Employment of Vietnamese

During the first few years after the fall of Saigon, immigrants from the first wave of migration were employed in various different occupations. Jackie Bong-Wright, who we discussed earlier, started her professional career in the United States as a case manager for the Fairfax County Department of Social Services.[1] While this was certainly a step down in vocational prestige for someone who had earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in Vietnam and one in France, and who had served as “Director of Cultural Activities at Saigon’s Vietnamese American Association,” it was one that helped launch a very successful career in social service.[2] Another first wave migrant who experienced similar occupational success was Elyette Conein, wife of CIA agent Lucien Conein. “The granddaughter of a white French coffee plantation owner and his Vietnamese mistress, and the stepdaughter of the French official who ran the Hanoi transportations system, Elyette Bruchot was part of Hanoi’s colonial elite” and would work for several years as a ground flight attendant for various airlines.[3] In Northern Virginia, she began working in real estate for the agency Long & Foster.  “In 1985, she even made it into Long & Foster’s ‘Director’s Club’ for those with $2 to $3 million in settled sales volume.”[4] While they certainly were not employed in prestigious fields or benefitting from being members of high society, these two women made extremely successful careers for themselves in Alexandria and Northern Virginia.

The restaurant profession was a large market of employment for these Vietnamese refugees. There were three restaurants in particular that were run by Vietnamese refugees in Alexandria: Ambrosia Cafe, East Wind, and Nam’s River. These restaurants were not like other restaurants that were started by other immigrant groups, because they served primarily Vietnamese food. East Wind, established in 1981, was unique because it was seen as a high class restaurant that food that was perceived to be exotic, such as pho.[5] In contrast to East Wind, the Ambrosia Cafe was more “moderately-priced;” it not only served Vietnamese food but also was “more than a token number of classical French dishes.”[6] These restaurants are important as sites of cultural exchange between native-born Americans and Vietnamese refugees in Alexandria;  it was also a source of employment that helped refugees find jobs and hold on to their heritage.

The Eden Center in Fairfax County, which housed a large number of businesses catering to the Vietnamese community, also employed many Vietnamese refugees. “[J]ewelry stores, pastry shops, and restaurants” were all at the Eden Center as well as outdoor vendors who sold fresh fruit.[7] Today, the Eden Center has 120 stores; immigrants can do all transactions in Vietnamese.[8]  It has also become the social and cultural center of northern Virginia’s Vietnamese community.  In fact, Vietnamese all along the eastern seaboard travel to the Eden Center.

Another industry in which Vietnamese immigrants found a niche was that of nail salons. Credit for pioneering the nail salon industry in Northern Virginia goes to Binh “Gene” Nguyen. After completing his high school education in Los Angeles, Nguyen was convinced by his mother to learn how to style nails.[9] After mastering the trade, he decided to move to Alexandria, where there was much less competition.[10] Upon his arrival in Alexandria, Nguyen was instrumental in helping his family not only open up a nail salon, but also establish an academy, Nails for You, to teach the trade of nail styling.[11] Nguyen felt that by teaching fellow Vietnamese immigrants the trade, he helped better their futures by providing them opportunities in an industry where “‘they don’t need a lot of English, they don’t need a high education, and they don’t even need high skills.'”[12] At its height “from 1993 to 2000, the academy had two locations and as many as 200 students,” many of whom would go on to open their own salons in Northern Virginia.[13] Nail salons were an integral factor in helping Vietnamese immigrants settle and make a living in Alexandria, and Binh “Gene” Nguyen was instrumental in bringing the industry to the City of Alexandria.

[1] Jackie Bong-Wright, “About Jackie,” Jackie Bong Wright, accessed October 29, 2015, http://jackiebongwright.com/about-jackie/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Friedman, 144.

[4] Ibid, 162.

[5] Phyllis C. Richman, “East Wind,” The Washington Post, April 19, 1981, sec. Magazine.

[6] Joan Horwitt, “VIRGINIA DINING: Ambrosia Cafe,” The Washington Post, May 18, 1989, sec. VIRGINIA.

[7] Joseph Wood. “Vietnamese American Place Making in Northern Virginia.” Geographical Review 87, no. 1 (1997): 67-8.

[8] Jessica, Meyers. “Pho and Apple Pie: Eden Center as a Representation of Vietnamese American Ethnic Identity in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area, 1975-2005.” Journal of Asian American Studies 9, no. 1 (Feb 2006): 56-7.

[9] Luz Lazo, “In Northern Virginia, a Leader Among Vietnamese Immigrants.” The Washinton Post, July 9, 2012.

[10] Lazo, “In Northern Virginia, a Leader Among Vietnamese Immigrants.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.