Overseas Vietnamese driving force in homeland

Klout co-founder Binh Tran, a partner of 500 Starts-ups Management, is part of a wave of overseas Vietnamese defying personal traumas to invest in a country they once risked all to escape.
Klout co-founder Binh Tran, a partner of 500 Starts-ups Management, is part of a wave of overseas Vietnamese defying personal traumas to invest in a country they once risked all to escape.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Forty years after fleeing Communist takeover they are back, pursuing high-tech ambitions

HANOI • During Dang Van Tran's numerous attempts to flee Vietnam at the age of seven he was shot at twice, nearly drowned at sea and stranded on an island.

Now 40 years later, he is back in the communist country doing something unthinkable when he finally escaped with 150 others on a fishing trawler: running a start-up in Ho Chi Minh City called Butterfly Hub, which helps businesses make data-based decisions in the beauty and fashion world.

Mr Tran is part of a wave of overseas Vietnamese defying personal traumas and family objections to invest in a country they once risked all to escape. That includes his father, who lost everything to the communists in 1975 before seeking a new life for his family in the United States.

On his return, Mr Tran found a country more enamoured with iPhones than Karl Marx and with a burgeoning tech start-up scene.

"It blew my mind," he said. "So I decided to stay."

LIFE GOES ON

Time heals old wounds.

MR THAN TRONG PHUC, who fled in a helicopter from the US embassy and returned as Vietnam country director for Intel.

The aftermath of the communist victory had a devastating impact on many of its citizens, resulting in a massive displacement of humanity. More than a million were sent to re-education camps, where many died, said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

By 2010, more than 1.5 million Vietnamese had resettled in the US alone, while others fled to Australia, Canada and Europe.

"For many, including most of my family, those memories are painful and can be recalled as if they happened yesterday," said Mr Binh Tran, co-founder of San Francisco-based Klout, who has returned part-time to Vietnam as a partner at Silicon Valley's 500 Start-ups Management, which started a US$10 million (S$14.2 million) fund this year.

The nation they have returned to presents a much different face to the one they fled. The government is actively trying to lure investment in high-technology sectors, education has improved and so have living standards.

Overseas Vietnamese, known as Viet Kieu, are now a driving force in the economy, sending US$13.2 billion in remittances to the country last year, a 900 per cent increase since 2000, according to the World Bank.

"Time heals old wounds," said Mr Than Trong Phuc, who fled in a helicopter from the US embassy and returned as Vietnam country director for Intel, playing a role in the decision of the world's largest semiconductor company to invest US$1 billion in Vietnam.

Taiwan, China, India and other places have for decades benefited from former citizens returning from tech centres such as Silicon Valley. Now Vietnam is trying to catch up and is seeking even more investment.

"Frankly, investments from Viet Kieu do not meet the country's needs," said Mr Le Hoai Quoc, head of the management board of Saigon Hi-Tech Park. A lack of trust in the government has deterred some from investing, he added.

The government offers Viet Kieu incentives such as visas for up to five years and duty-free imports of used cars.

Also, a US$40 million tech park dubbed Saigon Silicon City is being built in Ho Chi Minh City to attract Viet Kieu with tax breaks and subsidised rent.

The country's youthful demographics and growing middle class are more of a lure. 

Vietnam's annual economic growth accelerated to 6.4 per cent during the third quarter this year, from 5.8 per cent in the previous three months, the General Statistics Office said, behind only the Philippines in South-east Asia.

More than half of the country's population is online and the number of mobile phones exceeds the number of citizens, said Mr Binh Tran. Flappy Bird, the 2014 gaming phenomenon developed in Vietnam, has inspired a generation of new tech entrepreneurs.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2016, with the headline 'Overseas Vietnamese driving force in homeland'. Print Edition | Subscribe