SHARING AMERICA'S TECH NEWS FROM THE VALLEY TO THE ALLEY
by John Boudreau, courtesy mercurynews
Longtime Silicon Valley residents bump into each other along fashionable Dong
Khoi Street. They meet to swap business cards and network at Highlands Coffee, the Starbucks of Vietnam. Valley real estate agents are here to cut real estate deals. Even San Jose’s iconic Lee’s Sandwiches, which is branching out across Asia, plans to set up franchises of its Vietnamese fast-food chain in what was formerly known as Saigon.
“Everywhere I go, I see someone from the valley,” Henry Liem, a lawyer and instructor at San Jose City College, said while sitting at the upscale Mojo cafe.
Many of these returnees left Vietnam as children with their parents. Some climbed aboard U.S. military helicopters as communist forces closed in on Saigon in the spring of 1975. Others faced ruthless pirates and the open sea, squeezing into small boats to flee political persecution and poverty. For decades, the Vietnamese who settled in Silicon Valley, which has one of the largest Vietnamese populations outside the Southeast Asian country, and the leaders of Vietnam eyed each other with suspicion, if not hostility.
Now Hanoi is luring them back as the country embraces a pro-business path similar to its neighbor, China. In April, government officials held the latest in a series of seminars in Ho Chi Minh City focused on encouraging even more Viet Kieu, the phrase used by locals for Vietnamese who live overseas, to return.
Overseas Vietnamese, particularly the younger generation, are responding by taking the 15-hour flight across the Pacific to launch start-ups and head up operations for multinational companies. They all want a piece of Vietnam’s hot economy.
Most software outsourcing companies here were founded by Viet Kieu. Overseas Vietnamese hold high-level positions with companies like Intel and venture capital firms. The government reports Viet Kieu entrepreneurs invested about $90 million last year, but that doesn’t count the $5.5 billion that overseas Vietnamese pumped into the economy through remittances to families. That at least was the official tally; experts believe the actual amount of remittances could have been $10 billion.
Overseas Vietnamese have been trickling back in search of economic opportunities since the 1990s, and thousands return every year for travel and family visits. But Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization and closer relations with the United States have created an environment in which many more are now ready to come back with business plans.
“The floodgates have been opened,” said Thinh Nguyen, founder of Pyramid Software Development in Ho Chi Minh City.
Comforts of California
This migration is fueled both by economic opportunity and the ability of returnees to now enjoy many of the comforts of California. Vietnam has relatively reliable Internet access, cable TV, Western-style apartments and even Pizza Hut and Bud’s Ice Cream.
Communist Vietnam’s founding father, the sandal-wearing Ho Chi Minh, known affectionately as Uncle Ho, wouldn’t recognize this Santana Row version of communism. Louis Vuitton and Gucci outlets recently opened in District 1, where BMW and Mercedes drivers frequently cruise streets abuzz with motorbikes.
“I have maid service six days a week,” said Don Phan, who left Campbell a few months ago to set up an Internet applications center in Ho Chi Minh City. “You’ve got to have your first IPO in the U.S. before you get that.”
Tai Nguyen, who co-founded Fremont semiconductor-equipment company Simplus Systems in 1999 with his brother, Tue Nguyen, said the opportunity to launch another manufacturing venture in low-cost Vietnam was too good to pass up. His new company, Viet Empire, is making 13-ton aluminum casting machines for U.S. and China markets and he hopes to form partnerships with American companies to eventually build more sophisticated equipment.
One word: pizza
Tai Nguyen relocated his family to Ho Chi Minh City a year ago. They live with his in-laws in a gated home he admits is more luxurious than the family’s Fremont house. The couple’s two young children speak mostly Vietnamese now, though there’s one English word they haven’t forgotten: pizza. The family visits Pizza Hut once a week.
“The difficult part in Vietnam is building an infrastructure, and that includes an engineering workforce,” Nguyen said. “You have to train them to do American-quality work.”
Vietnam is still a poor country with power blackouts, high import taxes on everything from cars to computer servers, and a culture of bribery. While Vietnamese enjoy greater personal freedoms, returning Viet Kieu are mindful that they must stay clear of local politics. The government prohibits any debate about its one-party system.
After Thinh Nguyen returned from Silicon Valley in 2002 to run a software company, he learned he was being closely watched by the police. He happened to go to a dinner attended by the head of the local secret police, who instantly recognized the engineer with the distinctive shaved head. “He said, ‘We know this guy. We call him the bald-headed scientist.’ ”
These days, Viet Kieu are as likely to be wined and dined by Communist Party officials as to be spied on. “If you don’t challenge the government, you can do anything, any business,” said Khe C. Nguyen, a nanotechnology expert and former Hewlett-Packard researcher with numerous patents in his name. He left the valley to head up an $11.5 million government research lab.
Many overseas Vietnamese worry more about backlash from family and others who suffered during and after the war. Some of the older generation in California vividly recall brutal treatment in “re-education” camps, how the communists confiscated property and blacklisted those whose families fought for the losing side of the war and remained in Vietnam. The government-controlled media refer to Vietnamese-Americans who challenge Vietnam’s one-party system as “traitors.”
“My parents come here all the time,” said Esther Nguyen, who just moved from Morgan Hill to Vietnam to head up an online music start-up, Pops.vn. “But in the back of their minds they are saying, ‘We left the country so you could have a better life. Now you are going back?’ ”
This emotional minefield can turn a meeting about a company’s logo into a discussion about political correctness. Esther Nguyen’s marketing staff recently proposed using a prominent star shape for the Pops.vn brand. It was, though, uncomfortably similar to the gold star in Vietnam’s national flag – an emblem that still distresses some Vietnamese-Americans.
“We like the star because it’s about music, about pop stars. But I’m Viet Kieu,” Esther Nguyen said. “We are trying to stay neutral.”
For the most part in Vietnam, pragmatism has replaced anger. Officials know Viet Kieu have critical business experience, technical know-how and vital overseas connections, all of which are desperately needed in this emerging economy.
“The war is in the past,” said Pham Kim Son, an official with the People’s Committee of Da Nang. “Everyone is looking toward the future.”
The majority of this nation of 85 million were born after the war and have no lingering resentments, observed former valley resident Le H. Hung, now chief executive of Enclave, a software development start-up in Da Nang.
Hung, who fled Vietnam at age 17 on a boat, added, “You left a traitor, but you come back as a patriot.”
Thank you, TiA