Happiness (Among Nations) Is…

world happiness report 2015

This is one of my favorite annual reports, one that should be closely read by representatives of every government.  Color me naive but I believe that happiness is, after all, one of the primary purposes of government.  Keep in mind that this 172 pp. report is not only about “happiness,” as in “do you feel happy, dear citizen?” but rather about various indicators of quality of life in each country that form the basis for a happy and fulfilled life.

As the report notes, “the equation explains national average life evaluations in terms of six key variables: GDP
per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption.   Taken together, these six variables explain almost three-quarters of the variation in national annual average ladder scores among countries, using data from the years 2005 to 2014.”

In this year’s World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Switzerland is the happiest country in the world.  The USA ranked 15th while Vietnam took the 75th position.  The countries in bold are among the top 20 countries that host Vietnamese students.  (Australia is currently #2 after the US.)  Their “happiness” is another selling point for those countries.

1:  Switzerland
2:  Iceland
3:  Denmark
4:  Norway
5:  Canada
6:  Finland
7:  The Netherlands
8:  Sweden
9:  New Zealand
10:  Australia

Other Asian countries in the same league of “happiness” as Vietnam in terms of how this report measures it include Hong Kong (72), Indonesia (74) and China (84).

I would argue that less attention should be given to GDP per capita.  (It uses Purchasing Power Parity, or PPP, adjusted to constant 2011 international dollars, taken from the World Development Indicators released by
the World Bank in November 2014.)  GDP PCI is, after all, a very general measurement of a country’s economic progress.  One obvious case in point is the US, where economic inequality is of historic proportions and there is much talk about the death of the American Dream, such as it was.

Speaking of which, in case you still believe a socio-economic US American Santa Claus, read these two articles for a reality check:

American Dream? Or Mirage? (1.5.15, NY Times)

The American Dream Is Dead — And These 6 Charts Prove It (28.4.15, Policy.Mic)

Cover of the first World Happiness Report (2012).
Cover of the first World Happiness Report (2012).

For those of us who work in the field of education the report’s “money chapter” is Chapter 8:  Investing in Social Capital.  Here are some excerpts from the introduction:

Well-being depends heavily on the pro-social behavior of members of the society.  Pro-sociality involves individuals making decisions for the common good that may conflict with short-run egoistic incentives.  Economic and social life is rife with ‘social dilemmas,” in which the common good and individual incentives may conflict.  In such cases, pro-social behavior – including honesty, benevolence, cooperation, and trustworthiness – is key to achieving the best outcome for society.

Societies with a high level of social capital – meaning generalized trust, good governance, and mutual support by individuals within the society – are conducive to pro-social behavior.

The pressing policy question is therefore how societies with low social capital riven by distrust and dishonesty, can invest in social capital.  The chapter discusses various pathways to higher social capital, including education, moral instruction, professional codes of conducts, public opprobrium towards violators of the public trust, and public policies to narrow inequalities in the various supports for well-being, income, health and social connections. (My italics.)  This is important because social and economic equality is associated with higher levels of social capital and generalized trust.

Now think of these issues as they apply to Vietnam and the US, a bundle of contradictions worthy of their own research study, or at least another blog post to lay a very general foundation.


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)

The State of Vietnamese Higher Education: Point/Counterpoint

?????Below is a recent exchange on the Vietnam Studies Group (VSG) listserv between a Vietnamese-American professor and a young Vietnamese who recently graduated from a U.S. institution of higher education.  The original post is in reference to an article by Roy J. Nirschel, president of the American University of Vietnam (AUVN), entitled “Picking Up the Pieces:  Vietnam’s Class War – Setting up an American-style university in Vietnam has got to be easier than winning a war, doesn’t it?”, which appeared in The American Interest on 19 December 2013.


I think Dr. Nirschel is quite optimistic. The US fought its last war with Vietnam on its terms and still lost. This time, Dr. Nirschel is fighting this battle on the Vietnamese’s terms. I wish him and the American University the best in its efforts. I wonder how one can have critical thinking when one is not permitted to be critical.

Trung Van Nguyen, Professor, Chem. & Petr. Eng. Dept.,  University of Kansas


Dear Professor Trung,

As a recent grad and thus still consider myself in the age range of college kids, I would like to answer your question, even though it is rhetorical. I have spent 16 years under the Vietnamese education, from kindergarten to high school and pass the university entrance exam (after which I studied abroad), how I can stay critical, and I know for a fact that many others also do, is through social media and attending groups/forums like VSG. Although me and my friends are from privileges positions and therefore could be said to not representative enough of the general population, to say that we are also the antithesis of it is wrong.

I agree wholeheartedly with the portrayal of the difficulty that Vietnamese education is suffering, however, I do not think that Vietnam as of right now is only Confucianist and Communist, it is also Buddhist, Capitalist and in a lot of way, Cosmopolitan, among others. Such diversity of ideologies that is held by all social strata is precisely how critical thinking can form: Vietnamese always strive to understand each other first, due to an emphasis on relationship and connection of everyday life, and thus discourses between these ideologies are constructed organically to inform the population of ideas other than the rhetoric of the Party.

The problem various higher education, and education in general in Vietnam, is that domestically, nobody care enough. It might be true that Vietnam spends a higher proportion of GDP on Education, but I do not think it speaks to the quality of education, or even the effectiveness of how the funds are spent. As a consultant in the field of human development, I can attest to the fact that the funds are not well spent and the quality is bad.

However, I am seeing a genuine interest in SOEs, especially in the petroleum industry where they now have to partner with MNCs frequently, for human development. This, in turn, have created demand for higher quality upstream, midstream and downstream employees, which, in turn, have prompted universities to reconsider their approach on educating the future employees. So I can also attest to the potential of Vietnamese higher education.


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?


“Vietnamese Americans should come and live in Vietnam full time”

Interesting, insightful and heartfelt post by Minh, a HCMC-based blogger at Tech In Asia.

Introduction:  I’m a Vietnamese American. I’ve been living in Vietnam for seven years now. And in that time, I’ve only come back to the States a total of four times. Each time was less than a month. In other words, I’ve been living in this country full-time, non-stop. And if you’re a Vietnamese American, old or young, first generation or second generation, I think you should live here too.


Conclusion:  P.S. On a personal note, living in Vietnam has been one of my most transformative and meaningful periods of my life. Teaching in the countryside to young university students made me so happy sometimes that it made me cry. And there were also some really fun inspiring moments, like when Vietnam was winning soccer games during the regional Tiger Cup and everybody “đi bão”. To see a country shift and change through the eyes of a foreigner is a privilege. Being in close contact with Vietnamese people who have so much hope for their own personal and country’s future is awesome.

Follow this link to read everything in between.

Education Companies in Vietnam: Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Part II)

Note:  Follow this link to read the first post in this two-part series.

Due Diligence

Some advice to my foreign higher education colleagues:  don’t trust any of the come-ons or be seduced by the slick lines in (sometimes) passable English that arrive in your inboxes on a regular basis.  Do your homework, check references, and find out who’s really behind the keyboard on the other side of the world.  Due diligence now will save you time, money and frustration later.

Rising Expectations

There is an encouraging trend of rising consumer expectations.  More and more parents and students are becoming educated consumers.  This means that there is both official (i.e., government) and grassroots (i.e., consumer) pressure for companies to become better than they are.  Competition and effective official oversight will take care of the rest.

Educational Credentials:  Why Earn One When You Can Buy It? 

diploma-mill-graphic-1At the extreme end of the dishonesty and cheating continuum are companies that simply and shamelessly sell educational credentials, local and international, from diplomas and transcripts to language exam certificates.  Whatever you want or need, the black market has.  One of the reasons that a sizable contingent of netizens visit my blog, An International Educator in Vietnam, is not to find useful information or enlightenment; they’re in the hunt for a fake academic degree.  How do I know this?  Because I often see search engine terms such as “buying phd overseas,” “harvard university diplomas for sale,” “buying an accredited degree,” and, for those ambitious cheats who are in a real hurry, “email instant doctorate degree.”

One enterprising yet misguided individual set up a company called Realdegree Company, a dictionary definition of oxymoronic, with ties to Ho Chi Minh City (i.e., website registration) and British Columbia, Canada.  You can buy an associate’s degree for $599 or a bachelor’s degree for $899, including a 25% discount!  Choices included quite a hodgepodge of institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the “University of Phonix,” Troy University, UCLA, Stanford, and “Kenstate University,” among many others.  One of my observations in a related blog post was Just pray your current or prospective employer doesn’t check on the authenticity of your spanking new – and very fake – sheepskinDegree verification services, anyone?

Six years ago, the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training required all Vietnamese foreign degree holders to have their diplomas recognized by the Bureau of Testing and Education Quality Assurance in order to pursue further education in Vietnam through Decision 77.  A recent amendment called “Circular 26,” requires foreign degree holders to submit other evidence of overseas study.  A year ago this month, Decree 73, which regulates foreign partnerships and cross-border programs, was approved by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and implemented.

In Conclusion…

In recent years, the Vietnamese government, through the Ministry of Education and Training, has made considerable progress in addressing the havoc wrought by the unholy trinity of unscrupulous education agents, foreign rogue providers (i.e., unaccredited schools) and the sale of fake educational credentials.  The long-term challenge will be enforcement of new rules and regulations.  As John Ditty, chairman of KPG in Vietnam and Cambodia, noted somewhat understatedly at a recent presentation for business leaders in Hanoi, “Fraud in Vietnam presents an imminent danger not to be neglected.”


Education Companies in Vietnam: Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Part I)

no cheatingIn Vietnam, where cheating is a national pastime and ethical business practices are in dangerously short supply, the world of educational consulting is no exception.  EducationUSA fantasies notwithstanding, the reality is that most parents and students work with an education agent instead of applying directly to U.S. (and other foreign) colleges and universities, as in other Asian countries.

Another reality is that most education agents are substandard in terms of quality and ethical standards.  Let’s face it – anyone can create a Google Sites website, set up a Facebook account, hang out a sign and begin the frantic search for customers.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the requisite education, experience, standards and moral compass to do it the right way and succeed in the long-term.

Whatever It Takes?

In what has become an intensely competitive market (e.g., there are 160 educational consultancies in Hanoi alone), many companies attempt to secure some kind of competitive advantage, any kind of competitive advantage, by hook or by crook.  This runs the gamut from cheating one’s customers (customer as easy mark instead of king or queen), facilitating fraud on the part of their customers (e.g., encouraging the use of and even supplying fraudulent documents such as fake bank statements and academic transcripts in the visa application process) to copying other companies services lock, stock and barrel.  In Vietnam, wholesale and shameless imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.

Why Create When You Can Copy?

The prevailing mentality is why invest elbow grease when you can copy and paste?  Of course, copying and executing are two completely different things – just like saying something don’t make it so.  (I’m reminded of a quote by Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame:  My attitude was that competition can try to steal my plans and copy my style.  But they can’t read my mind; so I’ll leave them a mile and a half behind”.  From Grinding It Out: The Making Of McDonald’s.)

While I like to see new companies created, especially those that have something NEW to offer the market, I’d prefer to see them do it the old-fashioned way by adhering to a set of ethical standards not by cheating.  At the end of the day, ethical business practices translate into good business.  In this industry there are many opportunities to do well and do good.

Innovation Over Imitation

time for changeMy advice to the wannabes – innovate don’t imitate!  Vietnam will not rise in the global economic food chain unless there is more innovation across-the-board.  Chances are, you don’t have the education, experience and network to outperform your competition, which means you’ll always be a step or two behind.  Chances are, the hopes and dreams of today’s business license approval and grand opening will end up as tomorrow’s old news and bittersweet memories.  Vietnam’s economy continues to struggle with more bankruptcies than new businesses being created.  According to a Ministry of Planning and Investment report, there were 15,839 enterprises that suspended operation or declared bankruptcy in the first quarter of 2013 compared to 15,707 new businesses.  I expect this trend to continue for into 2014.  One of the issues that will ultimately hold Vietnam back is this penchant for copying and cheating.  It is innovation that will take Vietnam to the next level and help to liberate it from the dreaded middle income trap.

Agents Behaving Badly:  The Times They Are A-Changin’!

logo-moet210px_enParents are desperately looking for companies they can trust, that will treat them with respect and not cheat them of their time and money.  There’s a reason why this is such a hot-button issue  in U.S. higher education and why the Vietnamese government is attempting to regulate this industry by imposing certain criteria that companies must meet, including requiring mandatory training and certification for advisers.  According to Decision 05/2013/QD-TTg, proposed by the Minister of Education and Training (MoET) and issued by the Prime Minister on 15 January 2013, study abroad education consultancies have to meet the following requirements effective 10 March 2013.

  1. companies must have on deposit VND 500 million ($23,800) in a commercial bank; and
  2. owners and agents must have a university qualification, be proficient in at least one foreign language and be certified by MoET.

In addition, education consultancies must publicize all information about schools in foreign countries, among other requirements.  Local departments of education and training (DoET) are responsible for implementing this decision, which is happening slowly but surely nationwide.  As with all new approaches, however, it will take a while before the “Wild West” becomes less wild, less greedy and more responsive to the needs and demands of its customers and higher education partners.  But this type of certification is a step in the right direction.


Follow this link to read the second post in this series.