Yendy Tsang investigates the history, customs and culture of Vietnam’s Chinese population, the Hoa people. Photo by Romain Garrigue.

Chinese people have left their footprint on almost every part of the world, after leaving their home shores seeking better lives (which sometimes meant better business environments). As a result, most international cities have a Chinatown.

In Vietnam, we are called the Hoa people, in which is sometimes mistranslated as “flower people”. We make up about 1% of the total population in Vietnam.

There used to be a lot more of us, but many ethnic Chinese people have left Vietnam since 1978.

And why did they leave? Well, it’s a long story.

A Look at History

Let’s start from with my grandfather’s generation. His father brought his family to Vietnam from China to escape the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1943.

When they arrived in Vietnam, the family was helped by Chinese people who were already living here. Some families, whose ancestors moved to Vietnam after the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 1600s, helped the “newbie” Chinese in getting familiar with the daily life.

Most of those early Chinese immigrants moved because they didn’t want to live under the rule of the Manchu people of the Qing dynasty.

Within Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, there are five different groups. The Cantonese are from Guangdong province; the Chaozhou are from the eastern of Guangdong province; the Fujian are from Fujian city in the southeast coast; the Hakka are from Guangdong and the north; and the Hainanese are from the southernmost island.

My family is Cantonese. “That’s why I told you since you were young to learn Cantonese,” my traditional grandpa, Tran Bieu, told me when I asked him about our family’s history.

In 1975, at the end of the Vietnam-American war, there were 1.8 million Hoa people living in Vietnam, and half of Saigon’s population was ethnic Chinese.

However, the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1978 made the relationship between the Hoa and the local government difficult. Restrictions were placed on businesses run by Hoa people, and as a result many chose to leave Vietnam. According to the last census, conducted in 2009, there are now just over 800,000 Hoa people in Vietnam.

Hoa People Today

Nowadays, the Hoa people live throughout Vietnam. However, only those living in Ho Chi Minh City and other southern provinces, such as Dong Nai and Bac Lieu, acknowledge their Chinese origins.

We have integrated with the Vietnamese community. Most, apart from some of the oldest family members, speak fluent Vietnamese. Some have intermarried with Vietnamese people and perform Vietnamese customs and traditions.

My family lives in District 11, one of the most crowded parts of Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, which spans 5, 8 and 10 as well as my own area. Our Chinatown has many Chinese-style houses, Chinese shops and (best of all) Chinese restaurants and food stalls.

The Hoa are known for being good at running business, and the different groups within the community are believed to excel at particular forms of commerce. For example, the Cantonese are believed to be good at textiles and manufacturing, the Fujian at trading, the Hakka at craft, the Hainanese at seafood trading and the Chaozhou mostly run small restaurants and grocery stores.

The Lifestyle of Hoa People

My 69-grandfather is always the first in the family to get up. He wakes 6am and goes for a walk in the park near our house. Afterwards he enjoys a bowl of Chinese noodles, a cup of tea and a chat with old friends.

“We, the retired people, gather in the park every morning for a walk,” he said. There are a lot of outdoor dance clubs for free in the mornings. When they start the music we can join if we like. It’s fun for the old people.”

“We favor a peaceful life and avoid coming into conflict with the Vietnamese,” he said. “The Hoa people believe that if any conflict happens, it’s hard to find a solution because the Hoa and the Vietnamese don’t understand each other well.”

My grandfather said trust is very important among Hoa people when doing business, with a lot of commercial relationships built on credit.

An old Hoa saying is: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Hoa people are hard-working. They love to run small businesses which means a lot of multi-tasking.

Luu Tuyet Han runs a small bookshop shop in District 11. “I sell learning tools like books, pens, and small cute things for the students,” she said.

“I only have one employee to help me look after the motorbikes when customers arrive, and he can help me whenever I need support. I’m the owner, accountant, sourcing controller and all other departments, if necessary.”

One of the features of the Hoa community is our holidays and worshipping customs. Despite having lived in Vietnam for generations, we still retain the beliefs and worships of our homeland.