Vietnamese Americans Aren't Ready to Forget Past

Many Vietnamese Americans are watching President Bush's visit with profound ambivalence. Many of them have no love for the current Communist regime. In southern California's "Little Saigon," a thriving and growing section of Orange County, many aren't willing to forgive and forget just yet.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

It's likely that no community in America watched President Bush's Vietnam trip more carefully than Little Saigon in Orange County, California. For some of the Vietnamese-Americans there, hostility towards their former government is mixed with cautious optimism about prospects for doing business with their former homeland.

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Not so many years ago, Dr. Co Pham would wear a bulletproof vest to his job as a gynecologist. Anti-Communist protestors used to picket outside his medical offices in the heart of Little Saigon, and he received death threats.

Dr. CO PHAM (Gynecologist): And one time called the police in, telling them that they have put a bomb in my office here.

DEL BARCO: Pham says hard-line Vietnamese-Americans didn't accept his ideas about opening relations with the war-torn country.

Dr. PHAM: Changing the diplomatic relation with Vietnam, doing business with Vietnam, means we would change Vietnam. Change in a peaceful way. A lot of my compatriots disagree with that.

DEL BARCO: Pham says he was encouraged when the U.S. lifted a trade embargo against its former enemy 12 years ago. Now comes news that Vietnam is entering the World Trade Organization and that the U.S. could soon establish permanent normal trade relations with the country. Dr. Pham says he's looking forward to being able to start a pharmaceutical company and a medical clinic in Vietnam. And he says he now feels vindicated.

Dr. PHAM: I want to see that Vietnam will change its democracies. I think Vietnam is changing toward a free market that I think the first step, even the people who's against me before realize that, oh, this is the way we should be.

DEL BARCO: Even though it looks like a typical Southern California suburb full of strip malls, Little Saigon is the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam. Many people here immigrated during or after the war as political refugees, and they still hold bitter memories of communism.

Mr. ANDY QUACH (City Councilman, Westminster): Things remains the way they are, I would never invest in the nation of Vietnam.

DEL BARCO: Andy Quach is a city councilman for Westminster, where he says many Vietnamese-Americans refuse to support the communist regime in any way.

Mr. QUACH: We still hear about constant civil rights infringement. We still hear that people are being thrown in jail.

DEL BARCO: Quach says he'll never go back, even to visit relatives while the communists are in power.

Mr. QUACH: The whole thing is, you know, why go back to the nation, to Vietnam, to contribute to their economy and spend money over there? The reality is, well, you still have your mom and dad over there, you still have your family, your loved ones, so you need to do what you need to do on a personal level.

DEL BARCO: And so Vietnamese Americans have for many years wired money to their relatives.

Ms. TWI MESTA(ph) (Bank Manager): We're a lot more fortunate over here compared to them. They are a Third World country, so they're very poor.

DEL BARCO: Twi Mesta manages the Little Saigon branch at Wells Fargo Bank, which recently started a program allowing people to send remittances directly to one of the largest banks in Vietnam.

Ms. MESTA: For us I think it just puts a confidence that they can sleep at night, resting knowing that they have food or money available for food.

DEL BARCO: But sending money over to help support families is not the same as million dollar business investments. Journalist Do Qui Toan says up to now most ventures in Vietnam have failed.

Mr. DO QUI TOAN (Journalist): A lot of corruption. Most people don't want to talk publicly about it. They lost money and it's a shame to be cheated. And especially if you don't want to invest now in Vietnam, they want to do it secretly because if you want to bribe someone you don't want to publicize it.

DEL BARCO: Little Saigon developer Frank Jao is setting aside $10 million for a major construction project in Vietnam. But journalist Do says other investors are holding back until the government loosens up, not just financially.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: Do points to the music of Pham Jwi(ph), who sings about patriotism and love. His CDs are wildly popular in Little Saigon.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: You can open a business now in Vietnam, but you still can't buy this 85-year-old singer's music. The government has banned his songs.

Mr. TOAN: Yeah. Because of the Communist Party always want to maintain a monopoly of power, and they are afraid of ideas.

DEL BARCO: Do Qui Toan says he does hope people in Vietnam discover there's more to freedom than free trade. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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