More Dong for Your Buck: Rough Road Ahead?

One of Asia’s most inflation-plagued economies, Vietnam, devalued its currency 8.5% Friday to help arrest mounting economic problems.  But analysts say Hanoi’s Communist policy makers instead risk triggering a new and potentially uncontrollable round of price rises.

Photographer Kevin German/Bloomberg

This was excerpted from a 14 February Wall Street Journal article.  Back in December 2010, a Bloomberg article, quoting a Morgan Stanley Asian currency strategist, noted that Vietnam’s dong is in “extreme trouble,” citing a weak economy, trade deficit and “deteriorating balance of payments.”  This is the third currency devaluation in a year and a half. 

A colleague on a Vietnam Studies listserv, of which I’m a member, had this to say about the latest currency devaluation:

The lesson from Thailand in 1993-97 is that even when GDP growth seems very robust, you can only go on borrowing from foreigners in order to speculate on property, stocks and other nontradables (rather than making investments that create actual jobs, raise real productivity, and earn/save foreign exchange) for a limited time. The CPV line on devaluation, as cited in the Bloomberg article, is that “One of our top priorities now is to stabilize the macro economy in order to maintain the pace of growth.” But with inflation now firmly in double digits and interest rates over 20%, stabilization will require substantially slower growth, at least for a time. Problem is, to stabilize means reining in the SOEs and provincial governments, the agencies responsible for much of the foreign borrowing/speculative investment. The longer the Party accommodates their activities, the more it risks a real financial crash. Can the Party remove its own punchbowl?

The specter of a “real financial crash” haunts many here. How long will the party (no pun intended) last? When will the bubble(s) burst, or will they?  When will sustainable growth/development become policy and practice? (“Sustainability” defined as “Growth that does not negatively affect the poor, workers and the environment; economic growth that is just and fair and improves the likelihood of such growth in the future.”)  The nouveau riche class in Vietnam will not continue to expand – indefinitely – at its current pace.  There are only so many people who can afford the kinds of luxury goods that have been consumed and ostentatiously displayed over the past few years.  Sustainability will depend upon investments and changes made in education and health care, among other areas (e.g., environmental protection, food security, water hygiene, etc.). 

Speaking of luxury goods, this gleaming white Bentley, for sale at a dealership in West Lake (Hanoi), will cost you a cool $800,000. Most cars are bought with cash.

Keep in mind that, in spite of the torrid economic growth rates of recent years, the per capita income is still only $1,200 (2010). The current rate of inflation of 12%, including  basic necessities such as food and fuel, means that the majority of Vietnamese will suffer. (The cost of electricity is about to jump 18% and price hikes for most items are quite noticeable.)  The rich and others with savings in US dollars and/or who receive their income in US dollars will naturally be insulated.  

Thanks, Bill, for the nifty title.


4th Annual Education Conference: Cementing Cooperation & Overcoming Obstacles to U.S.-Vietnam Education Partnerships

The US Embassy in Vietnam and the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF) have officially announced the Fourth Annual Education Conference to be held April 9, 2011 in Hanoi.  The purpose of this conference is to bring together American and Vietnamese universities, colleges, companies and NGOs active in higher education in Vietnam to discuss how to increase U.S. educational opportunities in Vietnam; how to encourage external partnerships for universities; and how to promote U.S. style higher education in Vietnam. 

 This is the latest in a series of annual education conferences started in 2008 by former Ambassador Michael Michalak.  It will be the first one presided over by his successor, Ambassador David Shear.   Unlike the previous two conferences, it doesn’t look as if the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) will play a formal role as a conference co-organizer.   USAID, which has become increasing active in the education sector in recent years, is a sponsor. 

 Conference Topics

Increasing U.S. Educational Opportunities in Vietnam

  • Establishing a Welcoming Environment for U.S. Students
  • Attracting more U.S. Scholars to Vietnam: Why aren’t they coming?
  • Faculty Development: Creating a Framework for Success

External Partnerships: Universities as Partners and Producers

  • Linking Education to Research and Entrepreneurship
  • From Classroom to Boardroom: Developing Employable Graduates for the Private Sector
  • Creating the Conditions to Succeed: a Transparent and Consistent Environment for Partnerships

U.S. Style Higher Education: What is it? How do we create it in Vietnam?

  • American–style University Governance
  • Teaching and Curriculum
  • Accreditation: Standards and Quality Assurance

You can log into the conference website with your own email and password to have future access to your personal data.  In addition to registering for the conference, there are opportunities to present a paper as part of a panel discussion.  In order to be considered as a panel participant, prepare an abstract of your proposed paper and submit via the conference website.  The deadline for submitting an abstract of your proposed paper is February 28.  If you are interested in attending the conference but do not want to present a paper, the registration deadline is March 11, 2011

As Elisabet Garriga, Conference Coordinator, mentioned in her e-mail to prospective participants, space is limited for this conference:  “As our conference will be a platform for policy discussion and for formulating recommendations for the Vietnamese government and U.S. education partners, priority must be given to participants who have relevant experience in establishing education partnerships in Vietnam and other countries.  Decisions regarding participant selection will be made as quickly as possible.” 

For more information, contact Elisabet Garriga, Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy, Hanoi, Tel (84-4) 3850-5196, Cell (84-4) 90-400-8657, Fax (84-4) 3850-5120, GarrigaE @

Vietnam’s Younger Generation & the Future

Vietnam is a “young” country.  You can see it everywhere you look and in the statistics (median age:  27.4).   It’s what economists refer to as a “demographic dividend,” which Vietnam is hoping to take advantage of.   

I recently spent a couple of mornings and afternoons conducting Skype interviews with young people, high school and university students, from Hanoi, Haiphong Danang and HCMC, who had applied to work as student volunteers for an upcoming StudyUSA Community College Fair series organized by my company, Capstone Vietnam. 

The main purpose of these “interviews,” actually more like brief chats, was to determine their English proficiency and how they might be able to contribute to our events.  Keep in mind that these students had already been pre-screened by our volunteer coordinators in each city.  We got to hear about their studies, interests, career plans, hobbies, volunteer activities, work experience and plans for further study, including overseas.  One even sang a song (!). 

What I remember is how good so many were in English and how difficult the selection decision was in some cases.  In addition to spoken English skills, we also took into account their enthusiasm about and interest in our work.  I came away with very positive impressions of this cross-section of young people – their intelligence, work ethic, energy, ambition, desire to gain valuable practical experience and to make new friends.  The end result is an outstanding team of student volunteers in four cities in northern, central and southern Vietnam.   

This is, of course, about much more than the popularity of English in Vietnam or the burning desire of many young people here to broaden their intellectual and experiential horizons.  It’s about the power of the Internet to connect people through technology that allows us to communicate synchronously and asynchronously.  It’s also about the proliferation of online communities and social media sites such as Facebook, which is the 7th most popular website here. 

These exhilarating interactions reaffirm my overall optimism about Vietnam and its future. 


If Vietnam were your home instead of The United States you would…

I recently came upon this site, which was created last year at first “as a way to show the magnitude of the BP Oil Spill. Through a number of conversations with visitors to the site, we realized that we had stumbled onto a very powerful concept. Representing large facts in relation to a person’s own home is much more revealing than a simpler presentation of facts. From this understanding, the new was born. The site acts as a gateway to understanding the world around you.”  It does this not by merely comparing facts and figures but by personalizing them (e.g., If Vietnam were your home instead of The United States, you would be 16.67% less likely to have HIV/AIDS). 

It reminds me of a photo essay book entitled Material World: A Global Family Portrait that compared living standards of people in many countries. Published in commemoration of the United Nations-sponsored International Year of the Family in 1994, it contained portraits of 30 statistically average families with all of their worldly possessions displayed outside their homes, as well as sidebars offering statistics and a brief history for each country and personal notes from the photographers about their experiences.

The Power of Comparison and Context

The site features a comparison of the United States with virtually every country in the world, a superimposition of those countries on a map of the U.S., some basic facts about both countries in predetermined categories, a one-paragraph country overview, recommended readings, and a comments section. Each country profile ends with the question “Would you rather live in _____ (INSERT COUNTRY NAME)?

The map superimposition brings into sharp relief just how small Vietnam is geographically compared to the U.S. It is just a big larger than New Mexico, would take up about half of Texas (population 28% that of Vietnam), and would easily fit into California. This also highlights related issues such as population density (Vietnam: 90 million) and sustainable development.

As Andy Lintner, the website creator, points out, “The lottery of birth is responsible for much of who we are. If you were not born in the country you were, what would your life be like? Would you be the same person? is your gateway to understanding life outside your home.”

Vietnam & the United States

The following facts and figures are presented using CIA World Factbook information with the exception of the item about health care (i.e., World Health Organization).

  • have 3.5 times higher chance of dying in infancy
  • consume 95.09% less oil
  • make 93.75% less money
  • use 93.34% less electricity
  • have 68.82% more change at being employed
  • spend 97.75% less money on health care
  • die 6.3 years sooner
  • have 25.02% more babies
  •  experience 17.78% less of a class divide
  • be 16.67% less likely to have HIV/AIDS

Each item has more information accessible with a click of your mouse. For example, for item #2 : Vietnam consumes 0.1296 gallons of oil per day per capita while The United States consumes 2.6400. This entry is the total oil consumed in gallons per day (gal/day) divided by the population. The discrepancy between the amount of oil produced and/or imported and the amount consumed and/or exported is due to the omission of stock changes, refinery gains, and other complicating factors. (Source: CIA World Factbook)

It would be great if the site included information about other important issues (about which reliable information could be obtained), including population, population density, economic growth, inflation, poverty rate, education, corruption, Internet use, media, military expenditures, etc.

Next Steps

It would be helpful to have information that places these facts and figures in some kind of societal and historical context, and enables visitors to connect more of the dots. Why do Vietnamese “have 3.5 times higher chance of dying in infancy” and “consume 95.09% less oil”?  Or, why does the US consume such a large share of the world’s natural resources?  (US Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy.)  Perhaps that’s another website. Answers to these questions are also provided in the recommended readings.

In the case of Vietnam, the reasons are many and varied, including war and its legacy, an economic embargo that ended in 1994, poverty, isolation, mismanagement, corruption, reform, economic growth, foreign direct investment, tax policy, and globalization, among others.

At any rate, the website does an excellent job of driving home the point that “the lottery of birth is responsible for much of who we are. If you were not born in the country you were, what would your life be like?” Country information without comparison and context is not very meaningful.

What’s Hot

…in Vietnam’s English language media as it relates to education.  Below is a sampling of articles that have recently appeared on English language newspaper websites here starting with the newest. 

Why I quit? (Low salary is not the only thing that urges state employees to quit. If they are just working for money, many excellent officers will not work for state agencies for long periods of time.)  I included this article because it also applies to the education sector.  (VietNamNet, 8.2.11)

New regulations will make Vietnamese universities more attractive to foreigners (VietNamNet, 3.2.11)

University lecturers absorbed by teaching, have no time for research (VietNamNet, 31.1.11)

Vietnam, Australia to step up cooperation in vocational training  (Thanh Nien News, 26.1.11)

When career advisers don’t have necessary career knowledge (VietnamNet, 19.1.11)

Ministry to closely monitor university admissions (Viet Nam News, 4.1.11)

Universities urged to teach ethics, values (Viet Nam News, 22.12.10)