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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: (Working) Guests Welcome




Hoang Thi Vung left her husband and son in Vietnam in 1990 and came to the Far East to work as a milkmaid on a collective farm.


Her husband, a former Vietcong soldier, was severely wounded during the Vietnam War and is still unable to work. Her son was 8 years old when she left. She has seen them once in the last 10 years, during a visit home.


Hoang Thi survived the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of a collective farm that simply stopped paying its employees, and the Russian winter that freezes the sea nearly a meter thick in the winter. She has managed to support her family back home by opening a stall in a Vladivostok market, selling slippers, Boss jeans, socks and bras.


Hoang Thi is one of about 1,000 Vietnamese who live in Primorye, the sliver of Russia that lies between China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan. Long the focus of Vietnamese interest in Russia, Primorye was once the home for thousands of Vietnamese, who came here to provide cheap labor for concrete manufacturers and collective farms. But even though their population has dwindled - pushed out by Chinese and North Korean laborers and Russia's economic crisis - Vietnamese remain a prominent presence in Vladivostok's open markets.


The Vietnamese of Vladivostok are part of a long tradition of trade and exchanges between Vietnam and Russia, and before that, the Soviet Union. The contacts date back decades, to the time when Vietnamese communists came to Moscow to plot their revolution against French colonial rulers. And as Russia's largest Pacific port, Vladivostok has always been an important city for Vietnam.


The Vietnamese have worked here in large numbers since 1981, when they began arriving in places like Partizansk, a coal-mining town that had a large sewing factory but a lack of skilled seamstresses. In 1992, when the formerly closed city of Vladivostok opened to foreigners, the two countries signed a deal to bring in 5,000 Vietnamese guest workers.


But today, the proximity of China and North Korea has made it easier for companies in need of cheap labor to import those workers. Approximately 8,750 Chinese and North Korean guest workers lay bricks and slop plaster in construction sites around the region.


Unlike the Vietnamese immigrants who came to the United States after the fall of Saigon, most Vietnamese in Russia have no intention of staying. The problem is scraping up enough money - and finding work at home.


Whether because of historic ties, or because Vietnamese are perceived as less of a threat than China, Vladivostok's Vietnamese have been more accepted than Chinese. Chinese have bore the brunt of the regional administration's "Operation Foreigner" - an attempt to expel undocumented aliens - and the governor's jingoistic rhetoric about border demarcation. Yet hostility toward the Vietnamese does occasionally pervade the offices that register foreigners.


"Those guys don't like to work hard," said Taisiya Rozhanskaya, head of the Labor Migration Department of the Primorye office of the Federal Migration Service. "All they do is trade in the markets."


In fact, the Vietnamese who trade in the markets often arrive earlier than Russian traders and stay later in the evening. But Dinh Van Tho, a 47-year-old trader in an open air market by the bus station, shrugs off the occasional expression of hostility. Some Vietnamese are prejudiced as well, he says. But as a Vietnam War veteran, he feels a strong camaraderie with Russians.


"The Soviet people at that time and the Russian people now are the best friends of the Vietnamese people," said Dinh, who supports his wife and children at home through a stall that sells boots and shoelaces.


Dinh has lived in Russia since 1988 and has taught himself to speak the language. Thus he serves as a translator in the Vtoraya Rechka market whenever taxmen, inspectors or the police show up.


Traders face a grim battle against the cold. The weather is especially punishing on those who have sedentary outdoor jobs such as standing around in a marketplace. However well a trader bundles himself up, the cold creeps through to the bone.


The adjustment is difficult for those who come from a warm climate. Yet some Vietnamese workers are paradoxically fascinated by the bitter cold.


"I actually like the Russian winter," Dinh said. "It's beautiful when it snows."


Then he added, "Russians say I have been here too long."