In Viet Nam, Good Parenting Equals A Straight-A Kid, Plus an American Degree

Call it love, ambition or obsession, but the only thing most Vietnamese care about is a well-educated child.

good parenting
Photo by Thanh Nguyen, VNExpress International

It’s probably a bit of each.  Parents generally want the best for their children and overseas study, especially in the US, which is the world’s second leading host of Vietnamese students, is seen as one means to that end. 

Of course, there are other stories waiting to be told, for example, about growing numbers of young Vietnamese returning home after studying and, in many cases, working overseas. Many of them are making significant contributions in their fields, sectors, and to Vietnamese society.  There are also the many contributions and accomplishments of those who either choose not, or cannot afford, to study overseas, i.e., the vast majority of Vietnamese.

Follow this link to read the entire 25 June VNExpress International article



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.

“Why do Vietnamese students refuse to return home after studying abroad?”

Courtesy of Tuổi Trẻ Online
Courtesy of Tuoi Tre

If only the world were that simple.  Fortunately, in this case, it’s not.  Many remain overseas for various reasons, mostly related to career opportunities and earnings potential.  Some fall in love and end up marrying a host country national while others choose to study in a field that is either at an early stage of development or nonexistent in Vietnam.

Do people return for family reasons?  Absolutely.  But there are other compelling reasons, including the vitality of the economy and the many opportunities available to people in some industry sectors to either work for an existing company or start one of their own.   There are also those who, for whatever reason, believe that the grass is greener in country X, find out it’s not, and return home.

I do agree with Dr. Trung, who studied in France and now works at the Hanoi-based Vietnam Construction and Import-Export Joint Stock Corporation, that ” the way organizations…  here operate is unprofessional, and lacks fair competition and the spirit of teamwork.”  This is one reason why many young Vietnamese prefer to work for a multinational company or a local company with an international environment.  Other disincentives mentioned are nepotism, a lack of transparency in the workplace and salaries that are not in line with living expenses.  For academic researchers in many fields there are fewer opportunities to conduct in-depth research because of a lack of resources.

Other reasons are related to quality of life, including concerns about the quality of the educational system – on behalf of their children – now or in the future – pollution, food hygiene, traffic jams, accidents, etc.

I also agree with what Nguyen Thien Nhan, former Minister of Education and Deputy Prime Minister and currently Chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, said last year during a visit to Hanoi-Amsterdam High School for the Gifted, namely, that Vietnamese students are not required return to Vietnam after finishing their studies overseas, as they can serve the fatherland anywhere in the world.  This sentiment was echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam:  “as the concept of global citizenship has become more popular, it does not mean overseas students cannot contribute to Vietnamese society when they refuse to return to Vietnam.”  Examples including remittances, a sharing of expertise and business contacts, and charitable work.

Recipients of Government Scholarships:  A Special Case

Since this involves the use of public funds used to invest in talented young Vietnamese, many of whom remain abroad, the government needs to use a carrot and stick approach.  Here are four solutions proposed by Pham Quang Hung, director of the Vietnam International Education Development (VIED) under the Ministry of Education and Training, to ensure that more return to Vietnam:

According to Hung, the first solution is choosing talent with moral quality to send to those programs, as well as offering obligations that they are required to come back after finishing their studies.

The second solution is strengthening the monitoring of students studying abroad.

Next is to create motivation such as promoting their patriotism and offering good working opportunities and environments.

The last solution Hung suggested is to handle violation cases.

His advice, not the first time this has been proposed, by the way, is to require them to reimburse the government for the cost of their scholarship, should they decide to remain abroad.  It’s only fair.


“Vietnam’s Book People – A new exodus is taking place from Vietnam”

thediplomat_logoby Kris Hartley is a Visiting Lecturer in Economics at Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City, and a PhD Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

More than two decades after the emigration of Vietnam’s “boat people” reached its apex, a new exodus is underway. Increasing numbers of university-aged Vietnamese students are pursuing degrees abroad. These new emigrants – who can perhaps be termed “Book People” – see high value in degrees from American, British, and Australian schools. Further, many remain in their host countries after graduation, attracted by high paying jobs matching their skill sets. Two factors can reverse this loss of talent: growth in domestically owned high-value-added industries and continued improvement of domestic universities. These strategies could also be a roadmap for the many countries facing similar emigration challenges.

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.

A few points:

  • A generally useful and informative overview of recent trends related to young Vietnamese and overseas study.
  • The title, a lame attempt to draw some kind of analogy with the “boat people”of the post-war era, is a bit of a reach, IMHO.
  • The author’s view of “brain drain”, as illustrated in the statement that “a worrying portion of Vietnam’s vast and youthful creative potential continues to be lost to the West,” is a bit of an oversimplification of this complex phenomenon.
  • The author notes that “many remain in their host countries after graduation, attracted by high paying jobs matching their skill sets.”  While that’s true, many are also returning to work and quite a few to start their own businesses.  More research needs to be conducted in this area.
  • This excerpt jumped off of the screen:  Transformative economic growth will not occur until the means of production are owned and managed more by domestic firms than by foreign firms. This is not to suggest that foreign firms have no place in Vietnam. However, the increased presence and competitiveness of domestically owned firms would better circulate profit and capital back into the Vietnamese economy; the country could move away from its reliance on outsourcing and towards self-sufficiency.
  • The link between these trends and the call for “transformative economic growth” is tenuous.

MAA (I’m back! :-))

Make it in Germany

A Multilingual “Welcome to Germany” Portal for International Qualified Professionals

Germany is tied with Japan as the “oldest” country in the world with a median age of 46.1.  In a phrase “the Germans are dying out” (die Deutschen sterben aus).  It’s estimated that the population will shrink to 66 million by 2060 from a current population of about 83 million.  Since Germans are not having enough babies for various reasons that transcend one blog post , they have no choice but to compensate by encouraging the immigration of educated and qualified people from around the world. 

This includes a campaign called Make it in Germany, which has been translated into a number of languages, including Vietnamese, and customized.  (There’s even a sign language video.)  Other target countries include India, Indonesia, Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, Russia, Italy, Portugal and Portuguese-speaking countries (Brazil?) and Serbia.  The website has various entry points for people interesting in working, studying, traveling, research or starting a business.  It also features a section with “I made it” success stories, in addition to detailed information about in-demand professions, living in Germany, learning the language, etc.  .

make it in germanyHere is the introduction and overview of this website, which characterizes it as a “‘Welcome to Germany’ portal for international qualified professionals”.

“Make it in Germany” is the multilingual “Welcome to Germany” portal for international qualified professionals. It is run by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. “Make it in Germany” informs qualified professionals who are interested in immigrating about their career prospects and shows them how to organise their move to Germany – and what makes it worthwhile to live and work here. The portal posts current vacancies in occupations where there is a labour shortage and provides information about the sectors in search of skilled workers. There are also presentations by international qualified professionals who have already forged a successful career for themselves here, while employers in Germany can get tips on how to go about recruiting skilled professionals from abroad.

In actual fact, “Make it in Germany” is more than just an information portal – it is the expression of a whole “culture of welcome”. It portrays Germany as a modern, diverse society and helps convey the friendly, cosmopolitan nature of the country.

The Vietnamese version, which is being actively promoted on various social media channels in Vietnam, features Tung, a business software development engineer from Hanoi, who lives and works in Giessen, Germany.  (I like the pretzel and the beer – nice touch.  Makes me hungry & thirsty.  :-))


Make it in Germany is a bold and exciting initiative that recognizes the reality that the country’s population is graying and that future success will be the result of attracting international qualified professionals.  It rolls out the virtual red carpet to those individuals who might have an interest in studying and/or working and living in Germany.

While the median age of the US is lower (36.8 years), its economy desperately needs a certain percentage of international students, for example, to stay, work and, ultimately, emigrate.  (One reason is not enough native-born US Americans are studying key subjects, e.g., STEM fields.)  While emigration is possible, it is not yet policy, hence the third student visa criterion about returning to one’s home country, which often ends up being a hoop that applicants have to jump through in order to get the visa.

clock is tickingKudos to Germany for launching the Make it in Germany initiative.  The US should follow in its footsteps in order to align its immigration policy with the fast-changing realities of the US and global labor market.  Is anyone in DC watching, listening and learning?  Tick-tock, tick-tock.


US International Student “Market Share” Steadily Eroding

According to the 2014 Open Doors report, released by the Institute of International Education, there are 886,052 international students in the US, which makes it the world’s leading host.  (There are now a total of 1.13 million F & M students studying in the US, according to the 2/15 SEVIS quarterly update.  That includes all levels of education.)  That’s not surprising given the high level of interest in StudyUSA over the years and the sheer size of the US higher education system.

market shareA more useful way of looking at international enrollment trends, however, is to focus on market share.  That picture is not so rosy.  Of the more than 4.5 million students enrolled outside of their home countries in 2012, 75% were studying in developed countries and over half came from Asia, with China (22%), India and S. Korea taking the top three places.  As a 2014 global migration report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) revealed, about 25% of all international students were in the US.  Ten years later, that figure dropped to 16% while all other English-speaking countries, including the UK (12.6%) and Spain increased their share of international students.

According to the OECD, the number of students studying overseas will nearly double by 2025 to 8 million.  Time will tell if and when the US is able to take advantage of this trend.


Here’s a partial list – in no particular order.  Feel free, dear reader, to add to it.

  1. Lack of a comprehensive official US international education policy
  2. State and Commerce are often at odds with each other even though they represent the same government
  3. A sense of resting on one’s laurels – the US built it and they came back in the day but it has been losing market share since 2000
  4. Counterproductive immigration policies, e g., international students can only work on campus, are limited in their post-graduate employment opportunities, both temporary (OPT) and permanent (H1B) and, while possible, the transition from student to green card holder to citizen is not an easy one nor it is officially sanctioned
  5. Regarding the previous points, other countries such as Australia and Canada are much more welcoming, hospitable and realistic vis-à-vis the need (e.g., the graying of their populations) for a certain percentage of international students in certain fields to stay, work and emigrate
  6. Post-9/11 dip

Another factor is cost.  A global report released by HSBC last year based on a survey of more than 4,500 parents in 15 countries, found that Australia is the most expensive place in the world to study, followed by Singapore and the US.

Source: HSBC

Interestingly, the US is currently the world’s leading of Vietnamese students, which says something about preferences and ability to pay.  The US recently “overtook” Australia in this friendly competition for Vietnamese and other international students.  Using Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) statistics for 2013, the latest year for which they’re available, there were 125,000 young Vietnamese studying overseas.  The percentage distribution was as follows:

1)  Australia (26,015):  20.8%
2)  United States (19,591):  15.7%
3) Japan (13,328):  10.7%
4) China (13,000): 10.4%
5)  Singapore (10,000):  8%

As you can see, the top five countries comprise nearly two-thirds of total overseas enrollment for Vietnamese students. The following countries rounded out the top ten:

6)  France (6,700)
7)  Taiwan (6,000)
8)  UK (5,118)
9)  Russia (5,000)
10)  Germany (4,600)

The bottom line, literally and figuratively, is that individual US institutions of higher education, sometimes working cooperatively (e.g., from the same region, a community college and a state university) have to map out their own strategies for different target markets, keeping in mind that one size doesn’t fit all.


The 7th “Engaging with Vietnam – An Interdisciplinary Dialogue” Conference

 in combination with The First Vietnam-US Higher Education Forum

engaging with vn

I am pleased to share this announcement from the organizers of The 7th “Engaging with Vietnam – An Interdisciplinary Dialogue” Conference in combination with The First Vietnam-US Higher Education Forum. This two-day event will attract Vietnam scholars and other experts from Vietnam and all over the world.  For the first time, there is a one-day pre-conference forum devoted to Vietnam-US higher education and I’m honored to be one of the speakers.

July 7-8, 2015

33A Pham Ngu Lao, Hanoi, Vietnam

Organization partners:

University of Hawaii at Manoa – USA

Hanoi University of Business and Technology- Vietnam

Portland State University – USA

In addition to the partners listed above, the forum and conference will be co-hosted by Monash University, the East-West Center, Thai Nguyen University, the University of Oregon and the US Mission Vietnam.
Sponsors include the Australian Embassy-Vietnam, the Australian Consulate-General in Honolulu, Vietnam Airlines and CJ Travel.

This year the 7th Engaging with Vietnam Conference will join the U.S. Mission and Vietnam partners in commemorating the past, present and future of relations between the two countries. The conference will dedicate day one day to the 1st Vietnam-US Higher Education Forum, which hopefully will be annual from now on. You are invited to this exciting two-day event this July in Hanoi!

Day 1: The 1st Vietnam-US Higher Education Forum

Theme: The Internationalization of Higher Education: Policies and Practices

Organizing Committee: Phan Le Ha (University of Hawaii at Manoa), Dang Van Huan (Portland State University), and Nguyen Ngoc Hung (Hanoi University of Business and Technology)

Presentations on Day 1 are solicited by invitation only. Attendance is open to all via registration on the website.

Day 2: The 7th Engaging with Vietnam Conference

Theme:  Knowledge Journeys and Journeying Knowledge

The Engaging with Vietnam conference series has been, since the time of its inception, interested in the production of knowledge about Vietnam. This interest stems from the realization that the knowledge that people produce about Vietnam depends on many factors, such as where people are located and what they know. Put simply, people inside of Vietnam and people outside of Vietnam approach the study of Vietnam with different ideas, and come to different conclusions. This dichotomy is then complicated by the fact that people inside of Vietnam journey to places outside of the country to study, and people from outside of Vietnam journey to Vietnam to study and conduct research.  These physical journeys lead to intellectual journeys that change people’s ideas, something that we can call “knowledge journeys.”

At the same time, academic theories from around the globe (China, France, Russia, North America, etc.) have journeyed all over the world in recent decades as well and have changed the way people think too. We can call these mobile theories “journeying knowledge.”

The Seventh Engaging With Vietnam – An Interdisciplinary Dialogue Conference seeks to examine both of these phenomena – knowledge journeys and journeying knowledge – in an effort to understand how they influence the way that people produce knowledge about Vietnam.

With this in mind, we would like to invite you to participate in the Seventh Engaging with Vietnam Conference. Please refer to the website for more details.

Engaging with Vietnam Founder:  Phan Le Ha

Conference Chairs and Convenors:  Phan Le Ha & Liam Kelley (University of Hawaii at Manoa) & Nguyen Ngoc Hung & Pham Sy Tien (Hanoi University of Business and Technology)