Ethnic Vietnamese Families Discover Safety in Numbers

Just over the Vietnam Bridge, in a place the locals don’t call Phnom Penh, ethnic Vietnamese lead a tight-knit life between two worlds.

They came from Vietnam; most insist Cambodia is home. And these days, because of their dual identities, they live in a calm but ever-present fear.

“We are worried that this society is not safe, and we will have to escape again,” says Nginh Soeur.

He’s endured much uprooting in his 65 years. He came here many years ago from Vietnam, then returned during the Pol Pot regime—the first escape. In 1980, he and his family came back to Cambodia to open the Bassac riverfront restaurant they’ve had ever since.

“We pray for peace in order to make a living,” he says, then grows quiet.

This time, the worries stem from a recent rash of anti-Viet­namese sentiment, capped with the beating deaths of at least four Vietnamese accused of poisoning food and local water supplies. But health officials assure the food and water are safe.

Still, a panic swept Cambodians in the past week, leaving ethnic Vietnamese fearing reprisals.

“Honestly, the innocent people are worried,” says Chay Bun Hom, Nginh Soeur’s 33-year-old son.

He recalls other times of ethnic tension. “It’s usually when something happens, like the recent demonstrations.”

But this, Nginh Soeur says on his veranda with a clear view of Phnom Penh proper, is where he’ll stay. “I feel that my home is here.”

Ngouv Goi, his wife, nods in agreement. “It’s difficult to go back to Vietnam,” she says. Their house, their livelihood, their neighborhood compel them to remain.

As for the family’s Vietnamese heritage, “We feel nothing,” Nginh Soeur says with a tone that is indifferent, rather than negative.

Surrounded by Vietnamese and Cambodians alike, they have carved a niche in this enclave seemingly far from “the capital over there”—as many call it. The no-name restaurant doesn’t need one, Chay Bun Hom explains, because familiar faces know where it is.

This is a place where friends look after friends. “It is safer here because we clearly know the people, and people protect each other,” says So Savoeun, a relative.

The family, like many Vietna­mese in this area, doesn’t venture far from home. They’ve heard news of poisonings and beating deaths; they’ve observed a hush among friends and neighbors. But details remain sketchy.

“I never go too far from my workplace, so I don’t know too much,” says 21-year-old Then Le Van Than, an electrical technician sitting at a streetside stall on his lunch break.

He prefers a low-lying life. He doesn’t get involved in politics or current events too much. “In the morning, I go to work,” he says. “I go to lunch. I go home.”

He says he feels pity for the beating victims—“people of my nationality”—but he can’t say for sure what happened because he never goes to that other world across the bridge.

But Phung Thi Thuy Nga sees the aftermath. She sold cakes in the local market until last week when an ambulance came for customers who fell ill after eating fruit there. “Since then, I haven’t gone to the market to sell be­cause I am afraid,” she says.

Since 1979, Phung Thi Thuy Nga has divided her life between Vietnam and Cambodia. She came here for business, but frequently visits family in Vietnam.

She doesn’t want to say too much about Cambodian-Vietna­m­ese relations. “I dare not to say,” she says while a curious neighbor listens intently outside, clinging to the bars on the windows.

But 18-year-old At Son Tin, born here but Vietnamese by name and heritage, speaks in clear English: “After the elections, Vietnamese people have had a lot of problems with Cambodian people. Especially when you buy something in the market. They always say we poison people. I am very afraid of this problem.”

It weighs heavy on his mind.

“My life is in Cambodia forever,” he says. “Because now I think I am Cambodian. Now I think I am not Vietnamese.”

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