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Vietnam's fast lane suits young returnees

November 24, 2008|My-Thuan Tran | Tran is a Times staff writer.
  • EASY RIDE: Tiffany Nguyen takes a cyclo from her apartment to her job in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. ?Never in my life,? she said, ?had I planned on going back to Vietnam.?
EASY RIDE: Tiffany Nguyen takes a cyclo from her apartment to her job in Ho… (Le Quang Nhat / For The Times )

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — Tiffany Nguyen sauntered down Dong Khoi street, swatting mosquitoes in the sticky heat. Wearing 3-inch black heels, she plunged through a crush of motorbikes spewing smoke and blasting horns, dashing toward a nearby restaurant to meet a friend.

Nguyen, 28, grew up 7,800 miles from here in an Orange County suburb. But for the last year, she has worked along this boulevard known as the Fifth Avenue of Vietnam, where boutiques crowd against old Parisian hotels.

For years entrepreneurs stayed away from Vietnam, a poor country with scant business prospects, where visas were hard to get.

No more. Vietnam has flung open its doors and billions of dollars of foreign investments have poured in, clearing the way for a new generation of Vietnamese Americans who are finding both opportunity and adventure in the Communist country their parents fled.

Viet kieu, as overseas Vietnamese are known, are so pervasive here that Cal State Fullerton formed a Ho Chi Minh City alumni chapter. Nguyen is a member. A friend of hers is creating a Zagat-like guide for the city's growing number of restaurants.

Vietnamese expatriates are considered an important part of Vietnam's future, said Trung Nguyen, counselor of overseas Vietnamese affairs in the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. Once viewed with suspicion by the Vietnamese government, overseas Vietnamese are now being wooed back with relaxed business laws and promises of less red tape. Overseas Vietnamese can now own land and get visa exemptions.

Tiffany Nguyen's family fled this city when she was 9. Her parents never looked back. For a time, neither did their daughter.

"Never in my life," she said, "had I planned on going back to Vietnam."

Growing up in Fullerton, Nguyen quickly became Americanized. She changed her first name from Thao to Tiffany and had few Vietnamese friends. "I was kind of whitewashed in high school," she said.

Nguyen stayed near friends and family for college, enrolling at Cal State Fullerton, taking a job with the American Automobile Assn., returning to Fullerton to earn a master's in business administration.

An adventure

But a yearning for adventure prompted a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, two years ago. Amid the rampant poverty, she saw thriving night scenes and swanky apartments. She was captivated by the energy of the country's largest metropolis, a place of 10 million people.

Two days after graduation from business school, she moved here, settling in a charming hardwood studio on the edge of District 1, where neon lights lure people into posh clubs and restaurants.

In doing so, she became part of an influential trend.

There are no precise statistics for how many Vietnamese expatriates are returning to live here. But the number of overseas Vietnamese visiting for business or tourism have shot up -- about 270,000 last year, according to the Vietnamese government, triple the number that visited in 1990. Government officials say many of those people, like Nguyen, are deciding to stay.

The reverse migration of young Vietnamese Americans would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Their parents who escaped the Communist government after Saigon fell in 1975 still harbored deep bitterness. In Orange County's Little Saigon, where many rebuilt their lives, merchants still display the South Vietnamese flag.

Nguyen did not know what to expect when she arrived here. Her parents, who had escaped Vietnam after concluding it held no future for them, warned her not to go. But she argued that the country had drastically changed. Her parents relented.

Nguyen was thrilled by the city and the electricity it radiated, a place where mopeds whizzed at all hours. She could walk outside and buy furry orange rambutan fruit from sidewalk peddlers. She spent weekends in nearby Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand. The job she found in the booming real estate industry was fast-paced, and the money was comparable to her U.S. salary. She met a large network of overseas Vietnamese and businesspeople who introduced her to even more opportunities.

After less than a year, Nguyen jumped into the fashion industry, becoming the chief operating officer of one of Vietnam's leading fashion retailers, Maison Co., which imports brands including Mango and Versace. She is considered a ranking corporate executive and travels frequently, from showrooms in Milan and Barcelona, and manages 250 employees. Such an opportunity, she said, would probably have been out of reach in the United States.

Dressed in a stylish red blouse and black pencil skirt, Nguyen stands out in the city when she walks past old women squatting on dirt roads peddling fruit and men lounging on broken plastic chairs drinking iced coffee. The air smells of pungent street food and diesel exhaust. Trash litters the streets.

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