Hanoi revisited: perspectives from our former ambassador

opinion June 14, 2018 01:00

Komgrit Varakamin reflects on the changes he HAS discovered in modern-day Vietnam  What does Hanoi look like today compared with the city I first saw in 1985? My prompt answer to that question is that Hanoi is much more modern and developed now than when I first visited 33 years ago.

In April, I returned to reacquaint myself with old friends, old places and meet new ones to keep abreast with present-day realities.

Back in the mid-1980s, a Hanoi government consolidating its grip on power throughout the reunified Vietnam was confronted with chronic poverty and international isolation because of poor socialist planning and miscalculation of the Cambodian issue. It also faced a dilemma of how to deal with its two close communist allies, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, in their growing rift.

In the final phase of the Vietnam War, Vietnam found itself more dependent on Moscow than Peking en route to the victory on April 30, 1975. 

Fortunately, the sixth National Party Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in December 1986 elected a reformist Party chief from the South to pursue the Doi Moi (renovation) approach to politics and the economy. The idea was to reform Vietnam toward a market economy in order to catch up with new realities in world politics. In retrospect, it was a shrewd move to undertake a number of new policies and measures to enable Vietnam to stand on its own feet as socialist disintegration in the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc in Europe, its strong fraternal allies, loomed. 

Over the past decades, Vietnam has reprioritised objectives and policies while keeping intact the essence of Party rule like its other socialist friends and neighbours. These days, in Vietnam we see much less emphasis on socialist jargon in economy and trade. Instead, we are witnessing strong drives to learn from the Western capitalist countries and to live with capitalist neighbours, whereby border trade has developed into larger-scale commercial relations.

In the old days, promising students were sent to China, and years afterwards to the Soviet Union. Recently, talented students have been sent to study in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. At present, they go to be trained in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Western Europe.

Vietnam welcomes the return of the Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) to visit families, send back money, invest in the country to generate income, production, employment, savings and income remittance. At present, there are as many as three million Vietnamese living abroad. While their political attitudes and loyalty are still in doubt, the Viet Kieu’s accumulated wealth is in beyond question. The war ended 43 years ago. It’s time to move on. 

It starts with sending money home to investing in the motherland. In essence, both sides benefit from new atmosphere. 

Coming back to where I started. I decided to return to Hanoi to see how much it has changed since my first tour of duty at the Royal Thai Embassy in 1985. Hundreds of thousands of bicycles have now been replaced with millions of motorcycles. Certainly, there are a big number of cars, minivans, buses and trucks but they have to muddle through heavy traffic jams. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are not far behind Moscow, Bucharest, Peking, Jakarta and Bangkok in their traffic problems.

The former five-digit telephone number system has given way to 10-digit mobile system. One can call overseas numbers without echoing or being heard in Moscow. People now enjoy calling, chatting with or sending e-mails to friends and relatives inside the country and around the world. Social media is at work; social freedom is being exercised. 

The people in general are apparently happy and pleased with what has been happening. Among Vietnam’s 92 million people are 64 million Facebook users, which accounts for 3 per cent of global Facebookers, according to a recent report released by “We Are Social”, a social media marketing and advertising agency. Vietnam has surpassed Thailand and Turkey by this Facebook measure, securing the seventh spot globally. Like the people in Thailand, the Vietnamese benefit from the Internet, including applications such as Line and Viber. Apparently, they are now very much concerned with cyber security, which warrants their precious social freedom.

Long gone are the days of socialist or war-oriented television broadcasts, or cultural shows emphasising foreign aggression and hardship. I found it amazing to watch TV programmes by Vietnam News Agency’s channel in the Vietnamese, English and Chinese languages presenting local, national and world news. Allowing Chinese to be used in TV news broadcast is both to aid speakers of that language and a show of consideration for the big neighbour to the north. 

Nevertheless, there is still a limit to the cross-border friendship despite long years of intense relations, on and off, among these two brother enemies. A diplomatic source told me that there will never be a visa-exemption scheme between the two countries. Vietnam cannot afford the unscreened entry of Chinese visitors at their doorstep. Uncontrolled travel by more than one billion Chinese people poses national security concerns to any neighbouring country. It’s doubtful if there will be many visa-exemption agreements between China and other countries.

As I write the world media has reported on Vietnamese people protesting in Hanoi and other cities against the central government’s plan to construct three special economic zones, and about a draft law on cybersecurity. In essence, the people have been dissatisfied with the Chinese investors and real estate developers who are poised to rent plots of land for up to 99 years, which is a rare development in a communist system, and the possibility of strict enforcement of severe laws against dissidents. The news about anti-China protests, regardless of their impact, well illustrates how intrinsically distrustful the Vietnamese people are of their brothers to the north.

At present, the market economy flourishes. As many as 14 million people are classified as middle class, but the majority are poor and living in rural areas. It’s not a proletarian society – it never was and it will not be.

While there, I met with Nguyen Quang Vinh, general secretary of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I affirmed to him what Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said to his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc when they last met in Hanoi on March 30 this year – that he is impressed with approaches to economic development in Vietnam and that Thailand supports Vietnam’s economic growth in all aspects.

He explained that Vietnam welcomes Thailand’s investment in almost all sectors, particularly agriculture (livestock), retail, refineries, tourism, real estate and automobile processing. He said he was impressed with the large investment from leading companies from Thailand such as the Central Group, Charoen Pokphand and Siam Cement Group.

I asked him about his view of corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities by foreign companies in Vietnam. He said that, while welcoming CSR contributions in the traditional way, Vietnam would rather see CSR initiatives in connection with sustainable development – ones that promote “inclusive business” and the “circular economy” in support of the local people’s livelihood and the country’s environment. Paraphrasing the old saying, he explained it was more productive to provide his countrymen with fishing nets than to give them fish to eat.

Certainly, it is advisable to give the local poor what the foreign investors can provide at different phases of  time – in the short-, medium- and longer-term – in return for the profits the investors earn. Before attaining the longer-term aim of sustainable development, the businessmen could start with basic CSR work such as providing educational supplies, sport equipment and training, building bridges, hospitals or road construction.

Lately, one proposal in view of the large number of motorcyclists in Vietnam, is that our CSR work could be easily recognised and appreciated by the distribution of helmets adorned with Thai and Vietnamese national flags along with some appropriate catchword. 

In dealing with Vietnam, a considerate Thai business needs to avoid being seen as exploiting resources, taking advantage or monopolising production or markets, as well as undertaking CSR work. In terms of good business experiences among responsible Thai investors, I am quite confident that Thailand will continue to be a good partner with Vietnam. 

I spent the last days of my trip to Hanoi meeting my former Vietnamese language teachers, a renowned artist, a diplomatic colleague and ambassador of Romania to Vietnam, and also by paying a visit to the Morning Star (Sao Mai) Centre, a school for special students with autism and intellectual disabilities. Meeting these people, in addition to other professional colleagues and friends, reinforced my determination to contribute in strengthening cordial ties between Thailand and Vietnam. 

I was amazed to see how Hanoi has been developed and oriented toward a market economy system, working hand in hand with Thailand and the West for the past years. There are still a number of things for Vietnam to do to catch up with the present world. I will no doubt be surprised and pleased to see more positive changes in Vietnam when I return next time. 

Ambassador KOMGRIT VARAKAMIN presently serves as adviser to the Thailand-Vietnam Business Council, Bangkok. Opinions expressed are his own.