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Few takers for Vietnam's visa offer

Main gate to Vietnam's Immigration Department of the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Vietnam is rolling out the welcome mat to expats. It's offering five-year visas to Vietnamese who live abroad, many of whom fled the country after the Vietnam war.

Business leaders say it could open the door to more trade. But some Vietnamese here in the U.S. are turning up their noses at Hanoi's offer. Jordan Davis has more from Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif.


Jordan Davis: Nghia Phi fled Vietnam on a rickety boat in 1979. He was persecuted for supporting the South Vietnamese regime during the war. But decades later he returned.

Nghia Phi: I met my all my friends from during the high school class. And now they are very successful in Vietnam. They have the factory, very big one.

The visit changed everything for Phi. He quit his construction job and started U.S. Hi-Fi, a company that in spite of its name, doesn't sell stereo systems. It imports building materials made in the factories Phi visited in Vietnam.

The U.S. Hi-Fi warehouse is stacked with tile, parquet and bathroom fixtures.

Vinh Phi: These cabinets right here are from Vietnam.

Nghia Phi's son, Vinh, shows off a new design.

Vinh: See how it just closes automatically. This is a big selling point. A lot of people who go to the bathroom at night. And they don't want to wake up their spouses at night.

Spouse-friendly bathroom cabinets account for some of the $8.5 billion of Vietnamese exports that came to the U.S. last year. Growing numbers of Vietnamese A©migrA©s are now doing business with the country they once fled. And business could get a boost this weekend when the government in Hanoi begins offering five-year visas to overseas Vietnamese.

Co Pham: I can foresee visions of booming business between the Vietnamese-Americans in Vietnam and vice-versa.

Co Pham is president of the Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce. He says the new visa program will help people avoid bureaucratic unpleasantries.

Pham: Before each time you go to Vietnam, you have to go to visa. The people may give you a hard time, harassing you, asking you a thousand questions why you want to go.

David Danice is an economist with Tufts University. He says Vietnam's isn't really introducing these visas for business reasons. He says the economy there is doing fine. It grew at a rate of 9 percent last year.

Danice says by rolling out this visa program, Vietnam's leaders are hoping to improve their image in the U.S.

David Danice: I think they're very interested in defusing opposition. And of course, the more that the Vietnamese community feels they're welcome, the more likely they will not be hostile to the government.

The Vietnamese government may find itself fighting an uphill battle. Many Vietnamese-Americans still pledge their loyalty to the old South Vietnamese regime, and even fly its distinctive yellow flag over their homes and businesses. They're suspicious of Hanoi.

Hoa Pham is a travel agent in Little Saigon. She arranges trips to Vietnam for A©migrA©s, but says none of her clients are interested in the five-year visa. Mostly, she says, because they don't want to give their personal information to Vietnamese officials.

Hoa Pham: They rather pay the regular visa right now and that's it. They don't want the government in Vietnam know anything about themselves.

Davis: So a lot of people here still don't trust the Vietnamese government.

Pham: No, they don't.

The Phi family at U.S. Hi-Fi isn't sure if they'll take up Hanoi's offer of long-term visas. Vinh Phi says the program won't make any difference to his plans to keep doing business in Vietnam.

Phi: If we import stuff from Vietname to here, that means, you know, there's work in Vietnam. So I think economically, it makes sense.

The Vietnamese government expects a flood of applicants for the visas. But there doesn't seem to be much interest in communities like Little Saigon. After all, people like Vinh Phi say, they've been finding ways to do business with Vietnam for years, regardless of their visas.

In Little Saigon, Calif., I'm Jordan Davis for Marketplace.

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