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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Returning to Opportunity in Vietnam

Yuko Fukushima

Jan. 20, 2016

The Vietnam War ended in 1975. It prompted many people living in South Vietnam to move abroad to the United States and other countries.

Now Vietnam's rapid economic growth is luring back people who fled the war. They are starting to return to the country and contribute to the economy, and they are being met by a more welcoming government.

In the Communist Party's 12th National Congress starting this week, a key issue will be how to maintain economic growth and the at the role returnees are playing.

Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam, is becoming a major destination for returnees investing in new business opportunities. It’s also becoming a new battlefield for companies trying to recruit them. That’s because ethnic Vietnamese coming from overseas have acquired skills that are much in demand in the emerging economy.

The ASEAN Economic Community has been established and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is set to go into effect. They have prompted foreign corporations to move into Vietnam at breakneck speed. Those companies are relying on recruitment firms to find qualified employees. And many Vietnamese returning from abroad, called "Viet Kiue," fit the bill.

Khoa Ken Nguyen is an American-Vietnamese who decided to come to Ho Chi Minh for work in 2014. He's a developer with experience leading a number of major construction projects in New York. Now in charge of 16 projects for an international developer that entered the Vietnamese market a few years ago. "In Vietnam, there is more uncertainty," he says. "But there is a beauty I would like to appreciate in that uncertainty. Of course there is opportunity as well. It’s still an emerging market."

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it started a wave of mass migration that continued for several years. Ken and his family defected in 1978. He was only three years old when his parents brought him onto a boat out of the country. They found a new home in the United States.

He grew up as a typical American kid and didn’t really think of his origins until he reached his 30s.The rapid development of Vietnam made him think of its business possibilities. "Honestly, I can wake up tomorrow and open up any company I want, and do whatever I want to do here," he says. "Of course you need to put hard work into it to be successful."

Ken has introduced the idea of sharing progress updates on all projects at the company where he is working. In Vietnam, construction projects fall behind deadlines or go over budget. Ken is helping keep things under control. This year, his team is starting more than ten new projects. The people working under him say Ken helps them improve by passing on his skills. "I will be grateful for my experience," Ken says. "Every day I cherish what I have now in Vietnam."

Ken goes on to say "five to ten years from now, my hope is that Vietnam would be a leader in the Asia Pacific Area, we will be able to compete with Korean and Japan, and hopefully China, and make our mark globally."

Returnees have brought in new businesses. McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in the country in 2014. Vietnamese-American Henry Nguyen was responsible for importing the fast food chain.

Another returnee, Nguyen Minh Hiue, is heading a project to build Vietnam's answer to Silicon Valley. He hopes the 52-hectare IT complex will attract international firms.

To further propel economic growth, the government is making it easier for Vietnamese to come from overseas and work in the country. The Deputy Foreign Minister Vu Hong Nam says "this is a good time to return home. They can come and live in their home country if they want to, and use their ability and knowledge to contribute to the country’s development."

Vietnam is opening its market as it tries to maintain economic growth. It will be important to learn how to play the game on a global scale. And a new generation of returnees is joining the team.

Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya were joined by NHK Hanoi bureau chief, Kazuomi Shimizu.

Beppu: Kazuomi, doesn't the government have any reservations about welcoming in people who have spent years living abroad, especially the US, which is a former enemy?

Shimizu: It is important to remember that Vietnam is still ruled by the Communist Party alone. So it's understandable that the government is concerned about the values brought in by people who have spent years living in the West. In the United States and Australia, there are groups for Vietnamese expatriates who are opposed to communism and the current government. They use social networks and other methods to share their beliefs inside Vietnam. So on the one hand, the government is trying to lure back people by easing restrictions on visas and owning land. But on the other hand, it will deal strictly with those who might negatively impact the communist regime.

Shibuya: So why has the government been changing its policies to welcome people back?

Shimizu: It comes down to economic development. The policy of Doi Moi, or Reformation, introduced a market economy to Vietnam. The policy turns 30 this year. How to keep that going, and how to further propel the economy, will be key questions at this week's National Party Congress. Also, there are trade deals like AEC, the ASEAN Economic Community, and TPP, which is about to come into effect. They will present Vietnam with a lot of new opportunities, but also fierce competition. So the country desperately needs to draw on the resources that expatriate have to offer. I also would like to add one point. Expatriates are also seen as a way to strengthen relationships between Vietnam and other countries, including the former enemy, the United States.