Vietnam’s New Wealth

Today one year ago I returned from Vietnam. I had set off as a tourist on a holiday. But just a few hours after landing I was writing.

I was struck. Mercedeses, BMWs and Lexuses frequented streets of big Vietnamese cities. Girls on high heels and men in suits walked in and out of houses of Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. Occasionally one could spot a Rolls Royce, a Jaguar or a Bentley making its way thorough the swarm of bikes and motorbikes. Land in some neighborhoods was almost as expensive as land in Hong Kong.

I wanted to see what the up-and-coming generation of Vietnamese looked like. Who were the graduating youth who would start shaping the country’s future in a few years? How did they envision it?

This story wraps up a two-week trip totaling 2000 miles on trains, motorbikes, bikes, buses and foot. I went to universities and businesses; met with educators, students, ordinary hardworking Vietnamese and managers of international companies. I made some friends and some reckless decisions. I was trying to find a pattern how one could succeed in the rapidly developing country.

Giai Phong expressway in the capital Hanoi accommodates three of Vietnam’s best universities – Hanoi University of Science and Technology, National University of Civil Engineering, and National Economics University. In the evening students erect nets on the sidewalk to play badminton. Just feet from them, thousands of motorbikes and cars jam on the congested artery which sucks in traffic from southern Vietnam.

Tran Thi Thu Huong, who majors in economics at National Economics University, walked me around her campus. She spoke quickly and walked even more swiftly, jumping every now and then.

Huong excitedly explained that they studied in English with textbooks written by American professors. She proudly proclaimed that Philipp Rösler, the Federal Minister of Economics and Technology and the Vice Chancellor of Germany, paid a visit to her university the previous week to foster connections between Vietnam and Germany.

But similarities with Western education ended here.

We passed by a massive unfinished building which would become a research center. The construction had started a few years ago. It was still unclear when it would be completed though. Inflation devaluates the Vietnamese dong and the government often cuts funds for education to cope with the deficit.

Corruption is well-spread either. It is not uncommon for professors, who make around $500 a month, to ask students for bribes for higher grades, said Huong wringing her hands. The Vietnamese government censure inhibits flow of information and hinders development. Bloggers are prosecuted. Facebook is banned. And so is YouTube.

Even so, today’s students are exposed to less propaganda than their parents were. The state has retreated from private life in some important ways – people are free to choose where to live, work and travel. For less than 20 years, the country has become a textbook example for transition from a centrally planned to a socialist-oriented market economy. Vietnam has risen from an extremely poor to a middle-income country.

And yet, the new wealth is available to few, primarily party-related individuals. Most in the 87.8-million country live in destitution. And unless Vietnam gets its education on the right track, it may not go further on the ladder of economic development.

The higher echelon of professors is trained in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. By large, they do not speak English and are hostile to younger, Western educated colleagues. Older generation lecturers expect students to revere and never question them. Interaction and debate are uncommon.

“Everything we learn is just listen to the professor. The professor say and we just hear,” said Viet Duc, a History and Culture major in Hanoi.

Many college graduates aspire to get white-collar jobs at Vietnamese manufacturing operations of multinational companies like PepsiCo and Unilever. The companies pay several thousand dollars a month. But it is hard: Vietnamese universities follow antiquated curricula and theory lacks linkage with practical training. The discord produces under-qualified cadres, who are uncompetitive.

Intel’s struggle to hire engineers to staff its manufacturing facility in Vietnam tells a lamentable story. In 2010, the California-based company cut the ribbon in Ho Chi Minh City of its largest assembly and test factory worldwide. But when it administered a standardized assessment test to 2,000 Vietnamese IT students, only five percent (90 candidates) passed, and less than half of them (40 individuals) were sufficiently proficient in English to be hired.

On the notice boards of the National Economics University, I saw only two postings. None of them advertised a job or internship though. Both recruited youth communist party members.

A paper by Thomas J. Vallely and Ben Wilkinson from the Ash Institute at Harvard Kennedy School identifies a key difference between the most prosperous Asian countries. South Korea, Taiwan and China have developed advanced economies through excellence in higher education. Other others like Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia have been less successful and are still struggling to rise.

If true, this does not bode well for Vietnam. The modernization of its educational system is lagging behind. Some of the smartest kids go abroad. Those who stay face outdated facilities and ossified mentality.

Universities lack the habit to market themselves and expect talented students to simply walk onto their campuses. At the same time, Australia, Western Europe, United States, and emerging powerhouses like Singapore and South Korea drain Vietnamese brains by bidding for the smartest students with generous financial packages. Singapore, for example, offers full-ride scholarships (tuition, room and board) to bright Vietnamese, who commit to work in Singapore for at least six years after graduation.

If everything went by plan, Hien Duy, 23, chemistry graduate of Hue University of Sciences would be leaving his home country this year to complete a doctorate degree at a Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea.

I met Hien in his home city Hue – a calm historical town of 340,000 in central Vietnam. He picked me up from the train station. Hien was lean but shook hands firmly.

He wanted to study in Vietnam. But his family could not afford it – materials for laboratory research, test tubes and substances, totaled up to $3,000 yearly – about half the combined annual income of his parents.

After a lengthy search, he had come across a scholarship that would pay for 50 percent of his tuition fee at a Korean university. The remaining 50 percent, plus living expenses, would be covered from the personal savings of a professor at the university, whom Hien had first found online.

Hien’s mother teared when she learnt her son was leaving, Hien said. He had never been abroad. But he likes Korean movies and he has started studying Korean.

Hien lived in a typical Vietnamese two-storey house. His green-walled study room was small and modestly furnished – a bed, a white board, a desk, and two small bookcases. The 1800-page edition of Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary lied on one of the shelves. As we spoke, all glass objects in his room trembled and chairs and tables traversed the floor. Thundering music poured through the open windows and solid walls from a wedding in a house across the street.

Hien explained he had learnt English from Cartoon Network, Discovery Channel and BBC World News. His family could not have afforded a tutor. A year ago he sat the IELTS, a standardized test of English language proficiency, required for study abroad, and his family paid a $160 registration fee, which almost equals the monthly salary of his mother, who works as a nurse.

Hien’s father, a chemist for a company that extracts valuable minerals, makes between $300 and $400 a month. As a PhD student in South Korea, Hien will receive $1000 monthly salary – more than the combined income of his parents.

But even more staggering is the earnings disparity within Vietnam: Hien teaches part-time English. He works 120 hours a month and is paid $70 a month – roughly 60 cents an hour. His student is the girl of an affluent family, whose parents will pay out-of-pocket a six digit number to educate her at a community college in Seattle, Wash.

Hien received his bachelor’s degree from Hue University of Sciences, an important regional institution of higher education in the country. It teaches around 5,000 students in 13 faculties varying from physics and environmental sciences to architecture, geography and journalism.

I visited the school early in the morning. Students warmed up with an hour physical exercise. My guide on campus, Hien’s academic advisor, showed off with a newly completed student center – a cubic five-floor building filled with classrooms.

But what grabbed my attention was the place from which he tried to keep me off:

In the back yard of Hue University of Sciences, a few brand new cars – such as Honda Avante, priced at $25,000 – were parked. A car is a luxury in Vietnam. Almost everyone rides a motorbike, which costs a few hundred dollars.

I wondered how some professor could afford such a possession. So, for a few hours I questioned more than 40 staff, faculty and student members who walked the halls of the university. Most said professors worked “very hard.” Some indicated they gave “private lessons.” But few would say more. Everyone laughed uneasily. And no one spoke on the record.

No one could explain me as well how it was possible cars for tens of thousands of dollars to be parked in the schoolyard, when talented students had to go study abroad because their families could not afford to buy educational materials.

After graduating in South Korea, Hien wants to return to Vietnam to do research and teach at his university. Or at least that is what he said.

We strolled around the tranquil Purple Forbidden City – a walled fortress in Hue where Vietnam’s last ruling family, the Nguyen dynasty, resided until the last emperor Bao Dai abdicated from the throne in 1945.

“I really love living in a socialism country,” Hien said. He explained how good the government was at removing social tension – it always had the right regulations and strategies – nearly everyone had a job, even though it was low paid.

I reminded him that the government didn’t give him the opportunity to study. He evaded the question and explained the atmosphere in Vietnam was peaceful and people were friendly, as opposed to “the typical example in America and Europe.”

The typical example was “terrorism and 9/11” in the U.S. and “conflict between religion and ethnicity” in Europe. State television had reported this, he said.

“Are there people who do not like the government,” I asked.

“I do not know exactly but all my relatives love the government,” he answered emphasizing more slowly and loudly “all my relatives love.”

I asked if he could get in trouble, had he responded otherwise. Hien laughed and said he didn’t understand politics very much.

“So you are coming back to Vietnam after graduating in from South Korea,” I asked. “Yes, of course.” But he was planning to first work in South Korea for “a few years.”

I didn’t want to press Hien too hard.

“Local people can get into serious trouble for speaking with you against the party,” had warned me Lam Nguyen, 21, who had recently graduated with Business Administration degree from a university in Finland.

We dined in a touristy restaurant in the city center of Hanoi. “Someone might be listening [eavesdropping] right now, at this very moment as we sit here,” Lam said. We conversed how one could climb up the ladder in Vietnam without party connections.

Two summers ago Lam did a marketing internship for a nationwide Vietnamese company, which imports wine from France and Australia. He went through a relatively normal application process, not very different from a one in Western Europe.

But still, there was corruption. “Especially in the bigger companies and especially in the public sector,” he said. You need to have “relationships” and even then is hard to move up.

A way to evade the vicious circle is launching own business.

Lam’s father, Son Nguyen, epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit, which has been driving Vietnam forward. He is the founder of TaxiNet, a cab company that has grown to become one of the ten largest in Hanoi. Nguyen studied radiology in Ukraine during the Soviet Union era but returned to Vietnam. He then started a business with VoIP calls. It failed. He then attempted to make a living by designing websites. It didn’t work out either.

Eventually, Nguyen decided to start a taxi company which would allow people to call cabs via Yahoo Messenger to save up on phone bills. People didn’t adopt the high tech idea, but his taxi company grew. Today it operates a few hundred vehicles.

This year Lam is a first year business graduate student at University of Nebraska at Omaha in the U.S. After graduating he wants to come back and run his own company.

“I want to be my own boss. I want to be a CEO like my father,” Lam said beaming.

Every morning a few hundred people gather for morning practice on Ba Dinh Square in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi. At 6 a.m. honor guards march into the five-hectare square to raise the national flag and play the Vietnamese anthem. State television VTV1 broadcasts a recording of the ceremony.

On my last day, I walked to the square before sunrise. Youth and elder – wearing trainers with the logos of Wilson, Nike and Kappa – jogged, stretched, contemplated or just walked through the dewed grass. Distant hum of motorbike engines and horns floated.

At 6 a.m. everyone froze. People stopped whatever they were doing and stared at the red flag with golden star in the center. Some did it because they felt compelled by the communist apparatus. Others seemed to still wholeheartedly believe in the teachings of Marx and Engels.

It was an ostentatious ceremony. Even though, state propaganda has greatly retreated in recent years and manifestation of Western lifestyle, brands and habits is taking its place.

Youth are well-aware how their peers in other nations live. Youth are more and more imitating their lifestyle and are craving to attain their standard of living. The desire is placing an increasing pressure on policy makers, who have to either make meaningful reforms or risk political instability.

A few hours after the raising of the flag on Ba Dinh Square, I sat in a cab taking me to the airport. I stared through the open window and reflected.

On Nguyen Thuong Hien Street, a huge red billboard extolled the party. Next to it, a three-storey red KFC restaurant was filled with youth having a date or hanging out with friends.

The brightly-lit house of Gucci stood next to Hanoi Opera House. So did the logo of Playboy.

Youth wore sneakers, drank Coke and played Angry Birds on their first-generation iPhones with rounded corners. Students read about technology innovations on BBC news, typed assignments on portable computers, and despite the government censure, communicated on Facebook.

We stopped on a traffic light. Three kids walking on the sidewalk waved and greeted me with something that sounded like “Chào bạn!” I smiled to them and nodded back. They wore communist uniforms with red kerchiefs and white shirts.

When they passed by, I saw they carried tennis racquet bags imprinted with the logo of Wimbledon and the British flag.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]