~ Le ViÍt Nam, aujourd'hui. ~
The Vietnam News

[Year 1997]
[Year 1998]
[Year 1999]
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Chinese flourish in Vietnam business hub

HO CHI MINH CITY - Restaurant owner Dao Chi Hoa looks puzzled when asked if the ethnic Chinese community feels resented in Vietnam.
Hoa, whose ancestors hail from Guangdong in southern China, also scoffs at suggestions the ethnic Chinese here could one day suffer the same racially motivated brutality inflicted on their brethren in Indonesia.
While not hugely rich, ethnic Chinese control a fair chunk of trade and commerce in Vietnam, especially in southern Ho Chi Minh City, the country's business hub.
Yet by keeping their heads down -- and being blessed with similar traditions and religious beliefs to the Vietnamese -- the Chinese in Ho Chi Minh City appear to be steering clear of the racial divide that haunts their kin in parts of Southeast Asia.
Officials estimate the Chinese community in Vietnam's commercial capital of five million people at about 500,000, or half the total in the country.
``I don't think that situation will happen in Vietnam,'' Hoa said, referring to the violence directed at ethnic Chinese in Indonesia just before President Suharto's downfall in May.
``The Chinese and Vietnamese are living here in one big family,'' said Hoa after a lunch-time crowd of patrons had finished eating Peking duck and wanton noodles.
``I feel very free to live here, as do other Chinese. There is no resentment. Vietnam has become my second motherland.''
Hoa's restaurant lies in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's ``Chinatown,'' an area known as Cholon.
Commerce is the labour of choice and Cantonese or Mandarin the language of the bustling streets and alleyways in Cholon.
Chinese signs adorn shopfronts, red lanterns hang from gawdy hotel ceilings and the elderly shuffle into pagodas to pray.
Each afternoon 30,000 children pack 18 language schools -- some cramming 80 students to a class -- to learn Mandarin.
Even state-run Ho Chi Minh City Television airs a nightly news bulletin in Mandarin, albeit one that adopts Hanoi's line on issues such as sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.


Truong Ty, director of Van Thanh Plastics Company in Cholon, says business has boomed since his firm opened in 1995.
From initial investment of 8.0 billion dong ($577,000), the company is now worth 50 billion dong ($3.61 million).
``The government gives equal support to Chinese and Vietnamese businessmen,'' said Ty, who hails from Guangdong.
But business hasn't always flourished for Cholon's Chinese.
The area's day of reckoning came on the morning of March 24, 1978, when without warning police, soldiers and thousands of students wearing red armbands swarmed into the capitalist haven to stamp out free enterprise.
Seeking ideological purity in the former Saigon following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the raiders shut businesses, seized property and confiscated countless gold bars.
Tens of thousands of Chinese fled Vietnam, many in rust-bucket boats that sank or fell victim to pirates.
Now, for most Chinese, that nightmare seems a world away.
Hanoi dumped the baggage of communist central planning and adopted market-oriented economic reforms a decade ago.
Officially at least ethnic Chinese have the same rights as indigenous Vietnamese if they are naturalised citizens.
In general, they seem relaxed talking about their status even though they remain aware of the traditional uneasiness that tempers Hanoi's relationship with its giant northern neighbour, which once ruled Vietnam for 1,000 years.


Adherence to Confucian traditions and beliefs in Buddhism and Christianity have helped the Chinese assimilate in Vietnam, said Tran Dai Tan, adviser to the Chinese Affairs Department of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee, or local government.
Telling the two races apart is almost impossible and there has been plenty of inter-marriage.
Government officials said the ethnic Chinese in Cholon were active in municipal interests and the Communist Party.
But their main interest was enterprise.
``The Chinese feel secure in business as well as their social and cultural life. I can say that ties between the communities have become closer over the 10 years of the reform process,'' said Ha Tang, head of the city's Chinese Affairs Department.
About 20 percent of 6,000 private companies and 150,000 small individual businesses in the city were run by Chinese, said Tang, himself from Guangdong.
The Chinese accounted for more than 30 percent of the city's output because their companies used better equipment, he said.
Neglecting to mention the 1978 raid on Cholon, Tang claimed that in 300 years there had been no violence directed against the Chinese in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tang and other officials had no statistics on the wealth of the Chinese in Ho Chi Minh City, itself the most prosperous part of Vietnam with per capita income at $1,000 compared with the national average of just over $300.


At the Pham Van Hai language school in Cholon, headmaster Vuong Bai Xuyen eagerly shows a Reuters television crew around packed classrooms as the sound of 2,500 young voices reciting Mandarin echoes off the building's dank walls.
Xuyen, who also hails from Guangdong and is a member of the communist party, said ethnic Chinese had gained respect by helping Vietnam win independence.
``We have made a great contribution in resisting the Americans and the French,'' said Xuyen, who as a young man left Ho Chi Minh City and journeyed to Hanoi to join the communist forces fighting the U.S.-backed Saigon regime.
Back out in busy Cholon, Guangdong-native Ly Cuong Thanh expresses no concern about the fate of the Chinese in Vietnam.
Thanh, who owns a shop selling compact discs of Mandarin love songs, even has no knowledge of the violence in Indonesia.
``I don't see any discrimination here. My wife is Vietnamese, I am Chinese but we are a family,'' he said.

By Dean Yates - REUTERS - August 16, 1998.