Raised Between Cultures: Overseas Vietnamese Around The World (Part 1)


A burgeoning economy, a far-reaching history, and a sublime cuisine - Vietnam and its people are truly unique. Today, the young population of 95 million looks towards a prosperous future. The middle class is one of the fastest-growing worldwide. Poverty rates are steadily decreasing. Vietnam is one of the most dynamic emerging countries in East Asia. 


It wasn’t always like that. Vietnam has undergone it all: colonization, wars, hunger, and poverty, the consequence of which is a vast population of Vietnamese living overseas in the diaspora. Of the now 4.5 million Overseas Vietnamese, by far the largest community lives in the United States with already second or third-generation offspring. Additional communities were established in other industrialized countries in the European Union, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and Canada. More than 30 nations have a significant Vietnamese population.


For non-Vietnamese, there might be no mentionable differences among emigrated Vietnamese. In fact, Overseas Vietnamese can be categorized into four distinct groups: refugees, migrant workers, economic migrants, and modern students. These groups have different backgrounds, unequal motivations and they rarely interact with each other. 


1/ Refugees

This group represents the majority of Overseas Vietnamese and are people who fled as refugees after the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. They are known as “boat people”, a term generically referring to all Vietnamese who left the country by any means between 1975 and 1990. As the fourth-largest Asian American ethnic group, they make up almost half of all Overseas Vietnamese in the world. Australia, West Germany, France, the Nordics, and the United Kingdom have also been common destinations for those fleeing the war. 


2/ Migrant Workers

As part of the Soviet Bloc, Vietnam was a close ally to other (former) communist states, including Russia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia (today Czech Republic & Slovakia), Poland and Bulgaria. Many Vietnamese were invited to those states as migrant workers and students. Migration was encouraged by the Vietnamese government who intended their people to return with training and skills. After the Soviet collapse, however, many decided to stay or leave for other Western countries with the prospect of a better life and more opportunities.


3/ Economic Migrants

Close-by industry nations like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan are role model countries for Vietnam. When in the past most Vietnamese came as untrained migrant workers, recent entrants are well-educated and skilled. Those economic migrants relocate to these countries as part of their career aspirations, expecting higher salaries, better working standards, and more opportunities. 


4/ Modern Students

An ever globalized world and increasing wealth of Vietnamese have created a new category of migrants: Vietnam-born but overseas-educated students, the so-called “du hoc sinh”. Some will return but many will work and build a new life far from their families (although they will be in close contact and keep supporting them financially). They usually went to competitive international schools and are already proficient in the language of the host country upon arrival. 


> To shed further light on the phenomenon of Overseas Vietnamese, this two-part series takes a look at different countries with large Vietnamese populations. 



Part of Little Saigon in Orange County, California. Source: KTGY

United States


Being former South Vietnamese refugees, early immigrants were boat people seeking new homes and fleeing persecutions. Many were already educated and financially comfortable. Overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, their socioeconomic status in the U.S. improved substantially during the 90s. 


Today, a significant proportion are small business owners running supermarkets, gastronomies, beauty salons, and car-repair shops. The subsequent generations perform well in school, university, and overall career. Typically, a child’s educational achievements are viewed as the source of pride for the family. While Vietnamese Americans tried to preserve their traditional culture, they made sure to adapt to the new country and provide opportunities for their children. 


With a total population of over 2 million, California and Texas have the highest concentration of Vietnamese Americans. The Vietnamese language is the fifth most spoken language in the U.S. Often known as “Little Saigon” or “Little Vietnam”, not so little ethnic enclaves emerged particularly in Orange County, San Jose, Houston, San Francisco, and Atlanta. 


Notable Vietnamese Americans include:



Vietnamese Restaurant in Rue Thouin, Paris. Source: Matt Casagrande

France


Unlike other Overseas Vietnamese populations in the West, the Vietnamese community in France had already been well-established before the end of the war. The French colonization of Vietnam (back then called Cochinchina) led to early migrations from elite class and royal Vietnamese, with some settling permanently. Several migrant waves of Vietnamese followed one reason being to support France in the World Wars. The largest influx apparently arrived as a wave of refugees after the Vietnam war. After the U.S. and Australia, France received the highest number of refugees. 


Today, Vietnamese French represent over half of Vietnamese Europeans. Most live in Paris with a small concentration in the famous 13th arrondissement where they form the “Quartier Asiatique” alongside other Asian ethnicities. The dissimilation is typically higher than in the U.S. or Australia due to the long historic, cultural and linguistic relationship with the French. 


The newer generations of French-born Vietnamese strongly identify with French culture, often do not speak Vietnamese and know little of the country of their ancestors. They are generally viewed as a model minority in part because of their academic and economic success.  


Notable Vietnamese French include:



Vietnamese center of Cabramatta, Sydney. Source: GlobalGoodFood

Australia


Up until the end of the war in 1975, there were barely Vietnamese people in Australia. Today, Australia has the 3rd highest number of Overseas Vietnamese worldwide. The country has agreed to take on their share of refugees and thus, in the following years, several immigration peaks occurred. In addition, Vietnamese already settled in Australia have an exceptionally low rate of return migration to Vietnam, indicating a high level of satisfaction and quality of life Down Under. 


In the beginning, Vietnamese Australians used to vary in socioeconomic status and income levels. Whilst some were subjected to poverty and crime, the new generation of Australian-born Vietnamese are well-represented in Australian universities and top professions. 


Of the over 250,000 Vietnamese Australians, most live in New South Wales and Victoria. About 70,000 call Sydney their home. Other large communities are in Melbourne and Brisbane.


Notable Vietnamese Australians include:

  • Hoan Ton-That (Serial entrepreneur, founder of Clearview AI)

  • Giang Nguyen (Mathematician and chess player, represents Australia in the chess olympiads)

  • Anathan Pham (Professional video gamer, won multi-million dollar tournaments)


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> Part 2 tells about Vietnamese communities in Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, and the Nordics.