In the 30 years since the end of the war in Vietnam, over a million Vietnamese have resettled in the United States. The Washington D.C. metropolitan area is home to about 70 thousand Vietnamese. Their presence here has fostered the growth of a unique commercial center in the city's northern Virginia suburbs that also serves as a focal point for Vietnamese émigrés throughout the region. Meet one of the entrepreneurs in this center -- Phuong Huynh. He talks about his life, his work, and his ties to this thriving Vietnamese-American community.
The entrance to the Eden Center, beside a traffic-clogged highway in Northern Virginia about 10 minutes from Washington, D.C., is a striking, red-roofed oriental gate flanked by two lions. To drive through the gate is to enter a Vietnamese world, complete with an exact replica of the clock tower overlooking Saigon's central square. Vietnamese is the ubiquitous language here, and most of the shop signs are in Vietnamese, as well. Eden Center boasts 23 restaurants, 12 beauty shops, 21 jewelry stores, 8 music and video vendors, plus assorted markets, bakeries, nail salons, electronic shops, and professional services ranging from expert tailoring to tax accounting.
Phuong Huynh, a youthful-looking man in his mid-fifties, owns a travel agency and immigration service here.
“I'm helping the Vietnamese people to reunite [with] the families they left behind, after 1975 to 1985. A lot of Vietnamese escaped Vietnam by boat to Southeast Asia's refugee camps. Once they resettled in America, they have, you know, a stable life, they start bringing their families, their loved ones to the United States to be united with them. And I help them.”
Mr. Nuynh himself came to the United States with the first group of Vietnamese refugees, in 1975. He was 25, and had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army. He says he had no difficulty adapting to life in this country.
“I came here once, in 1968, for military training, so I have experience living in America. Besides that, we read, we were in contact with a lot of Americans back in Vietnam before 1975, so it's easy for me to adjust to a new life here in America. But of course, a lot of Vietnamese people, especially the ones who escaped by boat from 1975 to '85, it's very hard for them to adapt to the new situation. But, you know, we Vietnamese, we are hard-working people, and we struggle with the new life, and we're all very patient to survive. And as you see, now Vietnamese in general around the country or around the world, especially in the Washington D.C. area, we do a lot of good things.”
The Vietnamese community in the Washington area is large and thriving, Mr. Huynh says -- but is not without its problems.
“Every community, small or big, they have good things and bad things. Not that I'm Vietnamese and I say good for the Vietnamese, but of course in our community we have very good things, and we have some minor problems, like children on the street, gangsters, something like that. But I don't think that compared to other communities this is a big issue. Most of the Vietnamese children, they have a good education, and they want to be good in the future.”
While education is highly valued in the Vietnamese community, and is certainly a key to success in this country, Phuong Huynh says he has seen many Vietnamese establish themselves here and make a good living with relatively humble occupations.
“ If you have an education, of course you make more money. But fortunately for Vietnamese people, especially refugees who don't have much education and don't speak much English, God gives them a job to survive. And you know what? Nail salons, now they do a good business in America, and help a lot of people avoid depending on social services. Without nail salons, without the nail business, I think a lot of Vietnamese would be on welfare.”
“When he first arrived in the United States 30 years ago with a knowledge of English, Phuong Huynh found a job in New York City with Catholic Charities, an agency responsible for resettling refugees and immigrants. Later he moved to Washington and worked for the federal government for some years before joining his wife in running the travel and immigration agency in Eden Center. Although the travel bureau has colorful brochures advertising vacations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and New Zealand, Mr. Huynh says his Vietnamese customers generally have one destination in mind.”
“Most of them, I think 95% of them, travel back to Vietnam. Because, number one, they go home. Number two, it's cheap. And in Vietnam you can travel, you can have a tour organized. So most of the Vietnamese, they go home, visiting their relatives, visiting their country, their loved ones.”
However, Mr. Huynh points out that virtually no Vietnamese Americans consider returning to Vietnam permanently, or retiring there. He has visited Vietnam twice in recent years, and finds the society there completely changed.
“Now, after thirty years in this country, I don't think I'll return. Even though I will be old in the next couple of years, but I don't think I have the idea of returning home. No. This has become a home for me and for my children. We accept this as our home, for my life[time] and for the future.”
While continuing to live their life in America, Phuong Huynh and other Washington-area Vietnamese-Americans can find a little bit of Vietnam in Northern Virginia's Eden Center.