El Salvador
South Korea


by Yen Le

Context for Vietnamese Immigration

History and Government

Among the countries that have occupied Vietnam are China, France, Japan and the United States. One Vietnamese folk song depicts the history of “one thousand years of Chinese domination, one hundred years of French domination, and twenty years of internal civil war.” China ruled the territory then known as Nam Viet as a vassal state from 111 B.C. until the 15th century. In 1428, after a decade of leadership by Emperor Le Loi, the Chinese recognized Vietnam’s independence and signed an accord. From 1460 to 1498, Le Thanh Tong ruled Vietnam and extended its territory southward conquering the kingdoms of Champa and Cambodia.

France built up its influence in Vietnam in the early 19th century, and soon took exclusive control of ports and trade. After a series of conflicts and treaties, France succeeded in defeating Vietnam militarily and politically in 1884. The French colonial government exercised complete political control and economic domination.

When Japan occupied Vietnam in 1940, nationalist forces gathered strength and formed the Vietminh (independence) League, led by the Communist guerilla Ho Chi Minh. Between 1946 and 1954 the French sought to regain control of Vietnam and fought both nationalist and Communist forces. France was decisively beaten at the Battle of Dienbienphu in May 1954. The Geneva accords of July 1954 divided Vietnam along the 17th parallel, recognizing a new North Vietnam controlled by the pro-Chinese Vietnamese Communist Party and Ho Chi Minh while calling for elections in the 39 provinces constituting South Vietnam. In October 1955 Ngo Dinh Diem became the first elected president of South Vietnam.

The North adopted a constitution in 1959 based upon Communist principles and called for the reunification of Vietnam. North Vietnam and the Communist Party in South Vietnam (Vietcong), aided by China and the USSR, pressed war in the South. Political instability in the South led to a military coup overthrowing Diem in 1963. Many military governments followed.

U.S. escalation of involvement occurred in the early 1960s beginning with President Kennedy. In 1964 the U.S. began air raids over North Vietnam and the following year the U.S. introduced troops as combatants. Perhaps the worst fighting took place during the Vietnamese New Year (Tet). In the summer of 1970 the U.S. bombed and invaded Cambodia in an effort to destroy Vietcong bases located there. Under U.S. President Nixon a withdrawal plan was developed and in 1971 as the U.S. conducted heavy bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail traversing from North to South Vietnam, most American troops were withdrawn from combat. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger participated in peace negotiations leading to a Paris peace settlement in January 1973. The cease-fire was never implemented.

The Saigon regime fell to the North on April 30, 1975 and Saigon’s name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City. Civilian Vietnamese fatalities numbered over one million and combat deaths exceeded 200,000. The U.S. suffered over 58,000 casualties. Displaced refugees from the war in South Vietnam totaled over 6.5 million people. Many of those who remained faced difficult years of poverty, repression, and international isolation.

In 1976, North and South Vietnam were officially reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Beginning in 1986 limited efforts at privatization were begun. The U.S. lifted its embargo in 1994 and reestablished full diplomatic relations in 1995. Today, Vietnam is a socialist state, led by President Tran Duc Luong, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, deputies, and a Government Council. The only legal political party is the Communist Party of Vietnam, and the National Assembly (Quoc Hoi) has 450 seats. All citizens may vote at the age of 18. Elections will be held in 2002.


Vietnam became a member of the UN in September of 1977. The Vietnamese currency is the dong, and its GDP in 1998 was $135 billion, with $1,770 per capita. Its real growth rate is 4% (1998 est.) while inflation is 9% and unemployment is 25% (in 1995). Vietnam’s agriculture includes rice paddies, corn, potatoes, rubber, soybeans, coffee, tea, bananas, poultry, pigs, and fish. Its labor force is composed of 65% (32.7 million) in agriculture and 35% in industry and services (1990 est.). Industry includes food processing, garments, shoes, machine building, and mining. Its natural resources include phosphates, forests, and coal.

Vietnamese Immigration

Soon after the withdrawal of the U.S. military and economic support, the military government of South Vietnam deteriorated and the flight of the Vietnamese refugees began within the country. As a result, about one million refugees poured out of Pleiku, Kontum, and Ban Me Thuot and headed for the capital city, Saigon. The coastal city of Da Nang was evacuated at the end of March 1975 followed by Nha Trang, Cam Ranh, and other coastal cities. On April 30, 1975, Saigon and all of South Vietnam came under the control of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. Many feared retaliation and “blood baths” by the Communists, resulting in the first wave of the newest Asian Pacific immigrant group to the U.S. as well as to many other countries around the world.

The first wave of about 135,000 refugees began arriving in April 1975 and continued through 1977. The second period of the Vietnamese refugees migration began in 1978. No one knows exactly how many thousands of people took to boats, and some estimates that as many as half of them perished at sea. The successful ones reached refugee camps in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Many tried to escape political oppression and the social and the economic changes made by the Communist government of Vietnam. As a result of the conflict between China and Vietnam in 1978, thousands of Chinese Vietnamese were also forced out of Vietnam. Today, Amerasians, former political prisoners, and family members continue to come to the United States through “orderly departure” and ordinary immigration channels.

The general attitude of the American public at the end of the war was one of hostility toward Vietnamese refugees, largely because of the number of Americans who died and listed as missing in action during the war. Much of the hostility was also racially and economically based. To minimize the social impact of the large influx of Vietnamese refugees on an American public that did not favor the Vietnam War, the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Gerald Ford, adapted the Refugee Dispersion Policy with the goal of assimilating Vietnamese refugees into American society as quickly as possible. As a result, refugees were resettled throughout the United States and many extended families were broken up as well as many social networks that formed while they were abandoning their homelands or in refugee camps.

Despite the original intention of the federal government to disperse Vietnamese refugees throughout the United States, Vietnamese refugees began to relocate to different locations in the United States with the largest concentration in Westminster, Santa Ana, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego. San Jose now has more Vietnamese than any city outside of Vietnam. As a result of the Orderly Departure Program, the Humanitarian Operation Program, and the Homecoming Act of 1987, many former refugees are now able to sponsor immediate family members for immigration to the United States although the process may take years and a large financial investment.

Social Characteristics of the Vietnamese People

Ethnic and Religious Diversity

About 88% of the population is ethnic Kinh (Vietnamese) and about 3 percent of the Chinese form an important merchant class in Vietnam. The rest of the population consists of Khmer, Hao, and Cham people in addition to more than 50 highland minority groups, each with its own language and culture.

Four philosophies and religions have shaped the spiritual life of Vietnamese people: Confucianism (Khong Giao), Buddhism (Phat Giao), Taoism (Lao Giao), and more recently, Catholicism (Cong Giao). Vietnam’s constitution has always guaranteed freedom of religion, but the government has frequently interfered with religious practice and the internal affairs of churches. Buddhism is practiced by 55 percent of the populations with temples and pagodas full of people making offers for success and health to various gods and goddesses. About 12 percent of the population is Taoist and 7 percent is Roman Catholic. Christianity is becoming more popular in cities. Regardless of religion, nearly all Vietnamese venerate their ancestors. Because many Vietnamese believe the deceased are accessible to help or hinder the living, almost every family has an altar for ancestor worship.

Family Life

The family is the most important of all social units in Vietnam. Hieu, filial piety, which refers to the idea of love, care, and respect that children give to their parents, is one of the basic virtues taught from a very young age. The family traditionally was composed of three to five generations living in the same house (parents, children, grandparents, and sometimes, unmarried uncles and aunts).

The long history of wars changed the basic structure of the Vietnamese family because many family members were killed during the different wars. However, the extended family basically remains intact. Today, the rural family household is typically composed of parents, unmarried children, married sons, and their families living together. As married sons establish their own households, the youngest son usually inherits the parental home and cares for the elderly parents. Single-family homes are more common in urban areas.

Men and women share most responsibilities in the family and both are often breadwinners. If farmers, they work together in the fields. Vietnam also has a patriarchal system where the man, or husband, typically serves as the head of the family, takes care of money matters, and is responsible for providing for his family. Women, on the other hand, are in charge of the affairs in the home and raising the children.

In Santa Clara County, when asked who takes care of children ages 12 and under in the family, 39% of the respondents from the random sample answered “mother,” 23% replied “father,” and 18% said “grandparent”. For public benefits recipients, mothers (42%), fathers (23%), and grandparents (10%) take care of children. This shows that the extended family is still very much in existence in today’s Vietnamese households. Less than 10% in both groups use child care centers.

Health Care Practices

Vietnam’s health care system offers free or low-cost medical care to all people, but facilities are often inadequate, especially in rural areas. Every commune has a clinic, but it often lacks modern medicine or other supplies. Traditional healing and natural medicines play an important role in health care. Many people in Vietnam use coining (rubbing a coin with hot ointment to an appropriate part of the body), among many other home remedies, as a technique to get rid of headaches, colds, pain, and nausea. Such rubbing will remove the “bad wind” or symptoms received from the environment or from people made contact with. Many Vietnamese people believe that healthiness is a holistic concept that encompasses physical, spiritual, emotional, and social factors. Preventive health care is an essential part of health care, and nutrition plays a substantial part. However, malnutrition affects a large proportion of rural children and more than one million people suffer from hunger in some regions affected by drought followed by floods in 1998. In 1999, floods damaged one million homes and put more people at risk of disease.

Educational System in Vietnam

Primary education is free to all in Vietnam, beginning at age five. In some areas, school facilities do not adequately handle all children, so students attend on a half-day basis. The school week is Monday through Saturday. All children are encouraged to finish high school, but the dropout rate is increasing as young people leave to look for work. University education is free to qualified students, but there is tough competition for limited space. Vietnam has begun allowing students who do not qualify for a government subsidy to enter a university as paying students.

Vietnamese in Santa Clara County


Vietnamese have faced a wide range of social, cultural, economic, and personal issues for the past 25 years as immigrants in the United States. Of the Vietnamese respondents in the random sample survey, 79% stated that Vietnamese is still the language they speak most often while 4% speak English. The average age of respondents in this group was 50 years, and they had lived in the U.S. an average of 12.6 years. With respect to the total number of school years completed, 27% completed 10-12 years while 17% completed 15-16 years and 15% completed 13-14 years. The survey shows that the average size of Vietnamese households in Santa Clara County is four people. Respondents in this group lived mostly in San Jose, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale. In addition, 28% of the respondents reportedly have a total household income of $10-30,000 per year while 18% make $30-50,000 per year and 17% make $50-70,000 per year.

For respondents in the public benefits group, the languages used the most were Vietnamese (96%) and Cantonese/Mandarin (3%). The average age of respondents in this group was 48 years, and they had lived in the U.S. for 5.5 years. The number of school years completed were the following: 6 years or less (22%), 7-9 years (15%), 10-12 years (33%), and 13 years or more (30%). The average household size of this group of Vietnamese was 5 people, and they lived mostly in San Jose, Milpitas, and Santa Clara. The total household income for this group was less than $10,000 per year (32%), $10-30,000 per year (55%), and more than $30,000 per year (13%).

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Vietnamese people, especially men, generally shake hands when greeting formally, but otherwise greet verbally, bowing the head slightly. However, Vietnamese living in the U.S. may greet each other in English and perhaps a hug. Traditionally, a formal greeting between strangers is chao (hello) followed by a title, based on family, as if everyone were related. For instance, a person from North Vietnam greeting a man about the same age (or older) as the person’s father calls the man bac (uncle) and if he is about the same age he greets him as anh (brother).

In regards to gestures, it is usually inappropriate to touch another person’s head, the body’s most spiritual point. It is rude to summon a person with the index finger. Traditionally, one should wave all four fingers with the palm down. In Vietnam, men and women generally do not show affection in public, but it is common for members of the same sex to hold hands or hold each other while walking. However, this may vary from city to city in Vietnam, and it especially differs among Vietnamese people living in the United States.

Emotional Support

Many Vietnamese are still traumatized by the devastating events that forced them out of their homeland and they have not received any mental health care since their arrival. This is largely due to the pressure of economic assimilation and lack of familiarity with Western mental health concepts. In addition, individuals with emotional problems do not usually get professional help; instead, over 40% of respondents in the random sample preferred to talk to their spouse, relative, or friends rather than mental health specialists (5%). Public benefits recipients talked to spouses (46%), friends (45%), and relatives (31%).


In Vietnam, everyday dress for both men and women generally consists of slacks worn with a casual cotton or knit blouse or polo shirt. For special occasions, going to church, or attending high school or college, women wear the traditional ao dai (a long dress with front and back panels worn over satin trousers). Men might wear shorts at the beach or work site but not otherwise in public. In Santa Clara County, Vietnamese usually wear typical American clothes but many women still wear ao dai for special occasions.


Steamed white rice is eaten at almost every meal and may include a salty dish (such as pork cooked in fish broth), a vegetable dish (boiled vegetables or stir fry), and soup (such as fish and vegetable soup). Fruits may also be eaten after meals for dessert, which includes watermelon, papaya, jackfruit, and mango. In addition to this typical Vietnamese diet, Vietnamese also consume different ethnic foods available in Santa Clara County.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

There are 11 major lunar holidays in Vietnam, but the most important one is the Lunar New Year (Tet Nguyen Dan) in late January or early February and on this day, everyone becomes a year older. In Vietnam, people spend up to a week feasting and visiting loved ones, after cleaning their houses and mending relationships. In the U.S., few people take time off from work for New Year’s but most people do celebrate by offering gifts to their families and close friends. Often, the elders give good luck money to children in red envelopes called li xi, followed by mung tuoi (exchange of new year wishes). In Santa Clara County, an annual Tet festival is held at the Fairgrounds.

Tet Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Festival) is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. In ancient times, this night was observed to predict the weather and the events that would affect the crops for the upcoming year, impacting the lives of farmers and the society of Vietnam as a whole. Over time, the Mid-Autumn Festival became a cultural event, focusing primarily on children. The children are seen as the next generation that will continue the cycle of life in the community and thus they participate in a lantern march throughout the neighborhood.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

In conjunction with resettlement issues such as racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, inter-generational differences in the household, and conflict with other minority groups, Vietnamese face many other challenges in Santa Clara County. The top six needs for respondents in the random sample were: housing, medical care, and learning English (42% each), dental care (41%), eye care (39%), and help in becoming U.S. citizens (26%). For Vietnamese respondents in the public benefits group, these needs were: medical care (75%), housing (72%), dental care (71%), eye care (66%), ESL (63%), and food (54%).

In a focus group conducted with Vietnamese in Santa Clara County, participants prioritized learning English as their number one need, followed by housing, transportation, and health insurance. Similarly, in a focus group conducted with Vietnamese women on CalWORKs, they expressed a need for housing, more time to learn English, more help finding a job that pays enough to live in Silicon Valley, affordable child care, accurate information, and individual attention from their eligibility workers (in that order of priority).

During these focus groups and community meetings called Immigrants Building Community (IBC), solutions were suggested to address these concerns. For housing, participants requested rent control. Those on CalWORKs would like to see an increase in their grant money to reflect the housing cost in the area. The Vietnamese women on CalWORKs recognize the need to learn English but predict that it may take at least 4 years instead of the 12 months that they feel CalWORKs allows to attend ESL classes. They also feel they need more time for job training, perhaps an opportunity to get a degree or certificate, and free or low-cost child care. These participants were of the opinion that government should mandate all companies and businesses to offer health benefits to full-time employees and their families.


According to the random survey, 27% of respondents were unable to communicate well when stopped by the police. Consequently, 24% of respondents felt scared. Many did not know the law (36%) and did not know their rights (35%). Furthermore, 36% felt discriminated against by the police, 33% by their boss, 28% by their co-workers, and 18% by job interviewers. Many public benefits recipients similarly reported not knowing their legal rights (39%), having communication problems (33%), and feeling scared (29%) when stopped by the police. Sources of discrimination for this group included: police (39%), job interviewer (30%), social/eligibility worker (26%), and co-workers (17%).

Barriers to Education, Services, and Benefits

When asked what prevents them from obtaining education, services, or public benefits, the top three reasons given by respondents in the random sample were lack of English skills (48%), lack of time (39%), and lack of information (24%). Barriers reported in the public benefits group were comparable: lack of English skills (71%), lack of time (24%), and scheduling problems (18%).

Employment & Working Conditions in Santa Clara County

Occupational Data and Barriers

The employment history and socioeconomic adaptation of Vietnamese in the U.S. are complex and dependent upon such factors as how familiar they are with an urban setting, their exposure to western culture, the time of arrival to the United States, and their level of preparation prior to resettlement. Overall, research regarding Vietnamese employment indicates that Vietnamese are doing reasonably well. However, for immigrants to a new country, language proficiency is a major factor that prevents them from obtaining high-paying jobs or jobs that would reflect their former educational and skill level. The survey reveals that 40% of respondents in the random sample had to change occupations because of limited English skills, 35% because of the different requirements for their occupation in the U.S., 30% because they have no license or credential in the U.S., and 22% because of lack of funds to keep the same occupation. Roughly one third of them reported having a better job now than they had in Vietnam. The public benefits group indicated that significant employment barriers were limited English (60%), different requirements for their occupation in the U.S. (34%), and the lack of a license or credential in the U.S. (32%).

Working Conditions

The average number of people living in a Vietnamese household is about four. In 36% of those cases, two of those four people are wage earners, and 18% of those households have three members working for wages. The average Vietnamese worker in Santa Clara County works 38 hours per week and 92% of respondents worked for only one employer. About one-half of the respondents reported working in a unionized job. About 27% do not have medical benefits, a pension, or a retirement plan, 24% have no paid vacation, and 20% have no sick leave. About 3 in 10 Vietnamese work swing shift, graveyard shift, or weekends.

Small Business

About 9% of Vietnamese in the random survey and 4% in the public benefits group reported one person in the family as self-employed or having a small business. The biggest barriers to starting or managing a business were about the same for both groups: not having a loan or enough money (57%), not knowing legal and permit requirements (55%), and not knowing enough English (50%) for the random sample. For the public benefits group the key barriers were not knowing enough English (68%), not having a loan or enough money (57%), and not knowing legal and permit requirements (46%).

Public Benefits in the Vietnamese Community

Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

Of the respondents from the public benefits survey, 51% do not know the requirements for SSI and 34% say that the money received from SSI is inadequate for Silicon Valley. In addition, 33% of respondents do not know the requirements of CalWORKs and 50% feel that the money received from CalWORKs is not enough. About 19% do not know food stamp requirements and 45% feel the food stamp amount received is inadequate. In addition, 74% of respondents do not know the requirements for General Assistance and 83% do not know the requirements for CAPI.

Culturally Competent Services

When asked whether or not Vietnamese feel respected by their MediCal county worker, 95% say that they feel respected and 87% feel that are treated with respect by their CalWORKs worker. Meanwhile, 43% of Vietnamese in Santa Clara County say that the five-year limit to be self-sufficient is too short and 83% feel that learning English is the most important aspect when searching for a job. For those who receive food stamps, 20% of respondents report not receiving written information in a language they understand. Also, 30% report that they do not get phone calls and orientations from MediCal personnel in Vietnamese and 24% report that the orientation to CalWORKs is not in a language they understand. This is also so with food stamps orientations (34%) and phone calls (44%).

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

In the random survey, 49% of respondents report having children under 18 in school. Of these, 72% indicate that they would prefer their child to be taught in English and their native language while only one out of five favor education in English only. Of the services that they receive in schools, 64% of the respondents attend parent meetings, 56% get information in a language they understand, 48% of the children receive school lunch or breakfast programs, 23% participate in after school activities, 22% receive counseling, and 16% have homework centers. In the public benefits group, 72% have children under 18 in school and 65% of them would prefer their children to be educated in English and their native language. They report receiving these services at school: school lunch or breakfast programs (77%), parent meetings (58%), information in a language they understand (45%), tutoring (26%), after school activities (25%), and counseling (18%).

Employment Training

Because of the language barrier and the pressure to provide for the family, many Vietnamese have found low-paying jobs that require limited English skills.

Those with employment skills comparable to the American market are more likely to obtain a higher-paying job. Most Vietnamese who were professionals in their home country are unable to continue their professions in the U.S. because of licensing and exam requirements. Of Vietnamese who have received job training in the U.S. the highest percentage of occupational training has been in the electronics/technician field (42%), mostly at a community college (25%), university (24%) or private business or institute (15%).


Of the respondents in the random survey, only 3% rated their English skills as excellent or good. Sixty-three percent of the respondents felt that their English skills were poor or non-existent, and 34% rated themselves as “average”. About 73% indicated that English is most needed for daily living situations, followed by employment needs (70%), filling out applications or paperwork (51%), and participating at a child’s school (35%). To learn English faster, 63% of respondents endorsed TV, having English-speaking friends (47%), having better weekday schedules (32%), and learning through audiocassette tapes (35%). In the public benefits group, English was considered important for employment (71%), filling out applications or paperwork (56%), participating at a child’s school (46%), and for continuing education (43%). The preferred ways of learning English quickly were: TV (60%), audiocassette tapes (39%), having English-speaking friends (38%), classes closer to home (36%), and better weekday class schedules (35%).


About 71% of the random sample and 20% of public benefits recipients were naturalized U.S. citizens. The greatest needs for citizenship services in the random sample were citizenship classes (40%), help in paying or waiving the $250 INS fee (22%) and filling out the application (19%). In the public benefits group, these needs were help in paying or waiving the $250 INS fee (42%), citizenship classes (40%), and help filling out the application (35%).

Communication and Outreach in the Vietnamese Community

Vietnamese in Santa Clara County reported receiving information mostly through Vietnamese newspapers (76%), Vietnamese radio (68%), Vietnamese TV (52%), and the San Jose Mercury News (44%). The vast majority of these families own radios, television sets, VCRs, and telephones. In addition, 65% of respondents had a home computer, 45% e-mail accounts, 35% internet access, 25% a fax machine, and 23% a newspaper subscription. The public benefits group reported similar sources of information with the only difference that friends replaces the San Jose Mercury News in level of importance. Fewer people in this group reported having computers (46%), e-mail accounts (19%), internet access (12%) and newspaper subscriptions (9%).

Vietnamese in Action

Although Vietnamese have only been in the U.S. for a quarter of a century, they have established many institutions and businesses, especially in Santa Clara County. Organizations include the Association for Viet Arts, the Bay Area Vietnamese American Professionals Alliance, Vietnamese American Cultural & Social Council, Gay Vietnamese Alliance, Association of Vietnamese Organizations of Northern California, and the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. Hundreds of Vietnamese businesses exist. Large festivals such as the Tet and Mid-Autumn Festivals are celebrated. The random survey from the summit showed that 36% of the respondents engage in school or parent organizations, 32% participate in a religious group, and 11% are active in a social issue campaign.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, data from 1998 showed that there were 1,645 engineers, 478 computer scientists, and 289 managers who are of Vietnamese descent. Vietnamese professionals and leaders include professors at San Jose State University and community colleges, medical doctors, CEOs and business owners, lawyers, high-level school administrators, recording artists, and executive directors of community agencies serving the Vietnamese community. Their valuable contributions are multiplied many times over by thousands of other Vietnamese men and women who make daily contributions in every walk of life.

Political participation by the Vietnamese community is accelerating. Student groups such as the Vietnamese Student Association and the Association of Vietnamese Organizations of Northern California are working towards creating a more politically active community. Furthermore, 71% of Vietnamese adults are naturalized U.S. citizens and 66% are registered to vote. The number of actual Vietnamese voters in the November 1990 election was 2,403. This increased to 11,768 in the March 2000 elections. As of December 6, 2000 there were 35,889 Vietnamese registered voters in Santa Clara County, a significantly larger number than immigrants registered to vote from any other country in the county.