Technology lures ex-pats back to Vietnam

Nearly 40 years on Ka Fue Lay’s voice is still full of emotion as he remembers the moment he climbed up the ladder of a British ship.

That was the moment he knew he was safe.

Nearly 40 years on Ka Fue Lay’s voice is still full of emotion as he remembers the moment he climbed up the ladder of a British ship.

That was the moment he knew he was safe. The rickety boat in which he had fled Vietnam was so full of sick and faeces it was burnt by the British crew.

Seeing that, “I felt ecstatic,” he told me, because he knew then he would not be taken back.

He was speaking to me from his home in Wiltshire where he works in social care and is married to the great granddaughter of the former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

His life in Britain has been a far cry from his early years looking after water buffalo and scraping a living in the jungle of south Vietnam.

He arrived in the UK in 1979 when 25 thousand people were leaving Vietnam every month by boat. The UNHCR reckons 400,000 died at sea in the years that followed.

Viral Facebook post

Ka Fue Lay’s nephew Tat Wa Lay, who was just a baby when the family left, has now returned to work in Vietnam.

Seeing the current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, he was moved to write on Facebook about the warm welcome his family received in Britain all those years ago and called for people to open their minds and hearts.

His mother had told him about the moment in 1984 when they arrived on a council estate expecting hostility and racism and instead a “young scruffy man” took off his coat and handed it to the freezing cold refugees.

The gesture was so touching he said that others soon followed. His mother never forgot that moment and he wrote “my brother still remembers the warmth of that coat and it stays in his heart to this day”.

12.5 million people have now viewed that post and it’s been shared 150,000 times.

Will those who have fled Syria follow the pattern being set by the Vietnamese?

Changed city

Many of Vietnam’s 4 million-strong diaspora are – like Tat Wa Lay – now returning.

Living in Britain he was always curious about why he was “different”.

He never understood why his uncle had long fingernails and why his mother squatted on the floor to chop chicken when they had perfectly good work surfaces.

His parents never spoke of what happened so it was only from a relative that he learnt that he was a refugee.

Living in Ho Chi Minh city has answered some of his childhood questions. And he feels that he has something to contribute to society here. He’s teaching English and is developing iPad apps to help children learn the language.

As we chatted on the banks of the Saigon River, I was struck by how different the city must look from the time his parents fled. Our backdrop was a glass high-rise tower with built-in helipad.

BBC News World On The Move is a day of coverage dedicated to migration, and the changing effect it is having on our world.

A range of speakers, including the UNHCR’s special envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt, and former British secret intelligence chief Sir Richard Dearlove, will set out the most important new ideas shaping our thinking on economic development, security and humanitarian assistance.

You can follow the discussion and reaction to it, with live online coverage on the BBC News website.

But many of the old ways survive. Fishing boats passed that looked little different to those that had saved his family.

And within earshot was our government minder – a prerequisite of getting a visa from the communist authorities to report here.

We had to give him a list of those we wanted to interview. It is not unknown for people to have lost their job or worse for what they have said to reporters.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is trying to work out how to allow enough capitalism to fuel the rapidly growing economy and the expectations of its increasingly sizeable middle class, whilst still allowing the old communist regime to retain power.

That is where their interests may align with the free market of Silicon Valley.

For what is bringing many people back is not just the beauty of the country, nor the ties to their homeland but the opportunities of a very 21st century industry: technology.

Ngan Lee runs a technology forum. In a high rise rooftop bar she told me that Wi-Fi in Ho Chi Minh City is faster and cheaper than any other South East Asian city.

The whole of the city of Da Nang has free Wi-Fi – families even use it when they head out to the park.

It helps explain why more than 40 million of Vietnam’s 90 million population are online.


Dream-plex in central Ho Chi Minh city is the kind of trendy, co-working space you’d find in California.

A large open plan office with kitchen and games room where people can rent desk space and benefit from chatting to others who are dreaming big. The people I spoke to here had almost all been educated overseas or had recently arrived in the country.

They were all excited about the opportunities afforded by the hustle and fast pace of this city.

As one recent arrival told me about this ancient city: “Vietnam is a start-up”.

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