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Immigrant Stories: Vietnam

Mr. Hap, Vietnamese Refugee

Mr. Hap was born into French-controlled Vietnam in 1934. Growing up in the beautiful resort city of Nha Trang in the southeastern part of the country, he received his education in schools run by the French colonial government. After living through the Japanese occupation during World War II and the First Indochina War, and witnessing the brutality practiced by Ho Chi Minh’s Communist movement in the north part of the country, Mr. Hap chose to fight for south in the Vietnam War. Enrolling in the military academy in 1956, he traveled to Oklahoma in 1961 to receive training in artillery, and came back to fight for fourteen years, until the north prevailed over the south.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Mr. Hap was placed into a “re-education camp” by the Communist government, which now reigned over the entire country. Trapped in the jungles of the northern provinces, the “students” in the camps were forced to build their own fences and shelters from available material, essentially creating their own prison. Overseers made them plant crops and farm small plots of land, and when the cornstalks reached a certain height, the entire camp was torn down and the captives were blindly moved to a new location to start again. Mr. Hap cannot count how many times he was moved, but the experience was always marked by hunger, the threat of physical violence, and ignorance about the whereabouts and health of his family. Anyone who escaped from the camps were caught and returned by local villagers.

For ten years Mr. Hap lived in these camps, until he and others were released in 1985 and allowed to reunite with their families. However, his trials were not over. In order to prove his loyalty to the Communist government and regain his citizenship, he wrote a report for the police every week, detailing people he had seen, places he had been, and any subversive thoughts he had. A year of these reports, along with accusations of betrayal from neighbors and unending employment (since no one would hire a traitor), drove Mr. Hap and his family to attempt to emigrate. Not until 1994 were they able to leave the country. Because he had a friend from elementary school living in St. Louis, Mr. Hap resettled here, where he found a job at the International Institute. Having learned English in Oklahoma years earlier, and French from his colonial education, he served as a case worker for Haitian immigrants coming to St. Louis. When asked why he ultimately chose the United States, Mr. Hap excitedly quotes Thomas Jefferson in one of his letters: “I have sworn upon the altar of God against any form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Having experienced such turmoil in Vietnam, he was happy to find a country built on this ideal.

Facts about Vietnam

The conquest of Vietnam by France began in 1858 and was completed by 1884. It became part of French Indochina in 1887. Vietnam declared independence after World War II, but France continued to rule until its 1954 defeat by communist forces under Ho Chi MINH. Under the Geneva Accords of 1954, Vietnam was divided into the communist North and anti-communist South. US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the government, but US armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, North Vietnamese forces overran the South reuniting the country under communist rule.

Despite the return of peace, for over a decade the country experienced little economic growth because of conservative leadership policies, the persecution and mass exodus of individuals – many of them successful South Vietnamese merchants – and growing international isolation. However, since the enactment of Vietnam’s “doi moi” (renovation) policy in 1986, Vietnamese authorities have committed to increased economic liberalization and enacted structural reforms needed to modernize the economy and to produce more competitive, export-driven industries.

The communist leaders maintain tight control on political expression but have demonstrated some modest steps toward better protection of human rights. The country continues to experience small-scale protests, the vast majority connected to either land-use issues, calls for increased political space, or the lack of equitable mechanisms for resolving disputes. The small-scale protests in the urban areas are often organized by human rights activists, but many occur in rural areas and involve various ethnic minorities such as the Montagnards of the Central Highlands, H’mong in the Northwest Highlands, and the Khmer Krom in the southern delta region.

Population: 97,040,334 (July 2018 est.)

Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, Gulf of Tonkin, and South China Sea, as well as China, Laos, and Cambodia

Languages: Vietnamese (official), English (increasingly favored as a second language), some French, Chinese, and Khmer, mountain area languages (Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian)

Religions: Buddhist 7.9%, Catholic 6.6%, Hoa Hao 1.7%, Cao Dai 0.9%, Protestant 0.9%, Muslim 0.1%, none 81.8% (2009 est.)

Ethnic Groups: Kinh (Viet) 85.7%, Tay 1.9%, Thai 1.8%, Muong 1.5%, Khmer 1.5%, Mong 1.2%, Nung 1.1%, Hoa 1%, other 4.3%

Information from the CIA World Factbook

The International Institute has resettled more than 4,000 refugees from Vietnam.