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! :-))

Overseas students can choose to stay abroad: Fatherland Front chair

It’s rare that I will repost an article but I have to make an exception in this case because of the exceptional nature of this statement made by Dr. Nguyen Thien Nhan, Chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front and former Minister of Education and Training and Deputy Prime Minister.

This VietNamNet article can be found here.  Follow this link to read the original Vietnamese version:  Điểm 10 của ông Nguyễn Thiện Nhân.  (Even if you don’t read Vietnamese, you can enjoy the additional photos.)


VietNamNet Bridge – Vietnamese students are not required return to Vietnam after finishing their studies overseas, as they can serve the fatherland anywhere in the world, said Chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Nguyen Thien Nhan.

Nguyen Thien Nhan, Chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front (Photo:  VietNamNet)
Nguyen Thien Nhan, Chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front (Photo: VietNamNet)

Nhan spoke at a meeting with former graduates of the Hanoi-Amsterdam High School for the Gifted in Hanoi, which has produced many excellent students who have studied at many prestigious schools and worked for many large multinational groups.

Prior to Nhan’s statement, many experts had bad expressed concern about the brain drain in Vietnam.

They believe that with the loosened policy on overseas student management, Vietnam is wasting money on training as it has lost talent.

Students who have stayed overseas have been criticised and described as “biting the hand that feeds them”.

However, Nhan believes that Vietnamese can serve the fatherland no matter where they are in the world, if they remember that they have Vietnamese origin and the country’s images in their hearts.

“It would be better not to request graduates to return. It would be great if they continue studying and practicing to have higher qualifications, and then  return to work in Vietnam,” Nhan said.  “Of course, Vietnam always welcomes students back to devote themselves to the fatherland. However, we should respect their decisions.”

Vu Dinh Chuan, director of the secondary education department of the Ministry of Education and Training, also said that the ministry respects the students’ eagerness for study.

“Studying overseas is a good way to receive knowledge necessary to serve the country. Many Vietnamese have been following this way. Professor Ngo Bao Chau, a mathematician, is a typical example,” Chuan said.

Ngo Bao Chau is now a math professor at the University of Chicago in the US. However, he travels between the US and Vietnam, where he heads an advanced math institute and runs training programs.

“We believe that with the patriotic seeds sown in every Vietnamese heart, Vietnamese students from all over the world will each have their own way to bring benefits to the homeland,” Nhan said.

Van Chung

“Half of Chinese students at elite US colleges don’t want to return”

While this article is based on a survey of a small group of Chinese students at elite US higher education institutions, there are parallels with the situation of Vietnamese students at all types of US colleges and universities.  Based on anecdotal evidence, the percentage of Vietnamese students who choose not to return home after completing their students and perhaps working for a time is probably in the range of 40-50%.  (Unfortunately, these statistics are either not kept by the US government or one would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get sufficient information to paint an accurate picture of this trend.)

Many Vietnamese students share some of the concerns of their Chinese peers and have some of their own:

  • lower salaries
  • a work environment that is not conducive to innovation and does not value and support professional development;
  • access to employment and career success that is based more on social connections than merit;
  • not treated fairly;
  • endemic academic corruption (for those who are planning a career in academia);
  • quality of relationships with colleagues often based on age; and
  • environmental pollution is a concern for some.


Courtesy:  New Mandala (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2011/09/21/brain-drain-in-malaysia/)
Courtesy: New Mandala (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2011/09/21/brain-drain-in-malaysia/)

Brain drain has been a continuing problem in many developing countries for several decades. China is no exception. According to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there were more than a million Chinese students studying abroad between 1978 and 2006 and 70% failed to return to China after graduation.

In an effort to lure top talent back to China, in recent years the Chinese government has been implementing various initiatives, such as the Thousand Talents Program for top scientists, to reward those who choose to return. Although these initiatives, along with the recent booming economy, have been able to attract more talent from overseas in the past decade, many of these Chinese are still not willing to give up their job in developed countries to move back to China.

My new research has examined the return intentions of overseas mainland Chinese students, looking at the push and pull factors on their decisions to stay or go.

Follow this link to read the remainder of this article and the author’s research results.

US Burns Through All High-Skill Visas For 2015 In Less Than A Week


Give me your highly skilled, your well-educated, your ambitious,
Your best and brightest yearning to climb the proverbial career ladder
and in doing so meet the desperate needs of a de-skilling and graying society,
The sons and daughters of the world’s educated classes, immigrants and international students alike.
Send these, the talented, the promising, the chosen few, to US,
We open our nation’s aging doors ever wider to increase the number of young, high-skill and high-degree folks to the benefit of all!

MAA – With a nod and an apology to the American poet, Emma Lazarus

The screaming headline above is from a recent TechCrunch article about the recent lottery that issued 65,000 H-1B (work) visas for the fiscal year 2015 beginning 1 October 2014 from more than 172,000 applications.  As in the past, demand far exceeded supply.

us capitolAs the article states, “more people applied for high-skill and high-degree U.S. work visas in the first five days of the application period than there were slots.”  In pointing out the obvious, the author noted that “This indicates that the number of high-skill and high-degree folks out there who want to come to the U.S. is far higher than the number this country is willing to accept. Each year, 65,000 H-1B visas are awarded to high-skill immigrants, along with 20,000 advanced degree visas for the highly educated.”

Why this demand and need?  The US is a country whose population is rapidly aging – median age:  37.6 (male: 36.3; female: 39) –  compared with 29.2 in Vietnam (29.2 (male:  26.1; female:  30.2) and whose labor market desperately needs more high-skill and high-degree workers than the US educational system is able to produce from among its own (domestic) ranks.

Compete AmericaObservers with a vested interest include U.S. information technology companies, some of which created an organization called Compete America, dedicated to ensuring that the US has the highly educated and innovative workforce necessary to grow the economy and create American jobs.  Here is one of the points that appears at the top of its website right under the running tally of jobs lost because of H-1B visa limits:

Thanks to the limits on H-1B Visas, America loses not only scientists and engineers who could fill vacant high-skilled jobs, but also the additional jobs that these scientists and engineers would create. As a result, America loses 500,000 jobs every year. Spread across 50 five-day workweeks, this translates into 2,000 U.S. jobs not created every business day because of overly-restrictive U.S. immigration policy; or, to put it another way, that roughly equals a new job that is lost in America every 63 seconds.

This trend is one reason why US student visa policy will change in the coming years and why the third pillar of the holy trinity of the process will fall by the wayside:  plans to return to one’s home country.  Immigrants have contributed and continue to contribute to the US economy, which needs a certain percentage of international students to remain.  Call it brain drain or brain circulation; emigration is ultimately a personal decision.

The day is fast approaching when applicants will no longer have to say that they will “return home to contribute to the development of my country” and/or to run their parent’s business, a mantra spouted by millions of young people standing in front of the five-minute glass.  The only criteria that will matter are 1) their status as bona fide students and 2) their ability to pay.


Of Emigration, Brain Drain & Brain Gain: Some Reflections

Over the years, I’ve known and helped many young Vietnamese who have studied overseas.  Some I knew in passing; others became friends.  Quite a few made the decision to remain overseas either in the country in which they studied or a third country.  By doing so, they slowly but surely began the transformation from Vietnamese national to Việt kiều (overseas Vietnamese).


I think of the implications of this more now that I am living in their (home) country, some in mine and others elsewhere.  I have the gnawing feeling that another country’s (brain) gain is Vietnam’s loss and on glass is half empty days I can’t help feeling that Vietnam would be a better place in some ways, if some had remained.

On the other hand (and perhaps from a more rational perspective), I know that many would not be where they are now, academically, personally and professionally, were it not for the opportunities afforded them by U.S. and other foreign institutions of higher education and economies, opportunities not yet available in Vietnam.  I also know that many of them contribute to Vietnam as cultural ambassadors, and through a sharing of expertise and remittances, which reached a record $11 billion last year.  Some lose touch with their home country network, find their niche, including a great job opportunity, fall in love, or all of the above.  These are a few of the reasons they choose to remain.

[Interestingly, Vietnam is a “top ten” country in three interrelated categories in 2013:  number of students in the U.S. (#8), number of immigrants to the U.S. (#5 after China – PDF download) and remittances (#9), according to the World Bank.  About 45% of all overseas Vietnamese live in the U.S.]

Contrary to the third pillar of U.S. student visa policy (i.e., plans to return to one’s home country after graduation or an OPT experience), emigration is a personal decision and indeed a universal human right.  As a side note, the U.S. and other countries with graying populations desperately need a certain percentage of international students to remain and make important contributions to the economy and society-at-large.  (Of course, many do; it’s just not policy yet.  We’re is still at the wink-and-nod stage.)  Political and business leaders at the highest levels, including President Obama, are finally coming to this realization.  My prediction:  there will be some fundamental changes in U.S. student visa policy in the not too distant future.

The encouraging reality is there are many young Vietnamese who have had neither the desire nor the opportunity to study overseas who are taking up the slack.  They are smart, ambitious, connected, proficient in key foreign languages and determined.  Some of them are better qualified on a number of levels than some of their foreign-educated peers.  They give me hope for the future of Vietnam.

departure-signAnother hopeful reality is that a growing number of Vietnamese are returning home after graduation or a work experience.  (This is based on my observations and anecdotal evidence; unfortunately, there is no official source for this information.)  In addition, many overseas Vietnamese are “coming home” and a growing number of foreigners have decided to make Vietnam their home for the long-term.  (Follow this link to read a relevant blog post written by a young Vietnamese-American who has been living in HCMC for seven years.)  Both groups are part of a phenomenon known as brain circulation, defined as “the circular movement of skilled labor across nations.”  They are working in collaboration with foreign- and domestically-Vietnamese and in a variety of sectors and fields to create a better Vietnam.

Your thoughts?