

By the time he was done talking, prosecutors had a 40-page, self-incriminating transcript.

*   *   *

If the events in Mile Square Park or Santa Ana courthouse have changed Nguyen, it isn’t showing. Before he was transported to prison, he sent a letter to Nigger Nam, his DFJ pal. It read:

“None of ya’ll nikkas better let your guard down. I’m happy the war stopped, but I’d rather see them fuckers deceased or on their knees beggin’ for mercy. I want them to pay for all the times my momma cried when she came to visit my ass. I want bloods [sic] running out their mouth [sic] and skin. I want them handicapped, crippled, missin’ all fours. Fuck them, dog. I want to see them deceased, but that shit still won’t make up or ease the pain I go through.”

He signed the letter “Hitler.” Next to his signature, he drew a swastika. The Dirty White Boys, Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi Low Riders at Nguyen’s new home might be both thrilled and puzzled by the sentiment.


BOSTON Connecticut’s two casinos say they’re aggressively courting Asian customers in Boston and New York.

Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun together send 100 buses a day to bring in Asian gamblers from Boston’s Chinatown, Dorchester, Quincy and Lowell.Foxwoods says one-third of its 40-thousand customers a day are Asian. Mohegan Sun says Asian spending makes up a fifth of its business.Some say casinos are filling a void in entertainment options for Asian immigrants. Gambling doesn’t require language skills or a high upfront cost.The two casinos offer favorite Asian games, Asian food and special events featuring celebrities from Asia.Mohegan Sun’s vice president Anthony Patrone says the casino is interested in reaching out to the Latino market as well. The casino held its first Latino boxing match last week. Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Hopes for a Vietnam Trade Shift

A proposal to normalize relations would benefit U.S. importers. Critics fear another China.

By Evelyn Iritani, Times Staff Writer
July 24, 2006

When Nghia Van Phi first returned home to Vietnam in 2003, he still carried animosities toward the Communist government he had fled nearly three decades earlier.

But Phi, president of a Santa Ana discount home improvement outlet, has since become an enthusiastic supporter of the economic rebuilding of that country. His company, US HiFi Inc., a scaled-down version of Home Depot that caters to the Vietnamese American community, imports 70% of its ceramic tiles, solid oak entry doors and other home products from Vietnam.


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That’s why Phi hopes Congress will act soon on a bill that would establish “permanent normal trade relations” with Vietnam, the final step in freeing up trade and investment between the former adversaries. During the Cold War, most Communist countries were denied that trade status, which meant they paid higher tariffs on goods exported to the U.S.

Supporters hope to pass the legislation before Vietnam joins the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based global trade group. Leaders in Hanoi want to finalize their WTO bid by November, when they host President Bush and Asian leaders for this year’s meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Vietnam hopes to replicate the success of China, which saw its global prestige and trade volume soar after it joined the WTO in 2001. To secure the country’s membership, Hanoi officials have agreed to lower tariffs, remove barriers to foreign retailers and banks, strengthen the judicial system and crack down on corruption.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders expect the Vietnam bill to be approved, given the bipartisan support from congressional leaders who served in the war, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). But it is unclear when the legislation can be squeezed into Congress’ crowded summer agenda.

Vietnam could still enter the WTO without the U.S. approval, but trade between the country and the U.S. would not be governed by global rules, putting U.S. firms at a disadvantage, the bill’s supporters say.

Passage of permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam wouldn’t have much of an immediate effect on Phi, because the goods he imports already have low tariffs and he hasn’t directly invested money there. But he says normalized relations would have the psychological benefit of clearing away the final barrier between the U.S. and Vietnam, plus it would encourage the Communist government to continue moving toward greater economic and political openness.

Phi also believes that full normalization between the two countries would lessen hostility among Vietnamese Americans toward the government of Vietnam, making it easier for them to do business with their homeland.

“The people in my country are very smart, very hardworking,” said Phi, 53, whose company imports as many as seven container loads a month from Vietnam. “If Americans give Vietnam the chance to open up and step into the WTO, the life of my people will change.”

Human rights groups, however, have raised concerns about Vietnam’s harsh treatment of political dissidents, ethnic minorities and Christians. Vietnam’s bid is also opposed by some U.S. textile and apparel makers, who contend that its entry into the WTO would reward another Asian exporting juggernaut that has used unfair trade practices to bolster its textile and apparel exports at the expense of U.S. competitors.

After the U.S. and Vietnam signed a bilateral treaty in 2001, two-way trade jumped from $1.5 billion to $7.8 billion. The biggest beneficiaries were Vietnamese textile and apparel makers, whose exports to the U.S. increased 6,000% over that period, according to the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, a domestic lobbying group. Over the last year, Vietnam shipped $3.1 billion worth of textiles and apparel to the U.S.

“We’re talking about making the same mistake with Vietnam that we did with China,” said group spokesman Lloyd Wood in Washington.

But Virginia Foote, president of the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council, a business lobbying group, said Vietnam wasn’t even close to having China’s clout in the U.S. marketplace. Even with its recent export spurt, Vietnam represents less than 4% of the U.S. textile and apparel market, she said.

The Vietnamese government has improved its business climate in anticipation of joining the WTO, said Walter Blocker, managing partner of Gannon Vietnam Ltd. and chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City. That includes the passage of more than 50 laws since 2004.

Blocker predicted that U.S. investment in Vietnam would rise sharply once WTO membership was finalized, given the country’s attractive domestic market and low production costs. More than half of Vietnam’s 84 million people are younger than 30, and they are enthusiastic consumers of U.S. culture, including products as varied as movies and mascara.

Blocker, who distributes a number of top U.S. brands including Maybelline and L’Oreal cosmetics, said the Vietnamese spend $350 million to $400 million a year on “non-shampoo cosmetics,” a market that barely existed 12 years ago.

“Now we have 20% to 25% of the women coloring their hair,” said Blocker, who helped launch the country’s cosmetics revolution by setting up lipstick counters in Vietnamese markets more than a decade ago.

Vietnam’s 90% literacy rate and low labor costs (as low as half the cost of China) also make the country an appealing platform for regional production, Blocker said. And for U.S. firms worried about becoming entangled in political disputes between the U.S. and China, Vietnam offers a more stable location, he said.

After considering sites in China, India and Thailand, Intel Corp. announced this year that it would build a $300-million chip assembly and test facility in a government-owned industrial park on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Intel plans to begin construction on that plant by year-end and hopes to start commercial production in 2009.

Intel country manager Than Phuc said the Vietnamese government offered the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip maker an attractive incentive package, including cheap land and power, tax incentives and training subsidies. But he said the clincher was the government’s willingness to address the company’s concerns, such as the delays caused by the country’s antiquated customs processing system.

“The thing that impressed our management the most was the open and frank way the government spoke with Intel,” he said.

Than said one of the Vietnamese government’s priorities was creating jobs for the 1 million-plus people entering its workforce every year, which is why it has focused on attracting large foreign companies. Intel has said its facility, which represents the largest investment in Vietnam by a U.S. company, will eventually create 1,200 jobs.

But Than, who is based in Ho Chi Minh City, hopes Vietnam’s entry into the WTO will encourage more Vietnamese Americans to bring their talents and money to the Asian nation. He pointed to the success of Highlands Coffee, a Starbucks-style chain of coffeehouses started by a Vietnamese American.

“The U.S. is my home, but I don’t have a return ticket,” said Than, whose family fled Vietnam in one of the last helicopters to lift off from the U.S. Embassy rooftop in 1975. “Someday I will have a home here and a home in the U.S. I think it is most Vietnamese Americans’ dream.”

Some Vietnamese American leaders remain strongly opposed to lifting the final trade barriers until their homeland is “free and democratic,” said Hieu T. Nguyen, president of First Vietnamese American Bank in Westminster, which was set up last year to serve the 300,000 Vietnamese Americans living in Southern California.

But Nguyen said he, like many other Vietnamese Americans, views Vietnam’s entry into the global economy as inevitable, and hopes that the government’s embrace of free markets will eventually result in greater political freedoms.

Of Vietnam’s WTO bid, Nguyen said: “No one can stop it.”