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COLUMN ONE : Call Them Returned Boat People : Refugees who fled communism and poverty are being lured to Vietnam by old ties and new chances to make money. As expatriates, they're doing business despite the U.S. trade embargo.

August 18, 1993|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — When Qui returned here from America three years ago to visit his mother, he was surprised at how hard it was to get a drink of water.

The water from the tap was polluted. Bottled water had to be imported from places like France and was prohibitively expensive. So before Qui's vacation was over, he was making plans to become Vietnam's first producer of designer water.

"Bottled water was very big business back in the States," the former tennis pro recalled. "I thought, 'Why not here?' "

Thus was born Aquapure, a company now selling 120,000 bottles of mineral water a month using a well dug by the U.S. Navy at the port of Cam Ranh Bay. Business is so good that sales are doubling every six months.

But what sets Qui apart from the droves of other budding entrepreneurs in Vietnam is that he is an American citizen. Qui fled Saigon--now renamed Ho Chi Minh City--as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the South Vietnamese capital in April, 1975, by hijacking a ship and sailing out of port. He eventually settled in the United States, where he built tennis courts.

Call it the return of the boat people.

Two decades after hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese began an exodus from communism and poverty, an increasing number of overseas Vietnamese are trickling back to their homeland to set up businesses and take up long-term residence, living in a gray area between being Vietnamese citizens and being expatriates.

The lure to the overseas Vietnamese is a chance to participate in one of the world's fastest-growing economies, thanks to a market reform program adopted by the ruling Communist Party in Hanoi in December, 1986. Many Vietnamese in places like Southern California and Australia also are escaping economies mired in recession for a country frequently described as the next Asian growth "tiger."

In the last year and a half, the government has opened its arms to welcome home overseas Vietnamese, known as the viet kieu, with an implicit pledge to let bygones be bygones--so long as they don't engage in politics or anti-government activities.

For the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who fled South Vietnam to places in the United States, the uncertainty of returning to Vietnam under Communist rule is compounded by the fact that doing business here is still illegal under the Trading With the Enemy Act, an embargo prohibiting American citizens from doing anything more substantial than opening offices and renting a house.

But it has not deterred hundreds of viet kieu (literally, "overseas Vietnamese") from coming back anyway, though nearly all those interviewed indicated they did not wish to be identified fully.

The return of overseas Vietnamese is "a phenomenon," said Dr. Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, which represents hundreds of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American-owned businesses in Orange County's Little Saigon.

"When we arrived in the United States, we learned about entrepreneurship, U.S. technology and how to improve conditions such as in Vietnam, which is a developing country and (where) things are still primitive," he said.

"As a chamber of commerce, we see a lot of opportunities that can open up when the economic ties are sanctioned," Pham said, adding that merchants have begun exporting everything from T-shirts to computer equipment--some of it illegally--to Vietnam.

Le Van Loc, deputy chief of Ho Chi Minh City's committee for overseas Vietnamese, noted in an interview that the number of viet kieu returning for visits increased from 41,875 in 1990 to 90,127 last year. While only 90 of them applied to stay permanently and give up their foreign passports, many managed to remain for long periods.

Overseas Vietnamese normally get a three-month visa, which is renewable three times; investors get one-year visas automatically.

So far, the Hanoi government has approved 36 investment projects worth $72 million from overseas Vietnamese. In addition, overseas Vietnamese annually send to their homeland about $400 million. But there are other investments, made in cash through relatives in Vietnam, that are not recorded.

One of the early successes is Thanh Hoang Nguyen, who escaped Vietnam on a boat in 1981 and settled in Australia. Nguyen worked in a rubber factory while attending night school. Now he owns three restaurants in Sydney.

Nguyen returned in 1990 to visit relatives and was intrigued by the possibilities. Three years later, he owns the Norfolk Hotel here, a 47-room boutique hotel that is a hit with expatriate visitors. With two Australian partners, Nguyen has started projects to build a 63-room addition to the hotel and an office complex not far away.

"Vietnamese have a distinct advantage here because we have no communications problems," Nguyen said in English with a twangy Australian accent. "It's not easy to do business here."

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