Return to Vietnam

updated 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo on Vietnam in February, many American companies hoped to launch operations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City—formerly Saigon. What few Americans realized was that at least 100 U.S. citizens were already in Vietnam, thanks to a gradual loosening of U.S. restrictions over the past several years. Reporter Karen Emmons visited recently with some of them.

An expatriate returns to Vietnam and finds a place in the sun

Loc Huu Nguyen was 13 when his parents—who owned a pharmaceutical company—arrived in San Fernando, Calif., in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. In no time, he became like a typical beach-oriented California teen, but slowly he began developing roots in the Vietnamese community.

After graduating from California State University in Long Beach in 1988, he worked as a bank loan officer in a predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood in Garden Grove, Calif. By 1991, Nguyen was identifying so much with Vietnam that he went back to Ho Chi Minh City. Now 31, he has a fledgling business fixing up vintage motor scooters. Not that he misses California all that much: Vietnam has some of Asia's best beaches and, if anything, is even more laid-back. "There's no stress here," he says. "Everybody is relaxed."

When opportunity knocked, Eugene Matthews listened

What does an ambitious entrepreneur from Sharon, Pa., do with undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard? Mead east. Way east. "It was easy to see Vietnam would be hot," says Eugene Matthews, 35, who spent three years as an international marketing director for a Japanese company before finally moving to Hanoi in 1990. "I'm not a carpetbagger," he says, "but I'm here to make money."

A bachelor, Matthews spent a year learning Vietnamese at Hanoi University while researching business opportunities. His foresight paid off; now a business rep with a four-room flat over his office, he is considered one of the pioneers of the American business community and has already lined up clients including American Express and Lehman Brothers. "It's not bright lights, big city," he says. "But it's easy to fall in love with this place."

Saigon's cool crowd gathers at an American-run hot spot

Anh Phuong, 29, and David Jacobson, 47, run the hippest hangout in Ho Chi Minh City, the Q Bar. Anh, a naturalized American who escaped from Vietnam in 1978, and Jacobson, a photographer raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., set up the Western-style nightclub, owned by one of Phoung's relatives, in the ground floor of the city's Opera House two years ago. It quickly became popular with Western journalists and such visiting celebs as Malt Dillon, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Daryl Hannah.

Jacobson met Phuong in 1989, when she was working at a Los Angeles import-export firm, and the following year the couple, who live together, visited Vietnam for a relief agency project. Now they are bringing back something of the old Saigon. "We reintroduced tipping to Vietnam," he says with a laugh.

A pair of Vietnam vets come back as teachers

Both Mike and Greg Klevin of Oakland became disillusioned with military service during their separate tours of Vietnam in the 1960s. "After about six months I realized it wasn't worth it," says Greg, 45, who was seriously wounded in the back during a Marine reconnaissance patrol. "I wasn't against the war. I was against me being there."

Today they have opened a school together in Ho Chi Minh City to teach English and business. It is in stark contrast to the U.S. war effort. "Now we come with books," says Mike, 49. "I'm positive it's the best way."

Ho Chi Minh might not believe it? but 'Rambo' is loose on the streets

When Saigon fell in 1975, Ed Henry thought little of it. After all, he was only 12 and, growing up in Lewis-town, Ill. (pop. 2,572), he had never met an Asian. But after graduating from Southern Illinois University in 1983, the former homecoming king and javelin champion went to work as a bellman at a ritzy spa in San Diego, where he became fascinated with the Asian clientele.

Unmarried, he moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 1993 and is now a partner in Viet Net, which organizes tours for American Vietnam vets and businessmen. Locals have nicknamed him Rambo because he roars around on a Honda 750 Shadow. He finds the attention awkward. "I'm a big guy with blond hair," he says. "I can't be evasive. I can't have a private life."

From Our Partners