Soot and smoke rise from clothes dying carts fronting the weed-filled park and overflowing
garbage dumpsters next to Psah Chah (Old Market) in Phnom Penh.
There, several Vietnamese families eke out a living on the streets. Under the shade
of an umbrella or torn awning, they have set up open air "shops" on the
crumbling cement sidewalks, where they dye second-hand clothes from Singapore or
repair bicycles and motorcycles.
Most of this group of five families have lived in Cambodia all their lives except
during the 1970s, when pogroms by Lon Nol and Pol Pot forced them back to Vietnam.
But with Cambodia's relative prosperity in recent years, many have returned to Phnom
Penh, where a daily income of 2,000 riel (about U.S. $1) is considerably better than
they could make in Vietnam.
"I wanted to make money, so I came to Cambodia," says Tran Dung, his hands
smudged with black dye. Tran-who is ethnic Vietnamese but was born in Cambodia-hopes
to stay in Cambodia indefinitely.
If he could vote, he says, he would vote for Sihanouk. "My wife is Khmer,"
he says. "She grew up during Sihanouk's time and she remembers Sihanouk treating
Vietnamese like his nieces and nephews."
Across the street, Ieng Van Noeun hunches next to a motorbike he is repairing while
his wife dyes clothes from their cart.
Asked whether he and his wife fear anti-Vietnamese violence or reprisals, Noeun says,
"We're just like them," motioning to a rickety shack sheltering several
Khmer squatters, forced to the city from their farms in Pursat by the drought. "But
if there's a problem we can go back to Vietnam."
Noeun will be able to vote in next year's election, since both he and his parents
were born here. Unlike many Khmer, he is not reticent about sharing his political
"I support Hun Sen," he says. "If Hun Sen disappears, we worry. We'd
vote for Hun Sen because he's the one who supports us-if we get to vote."
His wife,, 38, Keo Sokhan, is ethnic Khmer. She says that many Vietnamese are fearful
because of incidents like the massacre in July of two Vietnamese families in Kampot
"Of course we're afraid of the Khmer Rouge, " she says. "If they come
in like that, we have to run back to Vietnam."
Both Noeun and Keo are fluent in Khmer, which makes a big difference. "If you
can't speak Khmer, you have problems," Noeun says. "We don't tell anyone
As to why Khmer and Vietnamese frequently don't get along, he says: "The Khmer
Rouge hate us because when they attacked Vietnam, Vietnam invaded. Of course they
Another friend, Bot Nguyen, 42, chimes in. "But if Vietnam didn't attack, all
Khmer would have died," he says. "If Vietnam didn't help them, there wouldn't
be a Cambodia."
It begins to rain, and the families crowd in under the awning, next to the steaming
vats of dye. Another clothes dyer, Hung, 31, comes from mixed heritage, born of a
Chinese father and Vietnamese mother-both of whom were born in Cambodia.
Hung was born near Chroy Changwar Bridge in Phnom Penh, but escaped to Vietnam during
the Khmer Rouge regime. "I came back three years ago because there's no money
there," he says. "It's a good life here."
Hung would vote for Hun Sen, he says, "because he fought together with the Vietnamese
and chased Pol Pot."
CHATOMUK: Construction Crew
In the middle of a sidestreet next to Wat Buthom a group of workers shovel gravel
and mix cement, while others cart baskets of bricks and gravel to a four-story concrete
villa they are building.
The construction crew is a mixed group: Vietnamese workers perform the skilled jobs
such as plastering or bricklaying while Khmers work as day laborers, carting dirt
and bricks. Currently eight Vietnamese and 14 Khmers work on the construction crew.
Sitting in a shack that has been temporarily erected on the edge of the building
site, foreman Pham Van Tep, 30, explains that over the last five months Vietnamese
workers have arrived to work at the site on a temporary basis to perform specialized
"We're migrant workers," Pham says. "The bricklayers just left two
weeks ago-this group here now are the plasterers. We finish tomorrow."
Before starting this job two weeks ago, Pham worked under a different contractor
on a plastering job in Kompong Som.
"We hear about the jobs by word of mouth," he explains. "People come
back to Vietnam and tell us where the work is."
Pham had never worked in Cambodia before the Kompong Som contract, but said it was
easy to cross the border. "You don't need paperwork to work in Cambodia,"
he says. "I just showed my Vietnamese I.D. card and they let me over. "
Pham attributes the animosity between Khmers and Vietnamese to "an old anger
or revenge they have against Vietnam."
"But we don't have any problems on the work sites because we work at different
tasks," he says.
Sometimes, Pham says, he's stopped by Khmer police when he rides his motorcycle.
"If you don't speak Cambodian, they penalize you," he says. "They'll
make me pay money for something harmless, like the way I button my shirt."
Pham's wife, Nguyen Ti Nguyet, 30, says many Vietnamese are coming to work in Cambodia
these days. "It's easier to live over here," she says. "You can make
The workers say the peace agreement had nothing to do with them coming-it was the
demand for work that brought them to Cambodia.
"There are too few Cambodian skilled laborers," said Nguyen. "Cambodians
didn't have these kind of [brick and concrete] structures before."
Pham says most of the Vietnamese soldiers who were stationed in Cambodia have gone
home. "Only a small faction remain, " he says. "You can't tell most
of them are Vietnamese because they speak Cambodian. Those who remain stayed not
because of government policy, but to make money."
Pham says he'll stay in Cambodia until the work dries up, although he doesn't want
to settle here permanently.
Another woman on the construction crew, Tran Im, adds, "All the Vietnamese will
probably be repatriated before the election. They want to stabilize, so they'll send
all the Vietnamese back."
The plasterers' job ends the next day, and by nightfall they are gone and their shack
CHBA AMPOV: Breadsellers
Crossing the Bassac River at Monivong Bridge, Highway One goes all the way to Vietnam.
First stop for many travellers heading southeast out of the city is the bustling
Chba Ampov market, just the other side of the bridge.
Women and teenagers carrying wicker baskets of freshly baked French bread mob the
convoys of Peugeot and Toyota taxis that carry passengers and produce from the market
to outlying provinces or on to Vietnam.
Large numbers of ethnic Vietnamese living on the banks of the Bassac River or working
in the market have given Chba Ampov its nickname: Little Ho Chi Minh City.
Breadseller Tran Tu, 16, moved to Cambodia from Vietnam when he was very young. "The
Cambodians beat me up at school," he says. "I have Vietnamese friends and
sometimes we fight back. But there are too many of them and too few of us, so we
lose a lot. But we are smarter, so they hate us."
Vay Nguyen 41, who sells sweet flat cakes, says, "We can make money here because
we know how to make good bread. It's better than [working in] Vietnam because there's
no tax here."
Breadseller Hoa Pham goes back to Vietnam several times a year. "If we could
vote, I would vote for Hun Sen," she says. "But if he loses it's not so
hard because we can get on a bus and go back to Vietnam. You leave in the morning
and in the afternoon you're back home."
OLYMPIC MARKET: Coffee Clatch
Down the aisle from the Chinese gold merchants and money changers in Olympic Market
are several noodle soup and pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) restaurants, clustered
together under the market's broad awning.
Thirty years ago Dong Thap worked as a chef at South Vietnamese President Thieu's
"White House" and one of Saigon's luxury restaurants, the Caravelle. But
today Dong, 62, waits tables for free in a friend's restaurant in the market, in
exchange for room and board.
Dong came to Cambodia six months ago out of desperation. The last ten years in Vietnam
have been tough for him financially. Twice he tried to escape by boat to the United
States but was caught and arrested both times.
"It's impossible to find work in Vietnam," he says. "It's all connection
with the party. If no connection, no job."
Dong supported himself in Vietnam as a trader, traveling from city to city buying
and selling sewing machines. But that option ended, he says, when the Vietnamese
police tightened up security.
"Cambodia was my last option," he says.
Asked about relations between Khmers and Vietnamese in Phnom Penh, Dong says: "Before,
in 1979, they treated us different because Vietnam saved them from the Khmer Rouge.
But in the last four or five years there's been a shift in attitude. They see Vietnamese
as below them because now there are more Cambodians who are wealthy. They see Vietnamese
as migrant workers, and call us 'yuon.'"
"Calling us 'yuon'-it's as if they look at Vietnamese as if we have no inherent
value. But if you think about it, Vietnamese have been building their country-literally-and
have helped Cambodia a lot. The construction workers are all Vietnamese."
Dong says he's often persecuted in Cambodia. "If they know you're Vietnamese,
they'll punish you for meaningless violations," he says.
Dong-who had his own schooling disrupted by the Japanese invasion of Vietnam during
World War II-attributes the animosity between Khmers and Vietnamese to a lack of
education in Cambodia.
"A lot of them are not educated," he says. "A lot are rural people.
They simplify things, and see Vietnamese as coming over and stealing all their gold.
People think even Saigon used to belong to Cambodia.
"But if you look at the map-the S-shape of Vietnam-how can anyone think it's
still part of Cambodia?"
Dong admitted that these days, he often fears for his safety. "I'm afraid, but
I don't feel like I've done anything wrong," he says. "I'm not a thief,
not a robber-I'm just an old man trying to make money."
Sitting quietly across from the table while Dong is talking is an older man, with
a long gray beard. A regular customer at the noodle shop and a good friend of Phap,
it turns out the elderly gentleman is not Vietnamese, but Khmer. Born in Pursat province,
he understands some Vietnamese language, but can't speak it so well.
"Cambodians and Vietnamese are like family," says Sem Saye, 65, sipping
a glass of Vietnamese filter coffee-cafe phin. Holding an ornately carved wooden
staff, he introduces himself as a kru khmer (Cambodian traditional healer).
The restaurant owner's son, Song Lam Tai, 23-an ethnic Chinese born in Cambodia-joins
the group at the table. His father met Dong in Vietnam, where the family fled in
1972 during the Lon Nol years. Returning to Cambodia in 1979, the family has been
able to establish a business here.
Rounding out the circle of friends in this coffee clatch is Yat Chou, 16. The youngest
of the group, he's an orphan who the other men look after and help support. Fluent
in both Khmer and Vietnamese, Yat was born in the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam
inhabited by many ethnic Khmer, known as Kampuchea Krom. While he considers himself
Khmer-not Vietnamese-Yat Chou will not be able to vote in Cambodia because he was
not born here.
"The southerners from the Mekong Delta all rush here, " says Dong, the
former chef. "Two thousand riel a day is good here. You can starve in Vietnam
otherwise. That's why this boy-and I-are here."
- Pacific News Service Associate Editor Andrew Lam contributed to this report.