Capstone Vietnam: Why This Education Entrepreneur Is Excited About Vietnam’s Future

vietcetera maa interviewHere’s an abridged version of a recent interview I did with Vietcetera, a “consortium of artists, writers, designers, photographers, musicians, technologists, and business people dedicated to a fresh look at an evolving Vietnam. Vietcetera seeks to find the untold human stories of the people that are contributing to a new, modern Vietnam. From design to business to architecture to film. We want to both give a new and youthful take on Vietnam that both local and foreigners can appreciate.”

Follow this link to read the interview

Recent Interview with Chuck Searcy, International Advisor, Project RENEW

Photo courtesy of Book Hunter Club

Here is a link to the Vietnamese version:  Cựu chiến binh Mỹ Chuck Searcy: “Phòng thủ vĩ đại nhất của Việt Nam chính là ý chí của người dân (Book Hunter Club)

  • Why do you choose to return and live in Vietnam?

It’s a choice I made, to accept an opportunity to come here as a veteran, an American citizen, and in some small ways contribute to what I discovered in 1992 as a tourist, my first time returning to Viet Nam after the war.  I witnessed people all over Viet Nam working hard to recover from the war and to rebuild not just the country’s infrastructure, damaged by so much destruction and devastation, but also to rebuild their lives and their communities after many years of war and a constant struggle to survive.

I thought perhaps I could somehow contribute something positive, something constructive, instead of being part of the destruction that was brought about by war.  I felt that I had some responsibility to do my part in helping, if I could, as a war veteran and as a concerned American citizen.

I have been fortunate to have that opportunity, as a veteran, representing and working with American veterans organizations such as Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), and Veterans For Peace (VFP).  Our work has focused on trying to repair, reduce, or eliminate the consequences of the war related to the legacies of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange/dioxin (AO).

  1. Could you tell me why did you get involved in the Vietnam War and when did you realize the truth about this war?

I enlisted in the U.S. Army because I was about to be drafted, and I thought perhaps I could get a better deal and avoid the war if I enlisted for three years, to choose my assignment, instead of two years as a draftee which would allow me no choices whatsoever.  Actually it made no difference; nothing changed, I was sent to Viet Nam and assigned to a military intelligence unit in Saigon.  I had no choice over anything.

When I arrived in Viet Nam I did not have a concrete idea about the war.  I assumed that President Johnson and the U.S. Congress had a reason for “stopping the communists” in Viet Nam, and I was just doing my part as a loyal and patriotic American.  I didn’t like the idea of the war, I didn’t want to come here as a soldier, but I did not resist.

However, in just three or four months I realized that something was terribly wrong, and what the U.S. government had been telling the American people was confusing, misguided, misleading, deceptive – it was a lie. And that was a very hard realization for me to accept, because I had always believed that the American government would never lie to the people.  But I had to accept the terrible reality that the war was a huge and costly exercise in death and destruction that was making some American companies rich and which was causing untold loss, agony, and grief for so many innocent people – Americans and Vietnamese alike.  In my work as an intelligence specialist, I saw many classified and unclassified documents and reports that only reinforced my belief that the war was wrong.  I saw that we were providing inaccurate information to the American people about the costs and the likely outcome.  It seemed certain to me and my fellow soldiers that America could never win in Viet Nam, yet no American government had the courage to tell the truth and to quit the war.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 was a huge turning point.  It was very costly for the Vietnamese – thousands of soldiers killed, major sacrifices and losses – but it was a huge psychological victory that convinced the American people that the war was futile.  It could never be won.  Yet it still took seven more years for the war to finally come to a bitter and exhausting end.

  1. Nowadays, there are many Vietnamese young people believe that “The Vietnam War is a civil war and the North of Vietnam invaded the South of Vietnam, and the US government was the savior of The South.” What is your opinion about this?

The “civil war” interpretation of the confrontation which has been too conveniently characterized as a “north-south” struggle is a figment of the creative minds of historians and apologists who refuse to face reality.  If Vietnamese young people believe that, they have been sadly misled by myths, distortions, and rewrites of history.  Yes, there have been geographic and cultural divisions within Viet Nam, language variations and ethnic distinctions. Some of these go back many centuries.  They are more accurately described as three general demarcations: north, central, and south.  The north-side political and military divide was a creation of outside powers, the result of negotiations in Geneva in 1954 to set the terms of the French withdrawal after their defeat at the hands of the People’s Army of Viet Nam at Dien Bien Phu.  Terms of the Geneva Agreement called for a separation of the fighting forces – the Vietnamese to the north and the French to the south – to allow for a peaceful and orderly withdrawal of the French forces.  In 1956 national elections were to be held, when a unified government for one Viet Nam would be chosen by vote of all Vietnamese citizens, nationwide.

However, during that period, the U.S. began to replace the French and to establish a new “government” in the south, under President Ngo Dinh Diem, which had never existed before.  The 1956 elections were cancelled because, as U.S. President Eisenhower said openly, there was no doubt that Ho Chi Minh would have been elected overwhelmingly in a popular democratic vote.  And the U.S. could not allow that.  So the U.S. government, using the CIA and other agencies, established the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, recognized it as a legitimate government, and supported Diem and his newly created army and police forces with money and weapons.

We know the rest of that tragic history.

If the U.S. had not intervened, no one can say with certainty what would have happened. However, as my best friend in Saigon – a South Vietnamese soldier – said to me in 1968, “There would be no war in Viet Nam if you Americans were not here.  No one supports the southern government.  As long as you Americans are here, we will have no peace.  So please leave, my friend. Then we will have peace.  It may take six months.  It may take two years.  But Vietnamese can talk to Vietnamese.  If you are not here in our, we will make peace.”

  1. In the globlisation Vietnamese people and American people can share and do business together. Is it possible for Vietnamese government and the US government be friends in the future?

The Vietnamese people have long extended the hand of friendship to Americans.  Americans have responded with appreciation and respect.  The U.S. and Vietnamese governments have established diplomatic relations and a good working relationship based on friendship and mutual respect.  There is no reason why this should not continue long into the future.  As Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap said to me the first time I met him, “Our two countries must never fight again.”  I believe that as firmly as Gen. Giap stated it to me.

Yet Viet Nam must also be very cautious, very thoughtful in its relations with the U.S. and with all other foreign countries, steadfastly maintaining its independence in policy, statements, and deeds and actions, avoiding any tangling alliances that reduce Viet Nam’s flexibility and ability to protect the country’s and the people’s best interests.  Viet Nam must continue to maintain a very careful balance between China and the U.S., for example, and not let one power push Viet Nam off balance vis-à-vis other nations.  Viet Nam especially should be very wise in decisions regarding weapons procurement and military cooperation.  Viet Nam’s greatest defense is the will of its people.  Military machines and technology will never be adequate, can never substitute for the strength, unity and determination of the ordinary people of Viet Nam.  Viet Nam’s leadership needs to always remember that.  Other nations would be wise to recall Viet Nam’s thousand-year history which provides ample evidence of that reality.

  1. How can Vietnamese people be friends with American people regardless the relationship between the Vietnamese government and the US government?

Nowadays it’s quite simple.  With the Internet and global communications, individuals and groups of interested friends can be in easy contact, which the governments in both countries should encourage.  Sharing ideas, concerns, questions, solutions is energizing, creative, the connections nurture new opportunities that can benefit both peoples and both countries.  Institutions such as the Vietnam-USA Society and many other organizations under the umbrella of VUFO – the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations – carry on a very active “people-to-people” diplomacy program which is an important channel of communications.

Neither government, the U.S. or Viet Nam, has any reason to worry about strong and active contacts between people young and old of both countries.  This is a natural bridge that links hands of friendship in support of understanding and peace.  Such dynamics are a huge asset for the governments of Viet Nam and America, which make the task of governing easier, more beneficial for all concerned, and likely to create policies that more accurately reflect the unity and support of the people.


International Advisor, Project RENEW
Tư Vấn Viên Quốc tế, Dự án RENEW
Vice President, Veterans For Peace Chapter 160
Phó chủ tịch, Cựu Chiến Binh vì Hoà Bình Chương 160 (Hòa Bình)
Co-Chair, NGO Agent Orange Working Group
Đồng Chủ tịch, Nhóm làm việc Phi chính phủ về Chất độc da cam
71 Trần Quốc Toản, Hà Nội, Việt Nam
Mobile    +8 490 342 0769
Skype     chucksearcy

2014 Operation Light the End of the Tunnel

Below is an interview with Chuck Searcy, a former Army intelligence analyst who has lived in Vietnam for the last 20 years working – in partnership with Vietnamese colleagues – to ameliorate the effects of various war legacies, including unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange.  The interview was with Mike Cerre, a former ABC News Correspondent and war veteran, and took place on 4 September 2014 at the Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco.  Follow this link to read an announcement about the event and to learn more about Mr. Searcy’s background.

VTV1 Interview About Higher Education Admission Reform in Vietnam

VTV1 - 1

I was recently interviewed at Vietnam National University-Hanoi by Ms. Kim Hai, VTV1 reporter, about a range of issues related to Vietnam’s higher education admission reform efforts, led by VNU-Hanoi – in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Training.  I mentioned and expanded upon a number of the points I touched on in this essay, entitled Higher Education Admission Reform in Vietnam: The Next Generation.  (Vietnamese version:  ĐHQGHN đi đầu trong đổi mới căn bản và sâu sắc hệ thống tuyển sinh ĐH của Việt Nam)

The interview included some of the following questions:

  • What do you think about higher education admission reform as part of the comprehensive reform of Vietnam’s educational system?
  • What do you think about the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) plan to abolish the high school completion exam and replace it with a unified exam that is also used for higher education admission?
  • How does the US evaluate and assess student learning outcomes for high school graduates and university admission?
  • One can see that MoET and Vietnam’s universities are struggling to find a way to improve the quality of the higher education system in Vietnam.  What are some of the key factors?  What roles does the university entrance exam play?

An excerpt from this interview appeared on the VTV1 evening news on 15 August and again on the 18th in a four-minute report.  VTV1 is producing a show devoted to this  important topic, which will air in the near future.

VTV1 - 2

If you understand Vietnamese, follow this link to view the report in its entirety:  Các phương án cho tốt nghiệp phổ thông và tuyển sinh đại học (Plans for High School Graduation and University Admission)



A Blast from the Past: The Day CNN Business Traveller Came to Town

tableIt was at this table at a popular Hanoi cafe that I had a conversation with Richard Quest, of CNN Business Traveller fame, nine years ago this summer.  Quest was in town to tape a show about Vietnam that took a look at “the practical aspects of doing business in Vietnam, from cultural practices through to legalities for setting up shop.”  It included interviews with me, Thai Ngoc Diep, co-contributor to my book Vietnam Today:  A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads, and Al DeMatteis, owner of the Delta Equipment & Construction Company, who passed away last August in New York, among others, most notably, Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải.

This August 2005 article entitled  Surviving Vietnam’s business world, about the German retailer Metro, was a by-product of Quest’s trip.  It begins with a statement that still holds true today:  With a curious combination of communism and capitalism, business in this Southeast Asian nation switches between the two all the time.

Near Hoan Kiem Lake on a hot and sultry July afternoon.
Near Hoan Kiem Lake on a sultry July afternoon. I was trying to smile but it was too damn hot – about 39C (just over 102F), as I recall. 🙂

Vietnam should teach kindness to children

This is an interview I recently did with Tuổi Trẻ.  Note:  The title is from the editor. TT logo

Editor’s Note: Mark Ashwill is the managing director and founder of Capstone Vietnam, a human resource development company that provides education and training solutions. He was the country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005 to 2009.

Ashwill recently talked to Tuoitrenews about how to supply a better-balanced education to Vietnamese children, following a veteran educator’s letter to parents at the beginning of this academic year, which fell on September 5. Associate Professor Van Nhu Cuong, a 76-year-old mathematician who has written many textbooks for high school and college students, suggested in the letter that parents should not overrate and indulge their children too much.

He also touched on many hotly debated issues like excessive care for children, after-school classes, and Internet addiction. The English translation of this letter can be found here.

Following is Tuoitrenews’ interview with Ashwill.

What struck you most about young people, e.g. from kids to young adults in their 20s, in Vietnam when you first came to work here? How over-programed and stress-filled many of their young lives are, with a long list of extra classes and enrichment activities. Children who are overscheduled do not have time to be children, to play with others or even by themselves on occasion. Play is considered to be such an important contributor to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children that it was recognized by the UN as a right of every child. It’s unstructured time that gives children the opportunity to use their imagination, learn to solve problems, and develop social skills.

I understand that parents want the very best for their children but “the best” should include helping them live a life that is balanced – intellectually, morally, physically and spiritually.  I’m reminded of the theory of multiple intelligences developed by Dr. Howard Gardner, a Harvard University professor. It includes visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. We all have different aptitudes and “intelligences.” The challenge is to recognize and develop them. A lesson here is that children should be encouraged to explore and discover their intelligences but not be pressured into doing something for which they have little or no aptitude, i.e., trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. This also means that “one size doesn’t fit all” in terms of learning styles.

On the bright side, I’ve also noticed many young people who look beyond themselves and their narrow world by getting involved in community service activities. They are passionate about making a difference in the lives of people less fortunate and in the larger society. In addition, I’ve found that young Vietnamese are open to the world and open-minded in many respects. That’s a source of hope and optimism.

Follow this link to read the rest of the interview.

You can read the Vietnamese language interview here:  Dạy con trẻ làm người tử tế  (22.9.13)


“Corruption in Education Creates Serious Consequences for the Poor”

This the title is a wide-ranging interview that I did last month with a reporter from Báo Giáo dục Việt Nam (Vietnam Education News).  This education news website ranks 8,829 in the world, 51 in Vietnam and is linked in 2,093 websites (as of 20.10.12).  As you can see from some original English language excerpts below, corruption in education is just one of a number of points that I touched on.  Vietnamese title:  Tham nhũng trong giáo dục gây hậu quả nghiêm trọng với người nghèo.


Dr. Mark Ashwill is Managing Director of Capstone Vietnam, a human resource development company based in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. From 2005-2009, he was country director of the Institute of International Education (IIE) in Vietnam.  In areas related to “Disappointments and Expectations in Education in Vietnam,” Dr. Ashwill shared a lot of valuable experiences about how the Vietnamese education system can integrate with the world’s most advanced education systems.

1.  Dr. Ashwill, who has lived in Vietnam for a long time and knows a lot about education in Vietnam, and is currently working on the development of human resources as well as serving as a bridge to America for many young people, commented on the advantages and disadvantages of education in Vietnam.

Some of the advantages include the cultural value that people place on education, the amount of money and time that parents invest in their children’s education, and the strong work ethic and desire on the part of most young people to fulfill their potential through education and related activities.

Some disadvantages include underpaid and overworked teachers and professors, substandard facilities, including libraries, an outdated university entrance exam and the rapid privatization of higher education that has, in many cases, been high profit but low quality in nature.

2.According to you, what does Vietnam need to do to break out of the current situation? 

Vietnam needs to continue targeting high-priority areas, including paying K-12 teachers and professors a decent wage. In a recent survey conducted by the Vietnam Institute of Educational Sciences (VIES), 526 primary, secondary and high school teachers from 27 schools in five provinces were asked this simple question: Would you still choose to work as a teacher, if you could make the decision again? Sadly but not surprisingly, 40.9% of primary, 59% of secondary and 52.4% of high school teachers said “no.” In order to recruit outstanding teachers to educate and train young people and prepare them for a rapidly changing society and world of work, salaries, benefits, and working conditions need to be attractive and competitive.

Another issue, one to which the media have devoted a lot of ink and megabytes, is corruption in education. As your readers know, the list of examples of corruption in education is a long one. A Transparency International report published several years ago entitled Stealing the Future: Corruption in Education, listed six (6) damaging effects of corruption in education. In my opinion, these three are the most corrosive:

1. If children come to believe that personal effort and merit do not count and that success comes through manipulation, favoritism, and bribery, then the very foundations of society are shaken.

2. Corruption in education affects more people than corruption in others sectors, both in rural and urban areas.

3. Its consequences are particularly harsh for the poor who, without access to education or with no alternative but low-quality education, have little chance to escape a life of poverty.

Without a workable system of accountability (i.e,. checks and balances), this trend is likely to continue indefinitely. Vietnam’s growth will be stunted if this corruption is not addressed on a systematic basis.

3. According to you, what are the conditions for successful education reform in Vietnam?

Some problems can be solved with additional money (e.g., teacher salaries, infrastructure improvement, etc.), while others can be addressed with policy changes and effective implementation. Given how much value Vietnamese place on education and the fact that these reforms have to be carried out by the government, it becomes a question of political will, commitment and follow-through. 

4.In the 2010/11 academic year, 14,888 students from Vietnam were studying in the United States (up 14% from the previous year). Vietnam is the eighth leading place of origin for students going to the United States.  Do you know why US education system is so attractive to Vietnamese students? 

When you look at the top ten countries sending their young people to study in the U.S., Vietnam really stands out. It ranks 8th in the number of students it has studying at American high schools, colleges and universities but 43rd in GDP. (The closest country is Saudi Arabia at 24th.) What this means is that Vietnamese are investing extraordinary sums of money in overseas education in proportion to GDP. Last year, there were over 100,000 Vietnamese studying abroad, according to the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET), 90% of whom were self-financing.

Why the US? Because of the well-deserved reputation of its higher education system for quality, choice, flexibility and diversity. It really is unique in the numbers of institutions from which students have to choose, the options are their disposal (e.g., 60% of all Vietnamese in the U.S. begin their studies at a community college before transferring to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degree). Vietnamese and other international students can even join high school completion programs that enable them to earn a high school diploma and associate’s degree (the first two years of undergraduate education) at community colleges, mostly in Washington state.

While US higher education is very expensive, there are ways to lower the cost, including attending public and private institutions that offer scholarships and financial aid, and attending a community college for the first two years.

5. What should Vietnamese education do to intergate with other educational systems?  

I think Vietnam is doing exactly what it should be doing:

  • Actively learning about other education systems in the tradition of comparative education and seeing what it can adapt and use at home and what is not relevant and applicable. A point I’ve made repeatedly over the years in my discussions with Vietnamese, Americans and others is that foreign countries are negative and positive role models, sources of inspiration, as well as cautionary tales.
  • Focusing on the all-important issue of learner protection to make sure that only accredited foreign educational institutions are permitted to partner with Vietnamese universities and operate in Vietnam. (Unfortunately, most of the unaccredited institutions of higher education that have entered the market here are based in the U.S.)
  • Reaching out to officially accredited foreign educational partners to develop mutually beneficial relationships that involve teaching, research, university-industry cooperation and service.