Vietnam Hangs Out the Welcome Sign for International Schools

iem 11-18 maa

The Vietnamese government is keen on attracting more FDI and expanding educational opportunities for its young people. Decree 86 covers both bases. In the spirit of giving credit where credit’s due, it is an example of good governance, a smart and timely decision that will pay off in the long-term for both individuals and society.

My latest article appears in the fall issue (November 2018, vol. 16) of the NAFSA:  Association of International Educators IEM (International Enrollment Management) Spotlight Newsletter.  It’s about the proliferation of private, including international, schools in Viet Nam, and the contributing political and economic forces shaping this changing educational landscape.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA


#YouAreWelcomeWhere? A Call to Action

world view post ihe

This is a post I wrote for The World View, a Boston College Center for International Higher Education blog hosted by Inside Higher Ed (IHE).  It is as much a wake-up call as it is a call to action.    

One of my main points, which obviously went over the heads of some readers who commented, is that perception is reality for many parents and students around the world considering study in the USA.  (As one colleague put it, “Some of those comments could support a masterclass entitled Missing the Point.”)

Another is that US educational institutions must aggressively and smartly “sell” not only themselves, responding to current concerns in their marketing and promotional materials, but also study in the USA, in general. 

Competition is fiercer than ever and the US currently has a long list of negatives when compared to other countries hosting large numbers of Vietnamese and other international students, e.g., Australia and Canada.  

Here’s a link to my last post, Gun Violence & Study in the USA, which is related.  And here’s the unabridged version of the #YouAreWelcomeWhere? article.  

When I first saw the hashtag for #YouAreWelcomeHere, a social media campaign launched in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election as a means of reassuring concerned international students and encouraging them to study in the United States, I was afflicted with a momentary case of cognitive dissonance. 

The first questions that popped into my spinning head were “What about on a different campus, an adjoining neighborhood, the city up the road, or another state?  And by whom, everyone or just international educators who see the value of hosting large numbers of international students?

The “glass half full” part of me likes this heartfelt, upbeat messaging campaign.  But while it gives me a small measure of hope, however fleeting, it is ultimately a hollow sentiment that has little meaning against a grim backdrop of xenophobia, racism, and violence. 

Yes, #YouAreWelcomeHere is true in many places but the sometimes harsh reality in a nativist climate rife with acts of hostility towards “the other,” including foreigners, tells a very different story, including at the highest levels of government.  For example, there seems to be no end to official proposals that, if approved, would have the net effect of discouraging international students from choosing the US as an overseas study destination. 

Contempt for “The Other” and Garden-Variety Violence

The US is a diverse country in more respects than one.  There is no national standard governing how US citizens treat one another, evidenced by a long list of hate crimes, not to mention casual comments made in public places that are emotionally damaging to those targeted but that do not violate any law.  This includes the case of the Golden West College professor videotaped last March telling a young, Asian-American couple out for a walk with their baby to “go back to your home country.”

The US is an extremely violent country when compared with peer nations in the industrialized world, many of which are friendly competitors that host large numbers of international students.   Sharath Koppu, arrived in the US from in January 2018 to begin a master’s degree program in computer science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was murdered during an attempted robbery in July. 

Not surprisingly, in a country where violent crime is a daily occurrence in many communities, coverage of his murder was sparse beyond Kansas City.  Not so in India, the victim’s home country.  The murder was plastered all over the national media with headlines like Indian-origin student killed in Kansas City and Sharath Koppu Student From Telangana Shot Dead In America. 

It’s safe to assume that more people in India and the vast Indian diaspora read those articles on- and offline, and saw the news reports within hours of the incident than those who have watched the #YouAreWelcomeHere YouTube video, uploaded on 23 November 2016 and, as of 18 October 2018, had just 13,532 views. 

Study in the USA: The Export That No Longer Sells Itself

Even though study in the USA, both secondary and postsecondary, is still a valuable brand in Viet Nam and many other countries, it no longer sells itself.  Current news— the mass shootings, visa denials, US government policy announcements such as the submission to social media information from all visa applicants for the past five years, the latest missile strike, travel bans, and a roiling cauldron of perceptions and misperceptions can have a decisive impact on where a young person studies and where parents want their children to study. 

US higher education needs to do more, much more, to stanch the hemorrhaging of international students and the increasing velocity of their flow to competitor nations such as Australia, Canada, and the UK than post hashtags, spout slogans, produce feel-good videos watched by a handful of people, and offer scholarships to a limited number of students, as commendable as that may be. 

Since the US government is not going to be of much assistance, this urgent task falls to those of us around the world who work with international students who might wish to study in the USA.  US educational institutions that welcome international students to their campuses need to make the case that their students are safe, a primary concern of parents and students, for obvious reasons. 

Rather than simply say that their campuses and communities are safe – official talk is cheap —they need to prove it with student testimonials, written and video, documentation in the form of crime reports, etc.  Just like the country in which they are situated, not all institutions are equal in this respect.  This should be one of a number of key “selling points”.    

Institutions must also stress appropriate strengths against a positive backdrop of why international students should study in the USA in the first place, tell their story in a compelling and appealing manner, especially digitally, and provide superior comprehensive service to students, even if they are working with many of them through agents.  If that means hiring additional staff, then that’s the price institutions have to pay to stay in the game. 

That Which Is Within Our Power

Saying something doesn’t make it so.  At the end of the day, it’s only so much cheerleading, regardless of how it is packaged.  The writing is on the international student recruitment wall in large, fluorescent, spray-painted letters with exclamation points.  Those of us who work with international students whose dream is to study in the USA ignore it at our collective peril.  

In The Enchiridion, a short manual of Stoic ethical advice that dates to 125 AD, Epictetus, a Greek philosopher born into slavery, wrote:  There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.  Fully cognizant of the latter, we must work quickly, creatively, passionately, and with greater urgency on those tasks related to US international student recruitment that are within our power. 

Shalom (שלום), MAA

P.S.:  Question for IHE:  Color me old-fashioned but why not require people to provide their names and, if applicable, affiliation, instead of allowing keyboard critics to hide behind their lame monikers?  Anonymity is like alcohol; it can have the effect of loosening the tongues of those who have it.  (Here’s an excellent Psychology Today article from 2014 on the phenomenon of online trolls.)  Newspapers require writers of letters to the editor to provide their name and telephone number for confirmation purposes.  Why not IHE?  

Gun Violence & Study in the USA

gun-related homicides

I spoke to some students last Friday at a top private high school in Hanoi about overseas study.  Among the small group that was planning to study overseas, they mentioned Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and New Zealand as potential destinations.  Not one expressed interest in studying in the US.  When I asked why, they mentioned the following reasons:  too many guns, gun violence, shootings, high cost, and their view that US Americans are not friendly. 

A day later, there was a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead, including Holocaust survivors.  Some of the students’ impressions and worst fears were confirmed – yet again.  (The jury is out on the overall impact of these negatives on study in the USA among parents and students in Viet Nam, though there is a discernible shift taking place to Canada.)  As of August 2018, there were nearly 30,000 young Vietnamese studying in the US, a slight decrease from December 2017.  In addition, the number of student visas issued in the past year, ending on 30 September 2018, dipped by 5-6%, a possible harbinger of future enrollment decreases.)  

For Many, Perception is Reality

Aside from the tragic loss of human life at the hands of people who hate and have easy access to guns, including assault rifles, widespread gun violence, including mass shootings, are a PR disaster that is not going away anytime soon.  This issue weighs heavily on the minds of students and parents who might otherwise be interested in the US as a potential overseas study destination.  

top 10 gun-owning countries

Sadly, out of the world’s 251,000 gun deaths every year, six countries are responsible for more than half of those deaths, including the US.  The other five countries are Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guatemala.  The US is #1 among its peer countries in the industrialized world in the number of deaths due to gun violence.  (Note that those countries have weaker economies and institutions, e.g., criminal justice systems.  The study from which this information was obtained excludes deaths from war, terrorism, executions, and police.)  

For many students and parents considering study in the USA, perception is reality.  Do mass shootings occur everywhere?  Of course not.  Is the US the most statistically dangerous country in the industrialized world in terms of gun violence?  It’s not even close.  Are Australia, Canada, Germany, and other countries statistically safer?  Absolutely.  

Especially from an outsider’s perspective, the US love affair with guns is puzzling and widely viewed as a form of collective insanity.  Aside from presidential talk of “shithole countries” and other insults not likely to be forgotten or forgiven, this is one of the contributing factors to the perception that the US is unsafe and generally unfriendly. 

Whitewashing reality, along with with “thoughts and prayers,” ain’t gonna do the trick.  Those US colleagues who don’t think this is one of a number of factors in the perfect storm (read nightmare) that is international student recruitment for US educational institutions in these turbulent times have their heads buried in the sand, preferring to live in a state of denial.  

world view post iheJust like saying something doesn’t make it so, ignoring or trivializing reality doesn’t make it any less real and threatening.  Speaking of which, you might be interested in reading a blog post entitled #YouAreWelcomeWhere? A Call to Action, which I wrote for The World View, sponsored by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and hosted by Inside Higher Ed.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

An ethical approach to commissions-based recruitment

uwn ashwill west

Below is the unabridged version of an article with the above title that Eddie West and I wrote for University World News (UWN).  Follow this link to read that version.

Incentive-Based Compensation & International Student Recruitment: Is There a Better Way?  By Mark A. Ashwill & Eddie West

The agent issue in the US is reminiscent of those trick candles that delight children and some adults who are children at heart. You blow them out and they continue to ignite themselves – like magic! – using a fuse similar to those used in dynamite sticks.

Compared with their counterparts in Australia and the UK, US universities are relative latecomers to the wild and woolly world of commissions-based international student recruitment. In recent years steps have been undertaken to professionalize practice in the States and equip institutions with the tools they need to engage recruitment agents responsibly.

But while those efforts represent progress, they clearly haven’t assuaged everyone’s concerns about the well-being of students who are, or should be after all, front and center for those of us involved in educational advising and international student recruitment.

Last year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) rekindled the controversy surrounding the use of agents in a very public fashion. The regional accreditor released a draft policy that sought to stipulate that MSCHE-accredited institutions would be prohibited from paying incentive compensation for the recruitment of any student, domestic and international student alike. Following a period of public comment MSCHE agreed to conduct additional research, including a legal review of the draft policy, before taking further action.

As it turns out, MSCHE quietly decided to follow federal regulations that prohibit incentive compensation for the recruitment of domestic students but allow it when it comes to “foreign students residing in foreign countries who are not eligible” for Title IV student financial assistance; see 34 CFR §668.14 (b) (22) (i) (A).  In other words, the Commission backed down, deciding to hang its hat on the “foreign student carve-out”, or exception, to the incentive compensation rule, essentially caving in to the demands of commission-based international student recruitment supporters.

MSCHE’s decision to permit the institutions in its purview to continue using per-capita commissions for the recruitment of international students parallels the road chosen by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in 2013. After a period of extensive deliberation, the association concluded that “while NACAC should continue to be very cognizant of the potential effects of commissioned recruiting, it should also address the changing trends in international recruitment and lift the ban in favor of a best practice stance.”

The Fatal Flaw in Current Practice

The fatal flaw in commissioned recruitment is that most agents prioritize their partner schools’ interests over those of the students and parents they advise.  This means that most guide or, in many cases, drive students to their partner schools because of the gold (commission) at the end of the rainbow (enrollment process).  Moreover, most agents represent many partner schools, each of which can pay varied commission amounts. Remuneration can be as little as a few hundred dollars, or many thousands. And so the brute economic logic is that opportunistic commissions payouts vs. best fit often drive student advisement. (Many agents also “double dip,” piggybacking off of this approach by also charging a fee to parents.)

Bonus incentives are also common. A rhetorical question to consider: Agent A has a contract with University B that promises $1,000 per referral for the first 9 students thus enrolled in an academic year, but $1,500 per enrollment of student numbers 10 through 20. Will prospective student #10 receive the same integrity of advice as student #9?  The unfortunate answer is clear.

Indeed, instead of customers as queen or king whose goals are paramount, students and their parents, the key decision-makers, are treated as pawns in a mostly predetermined and opaque process over which they have little control and in which profit frequently trumps a commitment to serving their best interests.

This is a dilemma that advocates of agency-based recruitment have yet to resolve. The blithe assumption is that concerns about unethical business practices are being adequately addressed, despite widespread evidence to the contrary. In fact, some of the most vocal opponents of the Middle States’ draft policy were those who have a vested financial interest in this business practice, hardly a qualification for credibility.

In the spirit of “it takes two to tango,” it’s important to point out that there are educational institutions, albeit a small minority, that are not discerning about which education agents they work with as long as their agents produce.  For them it’s all about “showing them the students.”

Since such agents recruit students in a way that puts partner schools’ interests first, students are not always well-informed about the admitting institution and therefore not always pleased with what they discover once enrolled. This can result in lackluster student retention and negative word-of-mouth, which reflect poorly on both the school and the agent. Those institutional officials who choose to work with unethical education agents are hardly better than their partners in crime.

Need for a New Way

Those who have attempted to address the vexing problems associated with commissioned recruitment deserve credit for professionalizing practice, mitigating risk, and adding a dose of transparency to an activity so often shrouded in secrecy. But efforts thus far have simultaneously served to normalize commissioned recruitment and stifle further discussion, which raises the obvious question: Is that a good thing for students?  We don’t believe it is.

Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company, implemented a unique approach that clearly recognizes students and parents as the primary clients in the educational advising process.  Advisers do not pressure students to attend partner schools simply because they pay a per head commission. Rather, they create a list of best fit schools based on student and parent interests, goals, preferences, and budget.  If a student ends up attending a commission-paying partner school, the advising fee is refunded to the parents. If s/he attends a non-partner institution, the company retains the advising fee.

While this approach makes sense from an ethical and financial perspective, are there other agency-based recruitment models that also do a good, and perhaps even better, job of ensuring that students and their families are well-served, by better aligning their interests with those of agents?

Imagine a scenario where, instead of an agency netting different commission payouts based on which school or program a student enrolls in – the prevailing, ethically fraught industry standard – the agency commits to earning a fixed, predetermined amount of money, regardless of which institution the student attends.

Let’s say for example that amount is $1,000 for assisting a student who wishes to attend a US community college. The agency explains to students, families and prospective partner colleges alike that $1,000 is their set fee for helping a student apply and enroll. The student will pay the agency a $1,000 advising fee if they end up attending a community college that isn’t one of the agency’s partners, as with the Capstone model.

On the other hand, if the student enrolls at one of the agency’s partner community colleges and that partner’s standard commission is $1,000, then the agency receives their $1,000 payment directly from the college. In this case, the family receives a refund of the fee they’ve already paid, also an example of the Capstone model.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. It’s the nature of international student recruitment for institutions and agencies alike to seek competitive advantage. Schools routinely pay more, or less, than $1,000 per student enrollment.  They and their agency partners require autonomy with respect to commissions decisions. With this model, they still have it.

Community colleges that wish to pay, say, $1,500 per enrollment can do so, but here’s the rub: the agency will retain their set $1,000 fee, and the excess $500 is given to the student. The same logic applies no matter the amount above $1,000.

Conversely, if the college pays less than $1,000, the student pays the difference. For example: the college pays $600 per enrollment, in which case the family pays $400 as a service fee. Think of this scenario as ethical double dipping.

This model eliminates the financial secrecy inherent in commissioned recruitment as it’s practiced today, because the agency’s earnings for helping a given student are transparent. It also eliminates the incentive for agents to steer students to poor fit environments on the basis of profitable hidden commission payments, the fundamental flaw with current practice.  The agency earns the same amount no matter where the student enrolls.

It also preserves an institution’s autonomy to incentivize outcomes to the extent they wish. Except, instead of the agent pocketing an entire commission payout, any additional financial benefit accrues directly to students. Think of this as akin to the widespread practice of tuition discounting, often packaged as merit scholarships.

We don’t presume this model is immune to criticism. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Established agencies may resist change to the status quo because the tradition of secret, variable commissions has proven so lucrative for them. Others will point out that it can take considerably more time to assist a student with a graduate school application than it does for short-term ESL study, for example, so charging a uniform fee across the board may not be practical.  

But such problems and the fees to be charged can be solved by experimentation in the marketplace. What agencies might sacrifice in this shift toward greater transparency may well be compensated with an increase in business. After all, it stands to reason that families will gravitate towards agencies committed to fair practice and who also help them obtain a tuition discount as a bonus.

Meanwhile, institutions that support this approach can recruit fairly, transparently, and without the burden of reputational taint that dogs traditional commissioned-based recruitment, of which the MSCHE news is only the latest – and surely not the last – reminder. The ideal end result is a triple win for students and parents, educational institutions, and education agents.

Mark A. Ashwill, Ph.D. is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Viet Nam. Capstone is the only company in Viet Nam, and possibly the world, that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States, and officially accredited institutions in other countries.  Its unique approach to educational advising treats students and parents as clients, not partner institutions. He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.

Eddie West is Executive Director of International Programs at UC Berkeley Extension. Previously, he served as Director of International Initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and before that led internationalization activities for the Ohlone Community College District.

Shalom (שלום), MAA


When in Viet Nam, Drive as the Vietnamese Do!

Motorbike drivers in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

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 InternationalFollow 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.  

  1. tractor trailers, buses, cement trucks, garbage trucks
  2. those crazy little delivery trucks whose drivers have no fear and are sometimes high as a kite on meth (or whatever)
  3. cars (big to small)
  4. 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)
  5. motorbikes with passengers, sometimes, entire families
  6. electric bikes
  7. bicycles
  8. pedestrians

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! 

Peace, MAA

“The story of Viet Nam’s economic miracle”

Once one of the world’s poorest countries, today Viet Nam’s economy is in full bloom
Image: REUTERS/Adrees Latif (VIETNAM)

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.  

Peace, MAA


“Humpty Dumpty” As World View, Overseas Vietnamese-Style

north south vn

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.

Peace, MAA