Reversing an Exodus — A special report.; Former Refugees See Opportunity in Vietnam

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Published: Monday, December 5, 1994

She couldn’t stop sampling the tropical fruits, the steamed snails, the candied plums. She was enthralled by the children, with their red scarves, trooping along the dirt paths to school. Almost every conversation seemed to end in laughter; she was home, and she was happy. “This is where I want to raise my family,” she exclaimed.

Nearly 20 years after she fled the fall of Saigon with her parents, Camellia Ngo, now a thoroughly American 28-year-old lawyer, has decided to return to Vietnam. And she is not alone. As one of the most dramatic refugee tides in modern times draws to a close, a new generation of Vietnamese raised in the United States is heading home in small but growing numbers to do business and sometimes, like Ms. Ngo, to stay on.

With the lifting of the American trade embargo in February, as many as 10,000 Vietnamese a month are returning for visits to a country hungry for their cash but often suspicious of their western ways. They are greeted by frequent inefficiency, red tape and primitive working conditions, even while fending off a continuing backlash at home among many older refugees who oppose contacts with the Communist nation they fled.

These homeward journeys, coming near the end of an exodus of some 800,000 people to the United States, are a crossroads in Vietnamese-American relations. By the end of next year, officials in Washington said, organized refugee departures from Vietnam should at last be over, and the largest refugee camps in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia will be shut down, with the final stragglers sent back to Vietnam.

The refugees left this country in distinct waves: first high-ranking officers and Government officials; then desperate boat people; then, under separate agreements with Hanoi, the Amerasian offspring of United States servicemen, and now, planeloads of aging and mostly broken former political prisoners and their families.

In contrast, although there are no official estimates, Ms. Ngo is a member of an emerging new group, young Vietnamese-American professionals who see Vietnam as a land of business opportunity as well as roots: the first optimistic generation of refugees, without the scars of war and loss their parents carry.

“I know the image of Vietnam is always associated with war, but I was too young for those memories,” said Ms. Ngo. “All I remember about my country is how beautiful it is. I remember playing hopscotch with my friends and using things like banana peels and stones. I remember running down the street and hiding under a tree when the rain came. I miss my classmates and the games that we played.”

Last month Ms. Ngo was on her second visit to Vietnam, negotiating projects for her Oakland law firm, the Miller Group, which is acting as a middleman for foreign investors. She was also preparing to take up residence here next year as her company’s representative, along with her Vietnamese-American husband, Michael Nguyen, a mechanical engineer.

“We want to do business here, but business is mainly our means of getting here,” she said as she sat at a tiny outdoor food stall in the small mountain city of Da Lat, surrounded by the bustle and banter of the marketplace, eating a grilled banana sweetened with coconut milk. “This is why Michael and I want to come back to Vietnam, to live the simpler life our parents lived. We want our children to grow up in a place where they know their neighbors.”

Ms. Ngo’s fascination with the land her parents fled makes them a little uneasy, but unlike the parents of some of her Vietnamese-American friends, her father never threatened to disown her if she returned. And unlike some Vietnamese entrepreneurs in emigre enclaves like Little Saigon, just south of Los Angeles, she has not suffered the pressures of emigre politics. The firebombings and killings of Vietnamese who advocated contacts with Communist Vietnam appear to have stopped now, but prominent Vietnamese-American businessmen who travel to Hanoi can still face death threats and angry demonstrations in the United States.

“Sometimes I hear my father joking with his colleagues: ‘This is my daughter; she’s an attorney, and now she’s working with the Communists,’ ” Ms. Ngo said. “I always laugh and I just leave the old-timers to themselves.” The New Enterprises From Hamburgers To Condominiums

From consulting firms to car rental companies to boutiques and restaurants like Ca-li-pho-nia Ham-bu-ga in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, the enterprises of overseas Vietnamese are appearing on the business scene in an increasingly hustling Vietnam.

There are no firm figures on the number of refugees who are returning to stay, known as “Viet kieu.” But their businesses are a growing part of an infusion of hard currency from Vietnamese in the United States that the Hanoi Government says totals more than $600 million a year.

Some less affluent emigres bring a few thousand dollars to help their families establish small enterprises like guest houses, tailor shops or motorcycle repair shops. Wealthier individuals or groups are negotiating to build hospitals or finance condominiums and beach resorts.

The smaller enterprises mostly fly below the radar of Government interference and red tape. Like other ethnic Vietnamese, Ms. Ngo benefits from family connections — an aunt in this Government office, an in-law in that one — that she said can at least help steer her through the bureaucracy.

She also makes full use of family ties to address the mutual mistrust that can make business negotiations here a delicate minuet. Suspicion on the Vietnamese side has been furthered by foreign entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of the Vietnamese’s innocence in the marketplace. In addition, an underclass of Vietnamese-American con men have engaged in financial scams and bogus marriages that have made many local people wary.

On the other side of the coin, foreign entrepreneurs face a morass of vague and shifting investment laws and a business culture in which local enterprises seem happy to sign exclusive contracts with more than one foreign firm. And there are mixed feelings here toward the Viet kieu, people who left their country at a time of hardship and returned prosperous. The New Arrivals ‘I Do Not Know Where I Belong’

In addition to these uncertainties, returning Vietnamese can find themselves uncomfortably suspended between two worlds.

Khuong Ho is a 31-year-old lawyer who came to the United States at the age of 12, graduated from Yale and the University of Connecticut law school, and now lives in Plainville, Conn. He has returned to Vietnam “seven or eight times” as a consultant on investment ventures.

“You feel like somehow magically you are able to go back to a time of your youth, except that you are older and more mature and know what the world is about,” he said. He has revisited the villa his family was forced to abandon in 1975 and made friends with its new occupant, the former Communist mayor of Ho Chi Minh City.

Giang Tran, 30, the son of a parliamentary leader in the former South Vietnamese Government, fled the country by boat in 1979 but returned 10 years later because, he said, he was restless in America. Active in business here, he has organized two Vietnamese trade fairs for American companies, but said he still felt restless.

“I was in the United States a few weeks ago, and I have homes in Saigon and Hanoi,” he said, “but I do not know where I belong.”

One of the more recent arrivals is Lan Vu, 27, the Vietnam representative of the Sika Group, a Swiss chemical company. She, too, said she found herself “sort of caught in the middle” between the two cultures, learning to tread the narrow path between being an outsider and a native.

“After 20 years in the States, well, I am American,” said Ms. Vu, who grew up in Portland, Ore. “But the more time I spend here, the more I love it and the more I feel at home. Probably intellectually I’m American, but the emotional part of me is Vietnamese.”

But she added: “I am very much a Northwest person. I can’t wait to go back and go skiing. I miss mountain biking. I miss the winter.”

In addition to young and hopeful returnees like Ms. Vu and Ms. Ngo, there is another generation that has been returning for some time to their homeland: elderly people who were unable to adapt to life in the United States.

Among these are Ms. Ngo’s maternal grandparents, who joined the family in San Francisco in 1989 after a 10-year wait for visas, but stayed just nine months before giving up. “They returned to their village, and they bought a new home,” Ms. Ngo said, but they too remained restless. “They are home, but now they miss their children.”

Ms. Ngo’s grandmother has fallen ill, and the older generation is concerned that relatives from America be present for a proper Buddhist funeral.

“Now my grandfather calls my mother every single week,” Ms. Ngo said. “He tells us to keep the telephone clear at a certain hour every day in case grandmother passes away so someone could come quickly to pay their respects at her funeral.” The Family Home in Vietnam, But as a Stranger

The flight to freedom in the United States was the start of a long climb up for Camellia Ngo’s family in San Francisco. A former professor at the Vietnamese military academy in Da Lat, and the deputy general secretary of the Ministry of Education at the time of the Communist victory, her father performed janitorial jobs and studied engineering when he first arrived. He saved enough to buy a small Chinese restaurant where Ms. Ngo and her two older siblings cleared tables, wrapped won tons and did their homework at a booth in the back. The family now owns and manages a large commercial dry cleaning plant that services hotels in San Francisco.

It was not until she was in college that Ms. Ngo became interested in her roots, seeking out Vietnamese friends, listening to Vietnamese music and finding opportunities to speak the language. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and soon afterward went to work in the law firm of Thomas R. Miller, which was exploring investment opportunities in Vietnam.

Once back in Vietnam, Ms. Ngo found herself both at home and a stranger in the house of her 79-year-old grandfather, Ngo Ngoc Kiem.

The photographs on the family altar were of her grandmother and great-grandmother; the round-faced child in the montage of family pictures on the wall was Ms. Ngo herself. But Americans are exotic creatures here, and a sense of wonder surrounded her visit last month with her extended family.

“This is my table, whenever I come,” she said, standing in a small bedroom at the back of the house in the coastal city of Da Nang, where American troops first landed in 1965 and where the Vietnamese now are eager for American investment. “I have my light. They put out sweets for me, and my grandfather picks me fresh flowers every morning from the garden. Every night my aunt comes in and makes sure they hang the mosquito net correctly for me because if I get a bite, in the morning she’ll get yelled at.”

In the morning, briefcase in hand, Ms. Ngo was power-dressed in smart culottes, ready to negotiate a deal to import beer from a brewery in Da Nang. But first, following her grandfather’s instructions, she lit sticks of incense and fell to her knees before the family altar to pray to the souls of her ancestors. On her last trip, she said, she had prayed for help in passing the California bar examination; now she needed to offer a prayer of thanks.

“I wonder who I would be or what I would be doing if Saigon never fell or if we had stayed,” she said later. “I would have grown up in a narrower world, and I don’t know if I would have been quite so inquisitive. And definitely, I have had more chance to realize my potential as a woman.I’m sure I’m a much better person for having grown up an American.”

The paradoxical good fortune of having been a refugee sometimes embarrasses Ms. Ngo. “People always ask you, ‘What do you do in the States?’ ” she said. “I always skirt the question, because my success is hurtful for people who stayed behind.”

She is the same age as her cousin, Bui Thuc Quan, who sells cloth in the marketplace, and the two young women sometimes see each other as mirror images. “We were both born in 1966, the Year of the Horse,” Ms. Ngo said. “She always says, ‘We are the same age, but one horse got fed and the other didn’t.”‘