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.

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