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Vietnamese expats in Thailand

Although they live far away from their roots, Vietnamese in Thailand have integrated well into the life of the host ccountry.

Around 200 years ago, during the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnamese people began to migrate to the ‘kingdom of golden temples’ for many reasons, mainly to find work and flee from wars. Although the times, the Vietnamese community here always show devotion to their Fatherland while preserving their national culture.

Vietnamese expats in Thailand

Dieu Giac Pagoda in Mukdahan is 100% Vietnamese, including the design, materials, construction workers, monks and visitors. Photo: Tung Lam

Only returning to the North to follow Uncle Ho

During a business trip to Thailand in mid-November 2023, I was lucky to meet ‘first-generation’ elders (counted since Vietnamese people started to immigrate here in large numbers), as well as the leaders of the Association of Vietnamese People in Thailand (AVPT), to learn more stories about Vietnamese people in this country.

Truong Thi Gai, an 84-year-old resident of Mukdahan, said that she came from Quang Binh Province. Driven by poverty, she followed her parents to Laos to make a living at the age of 6. As war came in 1945, the family sought refuge in Thailand - when she was 8. For the same reason, Le Thi Lieu (81) (Le Son Village, Van Hoa Commune, Tuyen Hoa District), fled from Quang Binh to Thailand when she was three years old.

Forced back home by the Thai government in the 1960s, the overseas Vietnamese there chose to return to North Vietnam and follow Uncle Ho’s lead. However, some of them were stuck as the US continued to bomb the North. Still, they resolutely refused repatriation under the Southern regime, preferring to be imprisoned in Thailand.

This also explains why many of the ‘first-generation’ Vietnamese settled permanently here, even though their original intention was to go back to their homeland after the end of the war.

Vietnamese expats in Thailand

Le Thi Lieu (pink shirt) wishes to obtain Vietnamese nationality for the sake of her roots. Photo: Tung Lam

According to AVPT Chairman Nguyen Ngoc Thin, there are currently about 200 thousand Vietnamese people living in Thailand - 900 households and nearly 6,500 residents in Mukdahan Province alone. They can be divided into four generations, with the second and third ones forming the majority. The first generation include those born in Vietnam and Laos, then migrating to Thailand before 1945 - mostly as war refugees.

Belonging to the second and succeeding ones are those born in Thailand and currently younger than 78 years. In the past, overseas Vietnamese concentrated in four northeastern provinces of Thailand, namely Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon and Udon Thani, all of which lie near the Mekong River and the Laos-Thailand border. From the third generation onwards, they live and do business all over the country.

To unite the Vietnamese community in Thailand, uphold solidarity and devotion to the Fatherland, integrate and develop deeply in the local society, and to become a significant bridge in the Vietnam-Thailand neighborly relations, the AVPT was founded in September 2013. Its Executive Board includes a chairman, five vice-chairman and a secretary. Under the association, there are 26 affiliates in 26 provinces with large Vietnamese populations, each with a Women’s Committee. There is also the Association of Vietnamese Entrepreneurs in Thailand and its 12 affiliates in different provinces.

Difficulty in learning Vietnamese and acquiring citizenship

In their stories about Vietnamese people in Thailand, AVPT Chairman Nguyen Ngoc Thin and Secretary Vo Hai shared the favorable conditions and difficulties in making a living, preserving their hometown’s customs and traditions, learning their native language, and obtaining Vietnamese nationality.

During wartime as well as years before, learning Vietnamese was banned because it was considered support for communism. Therefore, the expats had to teach the language in secret: parents to children, older siblings to younger ones, and neighbors to each other. Some of them even went to jail. Hai (born in 1960) recalled he was chased by the police yet wasn’t arrested, because his small group was only gathering with notebooks and pens, which were easy to “get rid of”. In the 1970-1972 period, the US began to withdraw from Thailand, so the prohibition on Vietnamese learning was loosened.

In the past 30 years, the relations between the two countries have changed a lot, and learning Vietnamese is no longer forbidden. Today, the AVPT’s slogan is: “Speak Vietnamese when we meet, speak Vietnamese at home”.

With the view that as long as the Vietnamese language is alive, the Vietnamese people still survives, not only free Vietnamese classes are opened but also diverse forms of teaching are organized in the community, while many of the parents only talk to their children in Vietnamese. At present, Vietnamese is included in the curriculum at some Thai universities, which is the Thai government’s effort to stimulate the ASEAN integration process.

However, according to Thin and Hai, the community’s Vietnamese learning is not as effective as in the past, when the members were motivated by their homecoming after the war, plus most of them could speak little Thai.

Despite the great demand for Vietnamese learning nowadays, the difficulty is that the expatriate children have to prioritize English and compulsory subjects, while they also lack motivation.

Citizenship acquisition is another challenge. Previously, Thai authorities deemed Vietnamese people coming to Thailand supporters of Uncle Ho’s revolution and communism, so they provided no favorable conditions. Although there was a government resolution allowing foreigners born in Thailand after 1945 (the year World War II ended) to be naturalized, it excludes Vietnamese people. Now that this regulation has been abolished, 98% of the overseas Vietnamese have acquired Thai citizenship. However, the ‘first generation’ elders, who arrived in Thailand in 1945 or earlier, are still not entitled the right, as in the case of Ms. Gai and Ms. Lieu above.

Most of them are regarded as ‘stateless’, so they face considerable difficulties. Every time they return to Vietnam to visit their hometown, they have to pay an amount of 5-7 thousand baht to the Thai government, which they call “tax”.

In addition to inconvenient travel, the elders simply long for a nationality, either Thai or Vietnamese. Ms. Lieu sadly said that she yearned for Vietnamese nationality for the sake of her roots, and being a “contraband” person without any citizenship until the age of 100 would feel miserable.

Preserving national cultural identity

Overseas Vietnamese here mainly engage in trading. Since they started to be granted Thai citizenship, their living and business have gone more smoothly. There have been large buildings and factories invested by Vietnamese people in Thailand as well as in Vietnam, notably the Super Horse Energy Drink Factory in Lao Bao Town Quang Tri Province. Some successful Vietnamese entrepreneurs include Cao Van San in Sakon Nakhon, Nguyen Ngoc Thin, Ha Thi Ty and Vo Long in Mukdahan, Luong Xuan Hoa and Ho Van Lam in Udon Thani, Nguyen Viet Be in Khon Kaen, among others.

According to AVPT chairman and secretary, doing business here is rather easy for Vietnamese people. Thai and Lao people are very gentle but not greedy, only harvest one crop each year, often visit temples, live peacefully and slowly. That’s why trading and business investment are mostly handled by overseas Chinese and Vietnamese, with major sectors like the securities market, railway and road infrastructure largely dominated by the former.

Vietnamese expats in Thailand

AVPT Chairman Nguyen Ngoc Thin (right) and Secretary Vo Hai (wearing glasses) talk with the author. Photo: An Thai

In general, the activities of the AVPT and its 26 provincial affiliates are fostering Vietnam-Thailand relations, devoting to the roots, uniting the community, doing good deeds in society, preserving and protecting the national cultural identity of Vietnam and Thailand.

Seeing QTO’s reporter surprised at a large banner that read, ‘Welcome Vietnamese Teachers“Day 20/11/2023’, Hai explained that on November 11, the association held a celebration of Vietnamese Teachers” Day, as Vietnamese teachers all over Thailand gathered in Mukdahan and emotionally reviewed memories and traditions of their homeland. It was organized early because on the actual date, November 20, there were celebrations in all of the 26 provinces that have AVPT affiliates.

Most of their home’s holidays are celebrated by Vietnamese people here, such as the Hung Kings’ death anniversary on the 10th day of the 3rd lunar month, International Women’s Day on March 8, International Workers’ Day on May 1, Uncle Ho’s birthday on May 19, National Day on September 2, or Teacher’s Day on November 20. In particular, the celebration of Tet or the Lunar New Year is identical to that in Vietnam: enjoying the New Year’s Eve reunion dinner, turning on the TV to listen to the President’s New Year’s message, the first-footing custom, and others.

As for activities organized by Thai people such as the Boat Racing Festival and Lantern Festival, the Vietnamese expats usually wear Vietnamese traditional outfits or Thai costumes, but participate as a Vietnamese group.

Despite having lived in Thailand for centuries, the expats still retain numerous customs and traditions of their Fatherland. According to Thin, the Vietnamese community in Mukdahan still keeps 100% of funeral rites and 80% of wedding ceremonies similar to those in Vietnam, while it’s 50% in other provinces.

In the ‘kingdom of golden temples’, overseas Vietnamese join hands to build and preserve buildings with Vietnamese characteristics, such as the President Ho Chi Minh Historical Site in Nong On Village, Udon Thani; President Ho Chi Minh Memorial Site in Nakhon Phanom; Thailand-Vietnam Friendship Park and One-Pillar Pagoda in Khon Kaen. Meanwhile, Mukdahan alone boasts three such landmarks: Dieu Giac Pagoda, Tan Dinh Linh Tu Temple and Eternity Cemetery, all of which are 100% Vietnamese.

For these places, the architecture, construction workers, materials, managers, monks and visitors are all Vietnamese and follow Vietnamese customs. In Thailand, there are currently 21 Vietnamese pagodas, which serve as venues for not only spiritual activities but also community activities. Located next to Dieu Giac Pagoda is a large hall, where the AVPT holds meetings and cultural performances twice a month to strengthen solidarity.

With respect to cuisine, various Vietnamese dishes can still be found in Thailand, such as pho, banh cuon or banh xeo. Hai notices that every time tourists ask about Vietnamese food, Thai people remember nem nướng and spring rolls at once but forget about noodle soup, which is so common everyday that people think it is Thai.

Devotion to the roots

When asked about the thoughts and feelings of Vietnamese people here about their homeland, the Chairman and the Secretary agreed that the first and second generations exhibit ardent patriotism and devotion to their roots. As for the third and fourth ones, they are always proud to be Vietnamese and willing to make contributions to the nation. However, that sentiment is hidden for fear of causing difficulties in life and work, especially for business people and civil servants.

To preserve the national identity, educate the young Vietnamese generation in Thailand about their roots, as well as to facilitate economic and commercial activities, Thin said that in the future, the association would propose to the governments of the two countries or the sister provinces the following: teacher exchanges for teaching Vietnamese and Thai; summer camps for Vietnamese children to return home and interact with Vietnamese students to learn about their roots (the difficulty is that the summer breaks in Vietnam and Thailand do not overlap); preferential policies to attract and encourage overseas Vietnamese to invest back home; alternate hosting of national-level fairs, first in the Northeast region of Thailand, for more product introduction and business opportunities...

It can be seen that Vietnamese people in Thailand are one of the oldest overseas Vietnamese communities. Although they live far away from their roots and have integrated well into the life of the host country, the Vietnamese community here always show devotion to their Fatherland while preserving their national culture.

Tung Lam - Jenna Duong

Tung Lam - Jenna Duong

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