Exceptional Vietnam

May 04, 2021 | 08:30
When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1995, the country was poor by international measures. Many such countries I had visited before were clearly unorganised and unsafe. It was immediately clear that Vietnam was quite the opposite, with the Vietnamese work ethic, organisation, ambition, and community spirit all strong. I predicted back then that it was only a matter of time before Vietnam became a developed country.
exceptional vietnam
By Colin Blackwell - Chairman of HR Committee Vietnam Business Forum

Over 25 years later, it is a pleasure to see Vietnam well along a journey to developed status. The change from relative poverty to a middle-income country is not just about the obvious new city skylines, but about the changes to people’s individual lives. I know many people here who went from being young ambitious students to now owning houses, cars, and going on international holidays. They deserve it, and it is a pleasure to see. The Vietnamese know that their tomorrow will be even better than today, which very few people elsewhere have the luxury of.

As the economic success of Vietnam has happened quickly, many people underestimate how far they have progressed. As a foreigner, I have the advantage of being able to look at Vietnam from a different perspective, in some ways being better able to compare with other countries. And what I see is Vietnam not just catching up as expected, but increasingly overtaking and becoming the global best. My work has me reading many international reports and persuading foreign companies to invest in Vietnam, where I often list the best things about this country. When I show these lists to Vietnamese colleagues, they are pleasantly surprised, so let me share some highlights here.

Whilst GDP growth has been impressive, the even distribution of wealth across the population is even more so. As a result, Vietnam has had the fastest rate of wealth creation in the world in the last 20 years. Not only that, but it is predicted to also have the global highest in the next 20 years too. That is how most people will belong to the middle class soon.

Taking over

Vietnam is now officially the most internationalised large economy in world history, per World Bank measures of foreign trade relative to overall economy. Another key forward indicator is the potential of Vietnam’s human resources; the PISA system measures educational attainment scores in key subjects at age 15. Vietnam is placed in the top global ranks, having overtaken countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. These underlying measures reassure that the current growth is sustainable all the way into its developed status, without the middle-income trap that other countries have become stuck at.

When it comes to technology, Vietnam last year became the sixth country to attain 5G manufacturing capability. When I was recently making a virtual presentation in Mozambique, I mentioned I was based here and the first thing they thought of saying was “Vietnam runs our mobile phone networks”. Domestically, Vietnam has the second-highest ownership of AI-supporting consumer devices in the world.

During the pandemic I have had the pleasure of taking more holidays within Vietnam and observed more. The largest temple, the longest cable car – all part of this new optimistic attitude. To a foreign observer, this looks like a newfound confidence of the Vietnamese thinking. “of course we can be the best in the world”. Even the air route between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is now the second-busiest domestic connection in the world.

All this positivity and growth has propelled the overall size of the Vietnamese economy to overtaking the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore this year. When talking with friends in these countries, their reaction was one of surprise. Comments I received were along the lines of “how did that happen” and “but I thought Vietnam was a poor country”. Whenever I do online speeches in other countries, I always get the question of what Vietnam is doing right. I always give the reasons of stability, strong human resources, long-term planning, and successful entrepreneurial opportunism.

Given this context of Vietnam leading global indicators, is it any wonder that it also handled the pandemic so well? Vietnam had one of the fastest responses and in the early stages by far the highest rate of testing per case in the world, plus the highest approval of government response in the world. All these firsts lead to Vietnam being the largest country to contain the virus throughout the pandemic. Again, this will lead people in other countries to be surprised, especially those I talked with in developed countries who had assumed that they would have fared better. I even made a keynote speech to a Philippine audience on the Vietnam lessons learnt in how to handle pandemics.

Keeping us safe

So, when people overseas look at Vietnam’s pandemic success, they ask “who are you guys again? How come you did so well?”. To which we can answer “because we are in the habit of being the best in the world at many things already”. This is indeed the new and well-deserved confidence the country has. It is a very long way from the mix of poverty and hope I first saw 26 years ago. It has been an honour to be here observing this happy success.

The good organisation and stability that was my first impression of Vietnam, I still see these factors as the key to economic success and, more recently, the excellent handling of the pandemic. While countries that saw large COVID-19 outbreaks say their health services were their “frontline against the pandemic”, this is only the case if a country has a community transmission problem in the first place. As Vietnam was more proactive, the frontline was represented by the security services, performing the vital tasks of controlling borders and contact tracing. Due to Vietnam’s overall good organisation and administrative efficiency, this was an area that was particularly effective. All of us, including us foreigners living in Vietnam, owe the government genuine thanks for keeping us safe from the pandemic.

For Vietnamese and resident foreigners alike, we take it for granted that our children can go to school, that we can meet our friends in restaurants and can go to shopping malls and have a weekend by the seaside. But these simple things are not normal for other countries during this pandemic. Maybe as a foreigner speaking regularly with people overseas, I notice this more, but we really are so fortunate here. I have to even be quite careful in speaking with friends overseas to not make them resentful or jealous when I describe the normal things I have the luxury of doing here.

Which brings us back to where we started. Those same people overseas I am careful not to offend by gloating about how good it is here – they would have laughed at my prediction in 1995 that Vietnam was going to have achieved so much. I was correct when I saw the potential all those years ago. I am certain that I will see Vietnam becoming a fully developed country within the next 25 years. Not only this, but it will also literally be one of the best in the world, consistently being first in any number of measures.

I promise to then write a follow-up article in the year 2047 saying “I told you so”. It will be my honour to do so, not just for observing progress for the sake of progress, but more importantly about how people’s lives will change for the better. Those future stories of how Vietnamese will enjoy new opportunities are something to look forward to.

By Colin Blackwell

What the stars mean:

★ Poor ★ ★ Promising ★★★ Good ★★★★ Very good ★★★★★ Exceptional