Saigon's Chinese--going, going, gone

Vietnam's Chinese community had prospered over the years. Merchants of Chinese origin monopolized wholesale trade in the south and dominated manufacturing and retail trade. The descendants of refugees from the collapsing Ming dynasty, who settled in Vietnam in the mid-17th century, were substantially assimilated. Yet the majority, offspring of much more recent migrants, maintained their regional Chinese cultures. As in many other parts of Southeast Asia, their outsider status and economic success created resentment among locals.

Greed, ideology and paranoia made the largely bourgeois Chinese community a natural target for the victorious northerners. Within a year of Saigon's fall, the Communists singled out Chinese immigrants as a principal obstacle to Vietnam's construction of a Soviet-socialist economy. As Hanoi's relations with Beijing deteriorated, it began to regard Vietnam's Chinese as a potential fifth column. Although there was little to no evidence of their guilt in either respect, the Chinese community's relative wealth was an irresistible target for the cash-strapped victors in the civil war.

Late in 1976, the regime closed all Chinese language schools and newspapers. In 1978, private enterprise in the south was nationalized. Members of the Chinese community who could afford to flee the tightening noose did so, abetted by officials who extorted their dollars, gold and jewels. First a trickle, then a flood of "boat people" washed up on the beaches of neighboring countries. Up to 1982, two-thirds of the half-million refugees who survived storms and pirate attacks were Chinese.

The anti-Chinese contagion spread to the north. Exasperated by Beijing's support of the stridently anti-Vietnamese Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and perhaps anticipating an attack by China's People's Liberation Army, Hanoi pushed Chinese families across the border into Guangxi. Others left voluntarily. Ironically, many had fought for the Viet Minh against the French and for the Hanoi government against the Americans.

By the 1989 census, the number of Chinese in Vietnam had halved to 900,000; today they make up less than 1 percent of the population. A handful of Chinese temples and clan houses in Cholon and the restored 17th century trading port of Hoi An now welcome tourists. And since 2007, the Ho Chi Minh City government has sponsored an annual Chinese Cultural Festival.

But these are exceptions: for the most part, Chinese cultural life has gone indoors. Southern Vietnam's gold dealers and wholesale traders are still overwhelmingly of Chinese extraction, but they have assimilated. Their children are rarely literate in Mandarin; often they do not speak their ancestors' dialect. Many have married out of minority status, taking on their spouse's Vietnamese ethnicity.

In important respects, Vietnam's Chinese have become indistinguishable from their neighbors—so successfully that, although crowds may form to protest against Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, no one thinks of taking revenge on the Chinese merchant family next door.