Away from home: More Vietnamese leaving for richer countries

Students registering at the fall 2016 StudyUSA Higher Education Fair in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

This is the mildly provocative title of a recent VNExpress International article about Vietnamese studying, working, and seeking permanent resident status overseas.  While it may entice more netizens to read the article, the reality it attempts to describe is more multifaceted and complex than the black/white picture it paints.

Yes, significant numbers of young Vietnamese are studying overseas, including nearly 30,000 in the US alone, some with the intention of remaining, others not sure of their future path, and yet others with the goal of returning home.  (The statistics of Vietnamese studying overseas are outdated in this article; there are over 110,000 in the top five host countries alone:  Japan, the US, Australia, China, and Singapore.)

In fact, many do return home, if not immediately following completion of their studies, then after some time working overseas.  There are also growing numbers of overseas Vietnamese who are returning to their homeland (or that of their parents) to tap into Viet Nam’s dynamic and rapidly expanding economy.

Many of those high net worth individuals who invest in order to become US permanent residents, (similar programs in other countries), i.e,. who essentially buy a green card, are not emigrating.  They are essentially hedging their bets, diversifying their investments, and ensuring that they have more options in the future.

The significant number of Vietnamese working overseas benefit their families and Viet Nam through the money they send home, which is included in the $13 billion in remittances last year.  In addition, most will eventually return home, which will benefit Viet Nam’s economy.

The lure of the American Dream, which is a result of family ties and the often mistaken belief that the grass is greener on the other side, has contributed to Viet Nam’s status as a top 10 emigration country for the US.


Why Vietnamese Talent & Brains Are Choosing to Emigrate

Below are point-by-point responses to a 1 November 2016 article that appeared in Entity, a self-described Los Angeles, CA-based non-profit magazine “that allows people to speak their minds & have their hearts heard…”  My counterpoints begin with MAA (my initials) and are in blue.   

“Brain drain” is a complex phenomenon not a black/white picture.  The author makes a number of sweeping generalizations based on two primary sources of information.  Sometimes, the devil really is in the details, if you really want to get to the truth of the matter.


Photo courtesy of Entity

You’ve heard the story before: The small-town girl leaves her hometown to go to college in the city and never looks back. That story is playing out on a more complex and larger level for all of Vietnam as, in a trend known as “brain drain,” Vietnam’s men and women with talent are emigrating to other countries.

Why are Vietnam’s best and brightest hitting the road? And what does Vietnam’s “brain drain” mean for its future and the future of other countries? Here are the facts – from both Vietnam News and The New York Times – that you should know.

MAA:  Many of Viet Nam’s “best and brightest” don’t study overseas for various reasons, including financial.  Therefore, the only “road” they’re “hitting” is from Danang to HCMC, for example. 

1. The Numbers

According to Vietnam News, 70 percent of Vietnamese students studying abroad in 2011 did not return after graduation. In addition, 12 of the 13 ex-champions of a Vietnamese game show designed to find the brightest high school students – and given them a scholarship to study abroad – have decided to pursue their careers elsewhere.

MAA:  70% of Vietnamese students studying abroad in 2011 did not return after graduation.  Based on what data source?  I’ve never seen this data from either government. 

2. The Causes

Both Vietnam News and The New York Times, which describes Obama’s “sly” description of countries at risk of “brain drain” – traits that just happened to fit Vietnam perfectly – described similar causes:


Remember the annoyance you felt towards teacher’s pets or those who cheated on exams? Now think of how you’d feel if you had to “cheat” (aka pay bribes) so that your dreams of opening a business can come true. According to The New York Times, developmental agencies and businesses report that, in order to complete a project, they must pay Vietnamese officials bribes ranging from 20 to 50 percent of a project’s cost.

MAA:  Bribes are not required to open one’s own business and most companies are not involved with “developmental agencies.”  The author is mixing apples and oranges.  

Corruption has also taken place in Vietnam’s hiring protocols. As Vietnam News reports, an investigation of the Ministry of Industry and Trade’s Market Management Department revealed that some job interviewees received the questions in advance. Also, some who passed the exam had close ties with department officials. Not to mention that the purchase of positions in state-owned or government ministries is common knowledge.

MAA:  Yes, there is cheating for some public sector positions.  I view this as a “growing pain” of an emerging economy, one that will eventually go the way of the dinosaur. 


Before men and women can thrive, they must be able to survive. As Obama stated in The New York Times, “No job is so important that it’s O.K. if your children have asthma and they can’t breathe.” During Obama’s speech in Hanoi, air pollution monitors showed a level of 158, which is considered an “unhealthy” level. Not only does air pollution increase children’s risks for asthma and weakened lungs, but it can also increase the chances of adults having heart attacks and strokes.

MAA:  Not unlike some major cities in the US and other countries.  Pollution in Hanoi, for example, is not year-round.  It depends upon certain climatic conditions.  For example, as I wrote this, the air pollution index was 62 or 63 in much of the city.  51-100 is “moderate”, defined as follows:  Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.

The air pollution problem needs to be addressed by providing more public transportation, which is in the works, imposing certain driving restrictions (e.g., carpooling), and fewer motorbikes, which pollute more than cars. 

Another point is that Hanoi is one of a number of cities in Viet Nam where people live and work. 

D+ Education

Let’s be honest. If you studied abroad in college, it was probably more for the cultural experiences (aka, cute boys and plenty of delicious food) than the educational benefits. According to The New York Times, though, many Vietnamese students study abroad in order to receive a better education than available in their own country. In 2013, more than 125,000 Vietnamese studied abroad – 19,000 of them going to the United States. To help improve Vietnam’s higher education system, the U.S. is supporting the formation of Fulbright University Vietnam.

MAA:  Yes, it’s true that economic growth and the concomitant ability to pay for high-ticket items like overseas study have leapfrogged over the development of the country’s education system, including its institutions of higher education.  This will change in due course, as the quality of the nation’s colleges and universities improves. 

Poor pay and working conditions

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Live to work, not work to live.” But finding a job you’re passionate about can be considerably harder when, as Vietnam News explains, jobs in Vietnam might not pay a livable salary. For instance, Nguyen Trong Nhan shares the story of a friend who received his master’s degree in biotechnology in the U.S. but chose to return to Vietnam to work. However, he soon discovered that his monthly salary of 286 U.S. dollars was not enough to get by in Hanoi. When he returned to the U.S., he found a job paying $5,000 a month.

MAA:  It depends upon the industry and the job.  While I don’t know the circumstances of the man who earned a MS in biotechnology and found a job with a monthly salary of $286, my guess is that it was with an institute of some kind, i.e., in the public sector.  Many Vietnamese are studying in fields in which there are not yet many jobs “back home.”  That reflects Viet Nam’s current stage of development.  There are young Vietnamese who studied in the US and other countries who have returned home are doing very well in terms of salary, contributions, and job satisfaction. 

Working conditions can also be a challenge in Vietnam. Not only is equipment often outdated, but young, talented workers are also disheartened by the lack of funds for scientific research.

MAA:  It depends upon the field.  Uneven development is still the order of the day.  Most positions in Viet Nam do not involve “scientific research.”   

3. What Next?

In particular, Nguyen Trong Nhan (M) from Vietnam News calls for several changes to reverse the “drain brain” hitting the nation. He suggests that the country give younger generations more access to powerful, independent positions in the workforce – and see what changes they enact from these positions. He also says that it is important to invest more money and value into furthering scientific research, make working conditions not only acceptable but also tempting to young workers and encourage patriotism in youth so they will use their gifts to contribute to their country. Once these changes are made in Vietnam, the country is more likely to experience the growth of a young, healthy workforce.

MAA:  My prediction is that Viet Nam will follow in the footsteps of China in this respect.  Many Chinese students are returning home because there are more opportunities there than in the country in which they earned their degree(s), among other reasons. 

The author depicts a glass-is-half-empty situation and overlooks the increasing number of young Vietnamese who are returning home and making seminal contributions to their industry and society.  I fully expect this trend to continue and indeed accelerate.

Happy 7th Anniversary, “International Educator in Viet Nam”!


WordPress dutifully reminded me yesterday that it was the 7th anniversary of registering this blog.  That was at a time when I suddenly had more freedom of speech, relatively speaking, because of a job change.  No more pre-approvals, no more top-down censorship, no more “change this” or “delete that” because it might offend certain powerful people who happen to control purse strings.

Over the past seven years, this blog has offered ample evidence that the fields of education and international education in general and in Viet Nam, in particular, are many things; dull is not one of them.

So who has read this venerable blog since 2009?  US and other foreign colleagues, Vietnamese colleagues who have an interest in the issues I discuss and who read English, colleagues from the US and Vietnamese governments, competitors, and a veritable rogue’s gallery of other individuals.

The latter category includes people who work, how shall I put it?, on the fringes and in the dark corners of this multi-billion dollar business called education.  I have delighted some and angered others.  And the truth will set you free, even if it occasionally hurts and costs certain people and certain entities money.

Please join me, whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever your drink of choice is, in tipping your glass to seven (7) years of Information, Insights & (Occasionally) Intrigue!  Thank for spending some of your precious time to visit, virtually speaking.  I do it for you and for myself, i.e., writing as thinking and, sometimes, as therapy.  Happy 7th Anniversary, International Educator in Viet Nam!


Open Doors 2016: Viet Nam Ranks 6th

According to the latest Open Doors (OD) report on international educational exchange, released today by the Institute of International Education (IIE) to kick off International Education Week (IEW), there were over 1 million international students studying in the US in 2015/16.  NOTE:  In contrast to the SEVIS by the Numbers quarterly updates, the OD data are always one-year old and limited to institutions of higher education. 

Viet Nam ranks 6th with the second highest percentage increase (14.3%) – after India (24.9%). 

Among the top 10 places of origin, only three (3) recorded substantial increases, including India, Viet Nam, and China (8.1%).  Japan remained the same and Taiwan increased by less than 1% while four(4) countries sent fewer students to the US:  Brazil (-18.2%), South Korea (-4.2%), Mexico (-1.9%) and Canada (-1%).  Declining enrollment among a number of the top 20 sending countries could very well continue and, in some cases, accelerate, during a Trump administration.

Rank Place of Origin 2014/15 2015/16 % of Total % Change
  WORLD TOTAL 974,926 1,043,839 100.0 7.1
1 China 304,040 328,547 31.5 8.1
2 India 132,888 165,918 15.9 24.9
3 Saudi Arabia 59,945 61,287 5.9 2.2
4 South Korea 63,710 61,007 5.8 -4.2
5 Canada 27,240 26,973 2.6 -1.0
6 Viet Nam 18,722 21,403 2.1 14.3
7 Taiwan 20,993 21,127 2.0 0.6
8 Brazil 23,675 19,370 1.9 -18.2
9 Japan 19,064 19,060 1.8 0.0
10 Mexico 17,052 16,733 1.6 -1.9

Not surprisingly, Viet Nam remains a solid undergraduate market.  The breakdown by category is as follows: 

Undergraduate – 67.23%
Graduate – 15.09%
Non-Degree – 9.8%
OPT (Optional Practical Training) – 7.8%

The top fields of study among Vietnamese students are – in descending order:

  • Business/Management:  29.8%
  • Social Sciences:  10.6%
  • Intensive English:  9.8%
  • Engineering:  9.6%
  • Math/Computer Science:  8.8%
  • Other/Undecided:  8.4%
  • Physical/Life Sciences:  5.1%
  • Fine/Applied Arts:  3.9%
  • Health Professions:  3.8%
  • Education:  1.2%
  • Humanities:  1.1%


“International educators react to shock Trump victory”

After a shock win for Donald Trump in the US presidential election, educators in the US and overseas have reacted with concern that the victory will damage the US’s reputation as a welcoming destination as well as curtail work opportunities for international students in the country.

Could what Trump the President-elect says in the coming weeks differ from what Trump the Candidate said to his supporters in the heat of the campaign?  Photo:  Gage Skidmore (Courtesy of The PIE News)

A few international educational colleagues, mostly from the US, and I were quoted in response to questions about the possible impact of a Trump presidency on international student enrollments in the US.  I’m sure this is something that will be discussed in more detail on US university and college campuses during next week’s International Education Week (IEW).

While a couple of colleagues have downplayed the impact of Trump’s election on international student flows to the US, or simply rejected the notion that it will have any impact at all, most are rightfully concerned, based on social media posts I’ve read and emails I’ve received.  Like I said, time will tell.  I would derive no pleasure in telling the skeptics “I told you so.” 

Follow this link to read more.