Return to 'Nam

by Russell Brown / 29 December, 2007
A 12-year-old escapee from the "American war" has carved out a life for himself in New Zealand and is rebuilding his connections with his Vietnamese homeland.
When Mitchell Pham's mother quietly woke him early one morning in 1984, he knew his life was about to change. She had a bag packed for him. You're going on a trip to the countryside, she said, but don't wake your brother and sister or they might get jealous.

"And she gave me a big kiss," he recalls. "It was from the way my mum kissed me on that day that I sort of knew it was not going to be a normal day."

He was 12. He would be 25 before his mother kissed him again.

These quiet, early starts were not entirely unfamiliar. When the Vietnam war (which the Vietnamese call the American war) ended in 1975, Mitchell's father, Nghi Dinh Pham, was on the wrong side. An engineer by training, he had worked in a senior managerial role on the national electricity system. When the Communists moved in and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, he lost his job.

Twice, in 1980 and 1981, the family tried to join the postwar exodus from South Vietnam. Twice they were caught; the second time they were briefly imprisoned. The two attempts drained the family's savings. Although Nghi Dinh was enterprising - he launched a string of businesses, from a fish farm to an ice-cream factory - he had no prospect of saving enough for another family escape attempt. But for one member of the family, the first-born son, there was a chance.

Looking at Pham now, it's easy enough to see why his parents thought him capable of the journey. He is organised, assiduous, hard-working and dedicated to Augen, the New Zealand IT company he formed with friends at university. His father says he was always an independent child.

Given all that, it's still a credit to the 12-year-old that he survived the days after that morning departure. It began modestly enough, with a trip to a fishing village with a relative, as if it were the holiday his mother had promised. Then, late one night, he was woken again to join a group walking towards the river.

Two rowboats waited to take them to a fishing boat ("a 12-and-a-half metre boat", Pham recalls precisely). It weighed anchor with 67 people crammed in the hold, where the catch would normally be stowed.

"It was the most horrible environment that I have ever been in," says Pham. "You know, the fishy smell. It was very dirty as well, and there was the smell of a lot of sweaty people, some of them being sick because of the fishy smell."

Coastguards, probably paid to miss, let loose a few shots, but by sunrise the boat was at sea. Mitchell clambered up onto the cabin, staking his place for the voyage. After three days, the boat ran out of food. The next day, water supplies were exhausted, then fuel. Then a great white Swedish cruise liner hove into view.

The escapees shouted and waved T-shirts and a makeshift SOS sign and the liner pulled up alongside, railings crowded with tourists with cameras. And then it steamed away, without leaving fuel, food or water. Its wake nearly sank the tiny craft.

"Maybe it wasn't commercially viable to pick up some refugees," Pham deadpans. "It gave me an interesting perspective on life and people."

He felt "despondent, helpless". But, ironically, the liner's wake set them on their way. They began to drift again. Another giant vessel, this one an oil tanker, appeared on the horizon "like a floating city".

The oil company was more charitable than the cruise company. The refugees were brought aboard, fed and given medical attention. Two hours after the rescue, a violent tropical storm blew through, smashing their boat to pieces.

The refugees were dropped off at a small Indonesian island; three weeks later, they were transferred to a permanent refugee station at Pulau Galang. That was home for six months, until a transfer to a larger camp on the same island where, over the next year, the process of assigning destination countries was worked through.

Around the same time, Pham's parents were finally told he was alive. It would be two years before he knew that they knew.

"Physically people dealt with [the camps] pretty well," he says, "but psychologically a lot of people didn't deal with it - they went crazy. By the time I got there, some people had already been there, in limbo, for nearly 10 years. You just try to survive and get by and wait for the day that you can migrate to a country of choice."

Pham knew he would choose New Zealand. A family friend had been living here since arriving under the Colombo Plan in the 1950s, and even in Vietnam he had formed an image of a place that was green, open and, above all, peaceful. He spent hours in the camp library reading everything he could about his prospective new home.

Eventually, he heard his first New Zealand English ("That was very exciting") from an Air New Zealand hostess. Reaching New Zealand at last, he spent six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Centre while sponsor families were found. He went to Auckland's Lynfield College, where he was one of only four Asians; the others were "Kiwi Chinese".

"I was probably the only really odd one out," he recalls, "so that was a bit of a struggle for a few years. But I think I've always been a very independent person, much to my parents' grief when I was younger. I remember making my own choices as to what I wanted to do with my life when I was seven."

He lived with a series of families, then flatted, all the while going through the official process required to fulfil "my main mission in coming to New Zealand" - sponsoring the rest of his family to get them out of Vietnam. He had the paperwork done by his second year of university. But his parents no longer wanted to come.

They made the right decision, he says - the situation in Vietnam was improving and they had friends, family and a business that gave them a living. But "I was devastated for a while. I couldn't achieve the mission - it was taken away."

By the time he saw his family again, in Vietnam, it was 1998 and his company was growing. He travelled back annually until two years ago, when he established Augen's first foreign subsidiary: Augen Vietnam.

District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, is only a five-minute ferry ride across the Saigon River from the centre of Vietnam's bustling commercial centre, but it feels like another world. The rough market lane winding away from the ferry terminal has its moments of modernity - car accessories, electronic goods, the inevitable internet café - but the ambience is that of a country village. A few metres from the road, a traditional system of dams still does its job of irrigating crops and managing floods.

This is where Pham grew up. It reminds him of New Zealand: "Obviously, the landscape's different, but the open space and the countryside - growing up there was similar."

His old home is in a compound set back from the street, taking in a jumbled office and workshop, where a string of businesses have been run, as well as a pagoda built by his father to house the family's ancestral shrines. The pagoda is surrounded by a pond full of small fish, which will be hauled out on bread-baited hooks and fried whole for a dinner banquet.

In three years' time, this will all be gone. The government has earmarked District 2 for urbanisation and will pay landowners compensation (about a third of the land's commercial value) to clear off, making them casualties of the same startling economic transformation that brings Pham back. He is Viet Kiew now: part of the post-communist diaspora returning to help stoke an economy that will field $US20 billion in foreign direct investment this year - double what it got last year.

Pham betrays little bitterness towards the country that circumstances forced him to leave 23 years ago.

"They are actually different people," he explains. "There have been many different leaders here. The very first generation of government leaders after the war were warriors from the trenches. And then the next generation was more educated, and then the next one was more educated again.

"Now you have extremely well educated leaders who have studied in America and Europe and have masters and PhDs in economics."

Augen Vietnam is based at Quang Trung Software Park, a former US military base on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City that sprouts unevenly with swiftly built towers. With only 12 local staff, the company is tiny, but Mitchell proudly regards it as a "Kiwi company".

Some American Viet Kiew in the IT business are hard-nosed, running their companies like big, bland galley ships. By contrast, Augen lets its young Vietnamese staff make design decisions on software and talk directly to New Zealand clients. Several of its New Zealand staff are learning Vietnamese.

One day, Pham will probably be back to live with his own family. For now, he has plans to pursue, including expansion into other parts of Asia, perhaps with Augen acting as a kind of ambassador for other New Zealand companies. He's an ace networker. And he's still glad he chose New Zealand.

"You saw a Kiwi company, an American company and then you saw a Japanese company," he observes as we depart from a day at Quang Trung. "And, you know, the Kiwi company is different."

Russell Brown travelled to Vietnam with the assistance of the Asia New Zealand Foundation

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