“A child of refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and eventually settled in the Western Australian capital of Perth three decades ago — his mother was pregnant with him during the perilous sea voyage — Mr. Nguyen has returned to his ancestral home to carve out a niche in its thriving restaurant and bar scene. The 30-year-old businessman is one of hundreds of thousands of overseas Vietnamese, known as Viet Kieu, who have been coming back to rediscover their roots — and make their fortunes.
>>>>>commies boo! wait, money to be made? yaaay lol
(Bien Nguyen’s restaurant Xu, in Ho Chi Minh City — still widely called Saigon — offers what he calls “evolving modern Vietnamese cuisine,” served up in an interior designed by another Viet Kieu, architect David Chan.)
As managers of hip bars and nightclubs, owners of art galleries and fashion boutiques and executives at architecture and film-production companies, returning Viet Kieu are bringing a level of sophistication, an international standard of service and a fresh mix of flair and cultural influences that are helping transform contemporary Vietnam.
“Overseas Vietnamese have had an enormous impact on almost all areas of life in Vietnam” since the country began a policy of doi moi, or opening its economy, in 1986, says Vietnam specialist Mark Sidel, a law professor at the University of Iowa. Besides investing in the economy, Prof. Sidel says Viet Kieu have injected new ideas and brought a range of professional skills that are key to nation building.
>>>>>i’mma bring NC-17 rating to vietnam. it is my calling.
Viet Kieu began trickling back to Vietnam in the 1990s. The trend picked up pace as the Vietnamese Communist Party gradually made it easier for them to return with their savings.
>>>>of course.. -____-
A turning point was the formal adoption of rules in 2004 to streamline investment, relax immigration regulations and encourage Viet Kieu to buy property. That made it easier for overseas Vietnamese to work and live in Vietnam, “especially those with professional skills who can contribute to the future of the country,” says Dominic Scriven, managing director of investment fund Dragon Capital Management in Ho Chi Minh City.
>>>hey vietnam, need any bloggers or someone to fb all day? no? ok
Of course, adds Prof. Sidel, “the Vietnamese state is still quite wary of overseas Vietnamese who are active in overseas groups that oppose the government, especially those who bring those politics back to Vietnam.” But most returning Viet Kieu aren’t interested in politics, he says, and so officially “they are welcome in virtually all areas of life.”
>>>>>SUCH AS MONAAAAY! jk
Many Vietnamese left their country during and in the aftermath of decades of conflict starting with the war with the French colonial authorities, who withdrew in the mid-1950s. The outflow surged in the years leading up to the 1975 victory of the communist North over U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Hanoi’s takeover led to the exodus by sea of hundreds of thousands of refugees who became known as the boat people.
Today an estimated three million Vietnamese live outside Vietnam, half of them in the U.S. The rest are scattered mostly in France, Australia and Canada.
>>>>and the rest in little saigon asian garden mall…
It’s unclear exactly how many Viet Kieu currently reside and do business in Vietnam, a nation of 85 million people, half of whom are under the age of 25. That’s partly because many Viet Kieu retain passports from their adopted countries and travel back and forth on temporary residence and business visas.
>>>i wanna do my business in vietnam. that didn’t sound right…
For 40-year-old Henri Tran Anh Dung, resettling in Vietnam has been like a “new birth.” Mr. Dung heads Sud-Est Production, which makes advertising and corporate films, in Ho Chi Minh City. “I discovered that my country, which I had never really known, was something I missed,” he says.
>>>>>>>as he was making his walmart vietnam commercial. kidding…..
Born in Laos, where his family had moved from Vietnam to escape the political tension, he went with his parents in 1975 to live in France. In the early 1990s, he moved to Vietnam, to work on “Cyclo,” a film directed by his brother Tran Anh Hung, who had received an Oscar nomination for “The Scent of Green Papaya,” a sensual and melancholy tale of a young peasant girl who takes comfort from the preparation of food.
>>>oh snap! cyclo?? take back my walmart joke
After the success of “Cyclo,” a film about a poor Saigon bicycle-taxi driver, Mr. Dung set up a Vietnam-based movie production house. He received international funding for a movie based on a book by a dissident Vietnamese writer, but filming was halted 15 days before completion due to political complications.
>>>>>booooo commies!! jk
Eager to remain in Vietnam, Mr. Dung (who also goes by his French name Henri Phimasset) decided to establish Sud-Est Production. “It’s been a beautiful return (to Vietnam),” says Mr. Dung, whose wife, Nguyen Thi Kim Oan, is a homegrown Vietnamese. “Growing up I never felt French and I never felt Vietnamese. It was always a mix.”
>>>one of ‘those’..jk
It was curiosity about Vietnam’s burgeoning art scene that drew Quynh Pham, 35, back home a decade ago. Born in Danang, she resettled in the U.S. in 1975 and grew up in San Diego. Today she runs Galerie Quynh, one of the country’s leading galleries for Vietnamese contemporary art.
Ms. Pham specializes in emerging young Vietnamese artists, and frequently features the works of overseas Vietnamese. “My artist stable actually comprises more Viet Kieu than local Vietnamese,” she says. “These artists received their (Master of Fine Arts degrees) overseas and are coming back to Vietnam with many ideas and varied approaches to art making.” Ms. Pham adds that the Viet Kieu and local artists “are learning from each other.”
>>>poor viet q artists are living in vietnam? I’M THERE!
Still, it’s on the country’s culinary scene that returning Viet Kieu may have made their most pronounced impact — starting with coffee.
>>>omg. please dont say they are bringing starbucks to vietnam…..
David Thai is the founder of Highlands Coffee, Vietnam’s answer to Starbucks. From a single outlet in Ho Chi Minh City in 2002, the company has grown into a chain with more than 60 outlets around the country.
>>>>SUCK IT STARBUCK (viets don’t use ‘s’)
Born in Saigon to parents from North Vietnam, he resettled in 1978 with his family in Seattle, home of Starbucks. That chain’s success got him thinking about attempting a similar business model in Vietnam. So in 1996, he moved to Hanoi to study Vietnamese before opening his first cafe, Au Lac, on Hoan Kiem Lake.
>>>>GENIUS. i’mma open mcdonalds. MC DONO. (how viets say it)
Along with expanding Highlands coffee shops, Mr. Thai, 36, also sells packaged roast coffee abroad and in supermarkets at home.
>>>BUT DO THEY WEAR BIKINIS? jk
In Hanoi, French-Vietnamese biological engineer-turned-chef Stephane Yvin is behind Green Tangerine in the heart of the city’s old quarter.
The restaurant is in a meticulously restored 1928 French colonial villa, with distinctive green shutters. Diners can sit inside or on the cobble-stone terrace set back from the street.
Mr. Yvin describes the constantly changing menu as métisse or mixed, using “Vietnamese spices with a French touch.” The child of métisse French-Vietnamese parents (two of his grandparents were from Hanoi), Mr. Yvin grew up in France, near Versailles, and moved to Vietnam in 1993. His first restaurant served Tex-Mex food, then he operated a crêperie. In 2003, Mr. Yvin and his Vietnamese wife Tin opened Green Tangerine, which has proved popular with Hanoi’s growing middle-class as well as expatriates and foreign tourists. Mr. Yvin also has a casual eaterie in Hanoi named Cyclo Bar & Restaurant.
>>>tex mex to french? (also this pic is from googling cyclos not actual place lol)
Another French-Viet Kieu, Tran Do Thanh, who manages an upmarket chain of street-food restaurants named Bun Ta in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, has led a move into Hanoi’s bar scene with Sum Villa, on the shore of the city’s West Lake. Outfitted with sumptuous red-toned décor, a proliferation of outsize fabric-covered lampshades and plush pillow-festooned couches, it’s a high-end cocktail bar that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or London.
>>>>great. hipsters in namville. kidding.
Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Phuong Anh Nguyen, 43, was one of the earliest Viet Kieu to get a toehold in the bar and nightclub business, in the early 1990s. An American Viet Kieu, she runs Q Bar Saigon, located on the terrace of the Opera House, with its elegant fin-de-siècle French colonial architecture. Among its most popular cocktails: a ginger-infused Mojito — chili is optional.
>>>basically viet q are bringing clubbing scene to vietnam. #vietjerseyshore?
Ms. Nguyen’s story is recounted in “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” by fellow Viet Kieu Andrew Lam. In 1978, Ms. Nguyen and her family fled Vietnam by boat, a long journey filled with horror. During an attack by Thai pirates, one brother was murdered while unsuccessfully trying to save their sister from being raped. The sister died from her injuries.
Ms. Nguyen had to bury both siblings when the boat was later shipwrecked off an Indonesian island. Eventually, Ms. Nguyen’s parents got the family to California and settled in Pasadena.
When Ms. Nguyen proposed to return to Vietnam, as the first wave of Viet Kieu headed there, her parents objected. According to the book’s account — confirmed by Ms. Nguyen — she went back to Vietnam to “face her demons.”
She says now that “I fell in love with Vietnam and decided I wanted to stay.” A business opportunity arose and Ms. Nguyen opened Q Bar in 1992. But her re-entry, like those of some other returnees, wasn’t trouble-free. In 1998, she lost the license to operate the bar and went back to the U.S. Three years later, she returned to Ho Chi Minh City and reopened Q Bar, this time with a local business partner.
In his 2005 book, Mr. Lam credits Ms. Nguyen with being “single-handedly responsible for revitalizing Vietnam’s high-end pubs. She was defining Vietnam’s sense of style.”
>>>high end pub. sounds funny for some reason.
A chef by training, Bien Nguyen cut his teeth managing Opera Bar on Sydney harbor and shuttled between Australia and Vietnam before he finally decided in 2006 to open Xu, a restaurant-cum-lounge and cafe in Ho Chi Minh City’s old French quarter.
Conceived by his friend and fellow Viet Kieu David Chang, an architect at the design firm dwp, Xu features raw unpolished wood finishes and oversize chandeliers. Mr. Chang is “lifting the bar for design and architecture” in Vietnam, says Mr. Nguyen, who is part of a loose support network of overseas Vietnamese dubbed Viet Moi, after doi moi.
One of the funkier restaurants and bars in Vietnam’s southern metropolis, Xu dishes up what its entrepreneurial owner calls “evolving modern Vietnamese cuisine.” Gastronomes can choose from a menu that includes duck breast pasta with bamboo heart and grape mustard purée. Or, opt for traditional Vietnamese favorites such as Banh Cuon Ca — sea bass rolled in steamed rice flour with fresh herbs and Vietnamese dipping sauce.
“Modern Vietnamese is a natural evolution of the food,” says Mr. Nyugen. “The first thing you change is the presentation. I call that modern.” He cautions that when chefs tweak traditional recipes, certain principles must still apply: “The meal is always three-dimensional. You have the softness of the rice, the protein flavor of the meat and the crunchiness of the vegetables — all enhanced by the freshness of the herbs.”
After opening Xu, Mr. Nguyen started a small chain of chic Bo Bun or Hue noodle soup bars in Ho Chi Minh City.
Bien Nguyen’s mother Mai Lam felt the tug to go back to Vietnam in the late 1990s, after 20 years in Australia. A fashion designer with an eponymous boutique at the Continental Hotel, a hostelry made famous by author Graham Greene in “The Quiet American,” she designs and sells vintage garments using traditional Vietnamese fabrics, updated to suit contemporary fashion trends.
Across town, De Pham Phu and his wife Thao have come back after a long stay in southwestern France to run a restaurant named Dong Pho. They rebuilt the ruined French colonial family home that belonged to Mrs. Pham Phu’s grandmother, who had stayed behind and held on to the residence after Thao and other family members fled Vietnam in 1975. It now doubles as their home and a restaurant.
Impeccably restored and modernized, with a lush garden terrace, theirs is a dining destination of striking refinement and culinary excellence — even by the high standards of Saigon’s burgeoning modern-Viet restaurant scene.
Mrs. Pham Phu supervises the menu of delicate specialties from Hue — the former royal capital of Vietnam, known for its refined cuisine — mixed occasionally with French and European flavors and dishes. There is pâté of pork head, grilled prawn pancakes and galettes combining béchamel sauce with Vietnamese ingredients as well as yellow ravioli filled with seafood.
Mr. Pham Phu, who is now 65, left Vietnam in the mid-1950s and was eager to return. His wife, 48, having had a taste of life under communism, was initially opposed to going back. While their feelings about the contemporary political situation may differ, they, like many Viet Kieu, agree on why they both returned: “Vietnamese are proud people and overseas, in France, we were never really ‘chez nous,'” says Mrs. Pham Phu. Still, because local Vietnamese “accept us in a certain way, we aren’t completely integrated” in Vietnam either, she adds. “But we are going to grow old here.”
—Emma-Kate Symons is an Asia-based writer.