Working in Vietnam, Vietnamese Americans feel their US roots (Feature)

September 17, 2008

By Matt Steinglass
Sep 5, 2008, 3:53 GMT
Ho Chi Minh City – It was not that long ago that Vietnamese Americans hesitated to do business in Vietnam for fear of being ostracized by their stridently anti-Communist community leaders back in the United States.

But if those days are not yet gone, they are on their way out, said Ryan Hoang Nguyen Hubris, a Vietnamese-American businessman in Ho Chi Minh City.

‘I see more Vietnamese Americans here than I do back in Orange County or San Jose [California],’ Hubris said. ‘It has become more socially and politically accepted.’

Hubris is executive vice president of the Vietnamese-American chain Lee’s Sandwiches, which boasts 36 stores in California, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma. He spoke while sipping an iced coffee at the company’s first Ho Chi Minh City franchise, launched in early August under the spinoff brand Lee’s Coffee.

As commercial ties have burgeoned in recent years between Vietnam and the United States, the number of Vietnamese Americans living and working in Vietnam has swelled into the thousands. They bring with them a dose of US culture, and they are taking part in Vietnam’s breakneck integration into the global economy.

Some have established shrimp farms or telecommunications and oil companies. Others are going to work for international banks and financial and real-estate firms that value their Vietnamese language skills.

‘There’s an energy here with so many Vietnamese Americans coming to start businesses,’ said Katherine Thinh, 33, a native of Silicon Valley, California, and the chief financial officer of the online music startup

But many Vietnamese Americans said it was not until they arrived in Vietnam that they realized how American they are.

‘For me, being so immersed in American society and then coming back, the first few months was tough,’ said Hubris, who was 7 when he left the city, then known as Saigon, in 1975. ‘Even though you understand what the Vietnamese are saying, just the practices are very different.’

Some of the culture clashes cited by Vietnamese Americans working in Vietnam are the familiar complaints of First World businessmen in a Third World country: a relaxed attitude toward deadlines, lack of clarity as to when an agreement has been reached or what the next step should be and an incoherent regulatory system that places companies in constant legal jeopardy.

But other tensions are specific to the Vietnamese-American story.

‘Everything runs on connections in Vietnam,’ said Thinh Nguyen, 49, who launched Pyramid Software in Ho Chi Minh City in 2001, 26 years after fleeing Saigon for California. ‘And for obvious reasons, we don’t have any connections.’

Or rather, the connections they do have tend not to endear them to Vietnam’s governing elites.

Almost all Vietnamese Americans immigrated to the United States after the fall of South Vietnam to the Communist North in 1975, which led to economic hardship and political repression. Many suffered grueling odysseys as ‘boat people’ and spent years in refugee camps.

They arrived in the United States as ardent anti-Communists, often refusing to accept the legitimacy of the government in Hanoi.

For its part, Hanoi mistrusts Vietnamese Americans’ ties to the former South Vietnamese regime. It monitors US-based political groups that seek multiparty democracy in Vietnam, sometimes arresting their members on visits to Vietnam if they engage in political activity.

‘We got caught between two worlds,’ Nguyen said. ‘We belong to the community in the US that’s still very anti-Communist and then we’re ruled by the government here that’s still not too trusting of the overseas Vietnamese.’

These political disadvantages can make Vietnamese Americans vulnerable. While those with dual citizenship can legally own real estate in Vietnam – unlike other foreigners – some said they have had property they bought seized by the government or by well-connected Vietnamese.

Despite such hurdles, the business opportunities that have opened up since the signing of a Vietnamese-US trade agreement in 2000 are irresistible. The United States is now Vietnam’s number one export customer, taking in more than 12 billion dollars in Vietnamese goods in 2007.

Many Vietnamese Americans said they feel they are bringing a different working culture to the country, one with less hierarchy and greater individual responsibility.

Thinh said where a Vietnamese company might block employee access to the internet to prevent surfing and gaming on company time, Pyramid Software keeps access open but expects employees to motivate themselves.

But the most striking thing Vietnamese Americans bring to Vietnam is a language – not Vietnamese, but the language of American business in the internet age. Most have grown up in the computer, media and retail capitals of Silicon Valley and greater Los Angeles, and you can hear it in their vocabulary.

Hubris peppers his speech with references to vertical integration of the production line, market research, branding and logo integrity. chief executive Esther Nguyen, a 32-year-old Californian, talks about how long it took for her young Vietnamese employees to understand what she meant by a ‘social networking site,’ highlighting just some of the remaining cultural gaps.

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