Are Viet Kieu’s Givers or Takers in Vietnam’s Rise?

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As a Vietnamese American who lived in Vietnam for 8 years, this is a question I’ve thought about a lot. Are the Vietnamese diaspora a real asset to Vietnam or are they an immigrant community that merely affixes its hook to the rising star of its homeland?

In 2015, Vietnam hit $12.25 billion in remittances. To put this in perspective, Vietnam’s GDP in 2015 was $193.6 billion. That’s 6%. That’s a significant sum. Remember that foreign direct investment into Vietnam was just $23 billion in the same year. In other words, the Vietnamese diaspora remitted almost half of what foreign investors put into Vietnam.

But when you take a step back from these telling numbers, you have to remember that the rest of the country is fueled and lit on fire by Vietnamese money and businesses. Vietnam’s aggressive culture and business acumen on the backdrop of a handful of mildly successful economic reforms has unlocked the likes of Vietjet Air, Vinamilk, MobileWorld, VNG, Galaxy, and more. All of these multi-million and billion dollar businesses are lead by super star Vietnamese business leaders. Just pick up a few copies of the latest Forbes Vietnam, and you’ll see features on some of the top business people on the cover. Most of the new businesses are lead and backed by Vietnamese people. In many ways, although the macroeconomy lags in certain areas, the core set of strong business people has matured exponentially while a new young set of entrepreneurs rises to the occasion.

In the midst of this, where is the Vietnamese American or Vietnamese French? How does a Vietnamese German or a Vietnamese Canadian navigate the waters of Vietnam? Historically, the Vietnamese diaspora that have made some money in Vietnam have done so mainly using Vietnam as an outsourcing hub. Misfit Wearables, Global Cyberagent, Pyramid Software, KMS, etc. Some like Henry Nguyen, from IDG Ventures Vietnam, have famously made it in Vietnam investing money into the country and bringing in major brands into the country like McDonald’s. Others still have brought their influence in via the entertainment industry, most famously Johnny Tri Nguyen and Dustin Nguyen.

This is all to say that there is indeed a precedent for successful diaspora in Vietnam. And in some of these cases, the diaspora representative comes to influence or impact an industry.

Back in their country of citizenship, they may be ordinary. But in Vietnam, they can be influencers and shakers.

A big caveat

Let’s take a step back for a moment. These facts are only true in certain contexts. In the tech and entertainment world, the diaspora have a strong competitive advantage and bring their international or Western expertise to heavily underdeveloped industries. But in other industries, from real estate to agriculture to infrastructure and even consumer markets, the diaspora is at a profound disadvantage. Most, if not all, of the winners in these industries are decidedly Vietnamese. Vietnamese diaspora struggle to truly adapt to Vietnam.

It’s impossible to quantify, but every Vietnamese diaspora is only a certain percentage Vietnamese in culture and essence. Some people are more Vietnamese, especially the ones that can speak the language fluently, and others are so Westernized as to be indistinguishable from their Caucasian counterparts. It’s the Viet Kieu handicap. Some people are 50% Vietnamese, some people are a mere 4% Vietnamese. You can see it in how they adapt, converse, and handle the most Vietnamese of situations. At the same time, Vietnamese people will subconsciously see you as Vietnamese, and you will not be forgiven as much for your stumbles as a white foreigner will be.

But no matter how much percent Vietnamese you may be, and how good your Vietnamese is, it is near impossible to compete with a pure Vietnamese person on understanding the Vietnamese markets and navigating the dramatic political and cultural context. Vietnam is full of smokes and mirrors and dens of vipers. By the time you realize you’re bitten, you’re already feeling the effects of the poison. And although the rise in educated English-speaking Western-educated Vietnamese people makes doing business here much easier, the ball is still in their court much of the time. Vietnam is for Vietnamese people.

Are we an asset or along for the ride?

So coming back to the original question, are the diaspora along for the ride or can we do more for Vietnam? I think we are 90% along for the ride and 10% influential or leading. Frankly, most of the time, diaspora are lucky (near synonymous with knowing the right people) if they can get in the right circle, no matter how friendly Vietnamese people are.

The complicated relationship between diaspora and homeland notwithstanding, no matter how much work a Viet Kieu does, they must learn to adapt to Vietnamese ways. It’s not merely a political issue. It’s a cultural and community issue.

Vietnam is on its own journey and the real question for Viet Kieu is: are you able to learn fast enough? Are you humble enough and can you network enough to protect yourself and navigate through harsh unknown waters?

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