Fleeing Vietnam under bursts of gunfire hours before Saigon fell to communist forces forty years ago, Thinh Nguyen thought he was leaving for good.
“I looked back and I saw colorful smoke,” he said of the day he zigzagged down a beach to a naval craft ferrying families out to sea. “There were so many boats I felt I could walk boat to boat.”
So began a journey that would eventually see hundreds of thousands leave their lives behind and end up in the U.S. “When you’re 17, your whole world is your school, your friends, your city. I felt like I lost everything.”
Yet 27 years later, Nguyen left a career in Silicon Valley to start a software company in what is now Ho Chi Minh City, one of an increased number of reverse migrants. Nguyen, 57, has been welcomed for his business expertise even as he was shadowed by police in a country where the Communist Party has little tolerance for dissent or democratic views. Commerce is acceptable for returnees, politics and labor reforms are not.
Overseas Vietnamese, known as Viet Kieu, have found themselves in the crosshairs of suspicion in both Vietnam and the U.S.: When Nguyen moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2002, police monitored him, giving him the code name “the bald-headed scientist.”
In the U.S., tensions can erupt between refugees critical of Vietnam’s regime and its curbs on human rights, and those who want to go back. When Nguyen solicited funds for Vietnam charities in the large Vietnamese community in San Jose, California, he said he was “spit on.”
While the U.S. and Vietnam normalized ties 20 years ago, reconciliation between overseas Vietnamese and the communist regime is ongoing, said Henry Liem, a lawyer and faculty member of California’s San Jose City College.
“The wound is still fresh,” he said. “It’s personal. In the 1980s, Vietnam’s government considered the Vietnamese who escaped Vietnam as ‘traitors.’”
Returnees like Nguyen come back out of a sense of longing for a place they may have known only a little -- having left as children or born in the U.S. They are helping modernize an economy dominated by inefficient and sometimes corrupt state-owned enterprises. Vietnam’s youngsters crave iPhones, drink coffee at Starbucks Corp. and eat at U.S. fast food chains.
Harvard-educated Henry Nguyen, whose father worked for the South Vietnam government and who left the country as an infant, returned 14 years ago. As chairman of Good Day Hospitality, the master franchisee of McDonald’s in Vietnam, he opened the country’s first McDonald’s restaurant last year.
“I have seen a lot more young Vietnamese from abroad come here to work at everything from state-owned businesses to private businesses to foreign-invested businesses,” said Nguyen, who is the son-in-law of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
At the same time, young Vietnamese want to have a U.S. education and American products, he said.
“They want to understand what it is about the American value system that can apply to life here in Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “That really has been one of the forces of dynamic change here.”
What was known as “the American War” in Vietnam claimed the lives of as many as 3 million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans. Afterward, more than a million people were placed in re-education camps, where “many died, while tens of thousands were to languish in detention until the late 1980s,” according to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Those who escaped on overcrowded boats risked pirate attacks, storms and starvation in what became the modern world’s first major refugee crisis. Between 1975 and 1995, almost 800,000 Vietnamese boat refugees sought asylum in other countries, according to UNHCR. As many as 300,000 Vietnamese died at sea, according to Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
“I wanted to come back to where I was from,” recalled Louis Nguyen, who was 12 when he fled with his family the day Saigon fell, passing bodies on the street before boarding a commercial boat crammed with 400 people. He returned in 2003 to start a venture capital fund, finding Ho Chi Minh City both familiar and strange.
“Something was calling me,” he said. “There were professional opportunities and a chance to rediscover your country, discover who you are.”
The government offers Viet Kieu incentives to return, such as five-year visas and duty-free car imports, said Tran Hoang Phuong, deputy head of State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese Affairs in Ho Chi Minh City.
Between 2004 and June 2013 about 3,000 overseas Vietnamese returned to permanently live in Ho Chi Minh City, while another 9,000 were granted long-term residential permits for work and investment in the city, according to the Communist Party website.
The “Doi Moi” reforms of 1986 that brought market-oriented change to the economy, a trade pact with the U.S. in 2001 and entry to the World Trade Organization in 2007 pushed Vietnam toward a more open economy, according to Vuving. Vietnam’s exports soared to $150 billion last year from $2.4 billion in 1990, government data show.
Returnees will become more important as Vietnam seeks to stimulate an economy that has expanded less than 7 percent annually for seven straight years. Last year, it grew 5.98 percent.
Than Trong Phuc, who fled Saigon at 17 on a helicopter from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy just before the city fell and left behind a father he would not see for 19 years, came to Ho Chi Minh City as country director for Intel Inc.
During negotiations with government officials ahead of Intel’s $1 billion investment in Vietnam, Phuc said he “was the only one in that room who understood both sides.”
“It was an opportunity to do something meaningful for the land of my birth while also being an ambassador for the land of my adopted country,” Phuc said.
Thinh Nguyen said young people in Vietnam are watching the Viet Kieu for cues on western society beyond business.
“I tell my employees and people here: I’m not trying to convert you,” he said. “If you want to know about the world outside, then look at me.”
“Vietnam needs to change,” Nguyen said. “It’s something that’s holding the country back. I want to see change, but that has to be done by the Vietnamese for themselves.”