PUERTO PRINCESA CITY - A village established in the western Philippine province of Palawan for Vietnamese boat people who escaped after the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s continues to exist despite the departure of almost all refugees nearly a decade ago.
With only two of the more than 2,000 original migrants still there, the "Viet Village," located in a suburb of the Palawan capital Puerto Princesa City, has been serving another purpose in the local community for the past few years.
"Aside from being a historical mark and symbolizing the friendship and kindness of the Filipinos with the Vietnamese people here, we are able to introduce the Vietnamese cuisine and culture, especially that we have many tourists here," Huong Tran, 35, manager of a Vietnamese restaurant inside the village, told Kyodo News.
"We also assist Vietnamese fishermen who are caught in Philippine seas by providing them temporary shelter and serving as their translators," she said.
The 13-hectare village was built in 1997 on the initiative of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines with more than 200 cottages, a restaurant, a chapel, a pagoda, and a vast playground for children that included a basketball court, in culmination of the intervention of the Catholic Church for thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers.
Another camp was set up in Bataan Province west of Manila in 1980, but it was closed in the early 1990s as the arrival of refugees dwindled.
Tran said that as the bulk of the Vietnamese refugees in Puerto Princesa left in 2005 and 2006 to resettle, mostly in the United States, many of the houses were left to rot over the years, with only 20 units now remaining.
The village has now turned virtually into a woodland as many trees planted by the refugees have grown.
Tran said that of six Vietnamese families who live in the village, two were among the asylum seekers. The rest are either second-generation or are Vietnamese nationals who married Filipinos.
The two original refugees decided to stay in the Philippines because they already have their own families, Tran said.
"We honor the help of the Filipinos, for offering a helping hand to the Vietnamese people. It's only here in the Philippines where Vietnamese refugees have remained, and in fact, with their own village.
In Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia, all the refugees went through a repatriation program. In fact, in Malaysia, when the repatriation program was implemented, some who refused to go home to Vietnam committed suicide instead," Le Van Cong, Tran's husband, said in an earlier interview.
Having served the village, particularly the restaurant, since 2006 as Catholic missionaries, the couple said the continuing existence of the Vietnamese village gives them the opportunity to share the Vietnamese culture with Filipinos and foreign tourists who visit Palawan.
Tran said the restaurant specifically offers authentic Vietnamese food such as spring rolls, rice noodles and hotpot dishes.
"All food that we cook here is without monosodium glutamate. We cook in the traditional way. Most of our ingredients are from Vietnam. And the others, we grow here, like the lemon grass. We have a farm at the back," Cong said.
"Instead of going to Vietnam, local and foreign tourists in Palawan can come here and experience Vietnamese culture," Cong said.
But Tran said the number of customers has noticeably gone down in recent years because of increased competition after at least two other restaurants began offering Vietnamese cuisine in the city.
But she said it is important to keep the restaurant alive because it also provides livelihood to Filipinos.
Their role assisting arrested Vietnamese fishermen began in 2006.
"Almost always, I am the interpreter. And we help them with the legal matters so they can eventually go back to their homes (in Vietnam)," Cong said, adding they have already assisted hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen.
He said Vietnamese fishermen continue to cross into Philippine territory because poverty compels them to take advantage of the "very rich" resources in the area, such as in the Spratlys, where the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have competing claims.
"Every now and then, I tell them not to catch sea turtles, even in Vietnam. But they say they are poor, and so they don't care," Cong said.
Chinese and Vietnamese have been the main foreign poachers in the Philippines since 1995, taking not only fish but also endangered marine species such as hawksbill turtles and green sea turtles.
Tran said that for as long as the church continues to support the existence of the Vietnamese Village, as it does now, she sees no reason for their small community to have a bleak future.
"Up to now, I have not found any problem here. I have the support of the people, the government and the Catholic Church. We are very much welcome here. That's one of the factors why we continue to stay here," Cong said.
Most Vietnamese asylum seekers left the Philippines after the United Nations cut off funding for Vietnamese refugee camps throughout Asia in 1996.