According to the August 2018 SEVIS by the Numbers update, Viet Nam once again ranks 5th among places of origin with 29,788 active students at all levels and in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, inching past Canada, which had displaced it in June 2018. (One always has to take summer statistics with a grain of salt, since there’s always a dip that coincides with the end of the academic year.)
That’s the good news in these troubled times. The bad news is that the number of student visas issued in FY18, which ended on 30 September 2018, was down from last year. (I’ll provide more information in a forthcoming blog post.)
My ballpark estimate is a 5-6% decrease, which is line with the decrease in overall numbers. This assumes that the US Mission in Viet Nam (Embassy in Hanoi and Consulate in HCMC) issued the same number of F-1s in September 2018 that it did in the same month last year. That information will be out soon.
Keep in mind that there were 31,389 young Vietnamese studying in the US, as of December 2017. This means that there are now 1,601 fewer students from Viet Nam, a 5.1% decrease. One obvious reason is the shift to Canada, which hosted nearly 15,000 Vietnamese students last year and recorded an unprecedented one-year increase of 89%.
Postscript: There are currently 27,061 young Vietnamese studying in South Korea, which means the top five host countries for Vietnamese students worldwide are 1) Japan (61,671, 2017); 2) the USA (29,788, 8-18); 2) South Korea (27,061, 4-18; 4) Australia (22,565, 7-18); and 5) Canada (14,836, 2017). This means that there are 155,921 in the top five countries alone, 57% of them in East Asia.
An expat shares some philosophical reflections and practical tips on the free-for-all that is Vietnamese traffic. This is my latest English language article for VNExpress International. Follow this link to read it in its entirety. Below is the unabridged version:
In any country, driving culture and etiquette, or a lack thereof, is a window into the that society. Viet Nam is no exception. Here’s my take on being an active participant-observer of transportation in Viet Nam on a part-time basis since 1996 and full-time since 2005.
I ride a bike but not in the city. (Yes, I wear a helmet because I value brain function over vanity. I’ve never owned a motorbike. I am a frequent pedestrian who has had too many death-defying experiences in city traffic to recount in a single article. My main mode of transportation is a car.
What is it like driving in Viet Nam? Much like the country itself, never boring, always an adventure. What to expect? The unexpected – virtually every minute of every day that you’re on the road. Drive defensively and, when need be, offensively. Protect yourself, your passengers, and everyone else on the road. A tall order? Welcome to the crazy world of driving in Viet Nam!
The Hierarchy: You’re Hot or You’re Not
Respect the hierarchy: it determines the rules of the road, such as they are. The following are ranked from top to bottom based on the level of respect each deserves.
those crazy little delivery trucks whose drivers have no fear and are sometimes high as a kite on meth (or whatever)
cars (big to small)
motorbikes with merchandise ranging from pig carcasses, glass panels, poles, and everything else you can imagine, plus some things you probably can’t (seeing is believing)
motorbikes with passengers, sometimes, entire families
If not might, then at least size, makes right. Don’t worry about what or who is behind you, only what or who is in front of you. Caution is key. Even stupid drivers do not deserve to get injured or, God forbid, die. Their lives are in your steady hands. Take good care of them.
Beware of new drivers, both men and women. They are legion. Many of the former will end up as hell on wheels fueled by machismo and most of the latter will become good drivers who don’t take chances – to the benefit of themselves, their passengers, and everyone else on the road.
Pedestrians as an Endangered Species
A word about those bottom feeders known as pedestrians. You have to know your place, which is at rock bottom of the hierarchy. That means you always have to have your wits about you because no one else is going to watch out for you. Having said that, eyes are on you when crossing a street simply because no one wants to run into or over you. Too messy, too costly and, for most, a burden on their conscience.
As I am fond of telling foreigners who are rookie travelers to Viet Nam, watch out for drivers who are constantly checking their smartphones for Facebook updates or texting someone and those, particularly men, who may be driving under the influence. (In most cases, with the exception of Tết, the Lunar New Year holiday, it’s the former you have to worry about because they are not focusing on you.)
What about letting pedestrians cross a busy street? Only if they’re foreigners, in most cases. (In fact, those who are just off the boat or plane expect it because they come from countries in which the lowly pedestrian is king or queen.) For Vietnamese, only if they’re disabled or old, or families with small children Even then, some of them might look at you like you’re from another planet, fully expecting you to keep driving and not let them cross because that’s the way it’s done.
Patience is Not Only a Virtue, It Can Also Save Your Life
A note to foreigners who either recent arrivals or are planning to relocate to Viet Nam: If you were not a patient person before driving in Viet Nam, you will become one, or else. Road rage is not an option. Even though Vietnamese don’t carry guns like US Americans do, for example, chances are any conflict will end badly, even more so if you’re a foreigner.
I remember one foreign man and a Vietnamese man on motorbikes who were mixing it up at high speeds on a mostly deserted street late one rainy night in Hanoi. The Vietnamese guy gave him the “come here” hand gesture (index finger up), very rude in Vietnamese culture but perfectly acceptable in the US, for example, a cultural note that may have been lost on his foreign friend. At any rate, he got the message and they both sped off into the night – the latter in fast pursuit of the former. I can only hope they both lived to tell the story.
OK, I admit it. I use a “A” word more than I should while driving and, occasionally, spicier language. I’m working on it. Yes, and even the occasional hand gesture, which is more for my benefit than that of the object of my wrath, who usually doesn’t see it. I know words in Vietnamese than I can only utter under my breath because they would get me killed if another driver heard them.
Of Etiquette and Accidents
Driving etiquette in Viet Nam is that there is no driving etiquette. It’s pretty much a free-for-all. Courtesy, even of the common variety, is virtually nonexistent. Cut in front of someone, almost causing an accident? No problem because the other driver is either in a rush or a wannabe VIP. Drive slowly in the fast lane? Just pass him on the right, as long as there are no police in sight. Turn the shoulder into a third lane? Go for it! Keep your headlights on high beam? Just do it! Courtesy is but a dream delayed.
Someone once wrote in an expat Facebook group that one should drive as if everyone else is trying to kill you. While an overstatement, that’s not bad advice, especially for motorbike drivers, who are not surrounded by 1.5+ tons of steel.
Having said all of the above, there are not as many accidents as one would expect in the densely populated cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Most car accidents are minor because of the relatively low speeds involved. Accidents involving cars, other large vehicles and motorbikes can and often are much more serious involving injury or even death.
I remember once seeing the body of a motorbike driver covered with a straw mat, feet sticking out, on a bridge crossing the Red River. It appeared that he took one too many chances trying to pass someone from the motorbike lane, i.e., the shoulder, into one of two lanes reserved for everyone else, big and small. It was a sad and surreal scene with money blowing around the road dropped by people who wanted to help the poor fellow on his next trip to the afterlife – and a guy running around like a crazy man picking it up, bad luck, by the way, a gallows humor example of greed trumping a cultural taboo. As the saying goes, karma’s a bitch.
Social Covenant on the Highway?
Here’s a key culture difference that I’ve noticed in Viet Nam, when compared to the US, where I was born and raised. In the US, I let other drivers merge because I know they would do the same for me. (OK, 90% of them.) That is not the case in Viet Nam; therefore, I just keep driving. In fact, if I were to let someone in, they would think I was a bit strange because it is just not done.
I admit to occasional bouts of self-loathing as I drive through crosswalks with pedestrians waiting, blow by slowpokes on the right, or drive on the shoulder to pass people blithely driving in the middle of the road. It goes against my nature and culture-specific socialization but I rationalize my behavior and am consoled by a variation on the theme of the well-known proverb about Rome, “When in Viet Nam, drive as the Vietnamese do.”
In the US, which for all of its problems related to people getting along and living in harmony, there is a social covenant that applies to that country’s driving culture. People, total strangers, maybe even “the other,” let other people in with a wave of a hand and often a smile. It makes you feel good inside. It’s an unwritten and unspoken code of behavior that works just like many written laws work, e.g., stopping at a red light. (The US not Viet Nam!) It’s civility in the midst of insensitivity, cruelty, and incivility. (Maybe there’s hope after all for a country that is so divided along so many fault lines.)
What about four-way stops? Unthinkable in Viet Nam. In the US and elsewhere? It’s also the law but that’s beside the point, since there are rarely police hanging around four-way stops. It’s about people from many different walks of life following a silent yet compelling code.
What the Future Holds
Will traffic become more orderly and more civil(ized) in Viet Nam? Will drivers become more law-abiding? Probably, as the society continues to evolve, but probably not in the near future.
Whenever I see someone run a red light or make a left turn from the far right lane, I invariably think of what Jim Carrey’s lawyer character in the movie Liar, Liar screamed into the phone – during the magical time when he could not tell a lie – to a former client who had just knocked over an ATM machine: “Stop breaking the law, asshole!”
Keep in mind that Vietnamese graduated from bicycles in the not too distant past to motorbikes and, more recently, to cars. Many seem to drive a car the way they used to drive a motorbike. They just need more time to make the adjustment. And there need to be police and more police who will enforce existing laws.
Also, don’t forget that it was only in 2007 when it became mandatory for all motorbike drivers and passengers above a certain age to wear a helmet. (Smart parents buy quality helmets for their children; others take their chances, as well as those of their children.) That change occurred literally overnight in December of that year. You woke up and there was this sea of helmet-wearing motorbike drivers. (The questionable quality of most helmets is another matter. All meet the official requirement but relatively few will spare you and your head from injury or worse.)
While laws can take effect overnight, a change in behavior takes a little longer. In the meantime, stay safe out there on the mean streets of Viet Nam and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!
Walking around in Ha Noi, Viet Nam’s capital, you can feel boundless energy everywhere. People whiz by on scooters, buy and sell everything from phones to food in the countless small shops, and run to and fro to get to school or work. Viet Nam is young, growing, and anything feels possible.
It wasn’t always thus. A mere 30 years ago, the country was one of the poorest in the world. How did this southeast Asian nation grow to become a middle-income country?
If you’ve been to Ha Noi, this description will definitely ring true. Read this article for a good partial answer to this question asked in the second paragraph. While you’re at it, check out the video overview. While it doesn’t cover all of the bases and you have to consider the source (IMF), it is pretty accurate. I try to stay up-to-date on economic statistics and trends but am also a long-term participant-observer in the exciting reality that is Viet Nam’s rapid development.
Having spent a considerable amount of time in Germany back in the day, both West and East, as a student, teacher, and researcher, I’m reminded of the German economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder, also known as the “Miracle on the Rhine”). One stark difference between the two countries is that there was no Marshall Plan for Viet Nam.
In order to engineer its own “Miracle on the Red River,” Viet Nam first had to rely on itself – with assistance from the INGO (international non-governmental organization) community and Official Development Assistance (ODA) – before and after the Đổi Mới, or renovation, reforms of 1986, which gave rise to Viet Nam’s “market economy with socialist orientation.” (A lot of INGO funding has shifted to another countries with the rise of Viet Nam as a threshold middle-income country.) The rest, as they say, is history, and an inspirational one at that.
Here are the concluding paragraphs of my latest CounterPunch piece. If you’re interested in reading the essay in its entirety, follow this link.
If Humpty Dumpty – as world view and personal identity – were to have a great fall, I’m afraid it would be exceedingly difficult for all of the king’s horses and men to put him back together again, especially among older Việt kiều. There are no excuses, however, for members of the younger generation. If they are to move forward, they must think anew and act anew, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, who presided over a very different kind of war.
Will Nguyen tweeted on 27 July 2018, “I will never regret helping the Vietnamese people exercise #democracy …and I will continue to help #Vietnam develop for the rest of my life.” For the time being, he will have to act on his savior complex from his home in Houston, TX, one of the nerve centers of the Vietnamese-American community and its ongoing resistance to the legitimate Viet Nam. I’m confident that the latter will continue to make significant progress on all levels without Will’s help.
I saw Decree 86 increasing the proportion of Vietnamese students in international schools and have a few questions.
It’s good news for Vietnamese parents of means and those interested in investing in international schools in Viet Nam. Local students may now comprise up to 50% of an international school’s total enrollment. Under the old decree (73), the percentages of Vietnamese primary and secondary students in an international schools were limited to 10% and 20%, respectively.
Several of the provisions remain unchanged, for example, the one about curriculum requirements: Educational programs must not go against the national security and public interests of Vietnam, (b) must not spread religion and distort history, (c) must not negatively affect the cultures, ethics, and traditional customs of Vietnam, and (d) must ensure the connection between all the levels and grades.
The main reason international schools in Viet Nam are so popular is the widespread perception that the quality of their education and training is superior to that of public schools and that the former do a better job of helping young people realize their potential, academic and otherwise.
How will increasing the proportion of domestic students benefit Vietnam?
It will enable more children from well-to-do families to attend international schools, which will better prepare them for overseas study, the ultimate goal of many. The rising competition will also make more international schools accessible to middle class families and could very well have a positive impact on Vietnamese schools. With more choices available than ever for parents and students, international schools will have to be at the top of their games in terms of curriculum, teaching staff, facilities, ancillary services, and reputation in order to be successful in the long-term. It is likely to become a “buyer’s market” to the benefit of the target clientele of parents and students.
Will the decree impact the number of new international schools being set up in Vietnam? Will it be a large enough incentive that a market exists?
Absolutely. The market is there is and not only in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). This was already a hot sector before Decree 86 was announced. Marcel Van Miert, executive chairman of the Vietnam Australia International School (VAS) in HCMC, was quoted as saying that VAS has had an annual growth rate of 20%, which explains in part the interest in international schools from an investor’s perspective. Decree 86 will only serve to accelerate this trend until the pent-up demand has been met.
Is this part of a broader strategy from the Vietnamese government to increase education opportunities and global connections for its citizens?
Exactly. The government is keen on attracting more foreign direct investment (FDI) and expanding educational opportunities for its young people. This decree accomplishes both.
Why has the decision been made now? What’s changed for the government to make this call?
I think this is part of the recent trend of encouraging more FDI and opening up Viet Nam’s economy to the world. It’s a smart and timely decision.
Here’s a story you don’t see every day though there are probably countless more than are reported in professional Facebook groups. Mommy and Daddy know best. These parents are interchangeably referred to as lawnmower or snowplow parents,. Their (dis)service to their children is to remove every obstacle in the latter’s path. Think of it as a misguided and perverted kind of love. Some are living vicariously through their children. Rather than teaching them how to fish, they give them the fish, not exactly a positive and useful life lesson, unless the children have generous trust funds.
In Viet Nam and other countries, there are many companies that provide this “service” for a handsome fee. One in Viet Nam even organizes projects (think community service) so that their clients can list them on their resume and have something else to write about. Customer as king and queen. Or, to borrow a line from the movie Jerry Maguire and clean it up for a G-rated audience, I will kill for you, I will maime for you, … and pillage for you.
Rampant fraud in the admission process, another investigative report waiting and dying to be written. Whatever it takes. The ends justify the means in a multimillion dollar industry that makes miracles happen – at any cost – for ambitious young people and perhaps even more ambitious parents, who will do almost anything to make their children’s (and their) dreams come true. The end result is that all become collaborators and conspirators in a web of unethical behavior. Bottom line: Success without integrity is failure.
This week, Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company that I co-founded in 2009 and of which I am managing director, celebrated its 9th birthday. It has been a helluva ride, one I’ve found to be deeply rewarding on many levels.
As I mentioned to a colleague the other day, the best situation is when you are able to exploit your own labor rather than have to sell it to someone else and allow them to exploit it (you), to paraphrase Karl Marx. More about that in this 2017 interview.
Looking forward to celebrating our 10th anniversary and 10 years of Reaching New Heights in September 2019!