On August 20, Fulbright University Vietnam hosted a virtual conference themed “Prospects of Economic Cooperation between Vietnam and the United States” in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Guest panelists engaged in vibrant dialogues addressing the current economic cooperation between the two nations, discussed issues facing the bilateral relations, and proposed solutions to promote better economic cooperation between the United States and Vietnam in the future.

President of Fulbright University Vietnam – Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs – Nguyen Quoc Dung, and Chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi – Christopher Klein have made opening remarks for the conference. Joining the two panel discussions were former government officials, scholars, researchers, and leaders of businesses and associations of the United States and Vietnam.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs – H.E. Nguyen Quoc Dung

In his opening remarks, His Excellency Nguyen Quoc Dung emphasized that the Vietnam – U.S. relations have made significant strides since 1995, with the most salient aspect being the economic cooperation. With a comprehensive partnership, trade and investment flows from the U.S. have paved the way for Vietnam to further our international economic integration and gradually boost growth, thereby moving away from the status of a less developed to a middle-income country. For American businesses, Vietnam’s fast-growing market of 100 million people with a young, industrious workforce seems to be highly promising. The country’s increasing demands for development and its being situated in one of the most dynamically growing areas of the world also offer great opportunities likewise.

All in all, we do see the benefits, the potentials and the importance of moving forward Vietnam – U.S economic cooperation. The question is how and what should we do to tap on opportunities, maximize benefits and duly address outstanding constraints to achieve that aim,” the Deputy Minister remarked.

Chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Hanoi – H.E. Christopher Klein

Prominent issues

Discussing the current state of bilateral cooperation, experts focused on analyzing outstanding issues such as trade imbalance, currency manipulation, and prospects for regional trade agreements.

According to Mr. Nguyen Xuan Thanh, Senior Faculty at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic since last year, the main growth engine of Vietnam’s economy remains commerce. Despite the decline in domestic consumption due to the impact of social distancing and other restricting measures, Vietnam continues to trade with the world, and export growth was a major factor in 2020’s economic development. Trade diversification proved to be valuable in that while Vietnam’s exports to the EU and Asian markets are affected, it was compensated for by exports to the U.S. and China.

Mr. Nguyen Dinh Luong, Vietnam’s former chief negotiator for the Vietnam – U.S. bilateral trade agreement (BTA), commented that the U.S. has always been Vietnam’s leading export market since the BTA was signed in 2000. Trade has become a pillar of the growing bilateral relationship of the two countries. With the U.S. market standing as the second-largest free-market competition in the world and import and export taxes accounting for less than 2% of the U.S. budget revenue, all countries in the world have export advantages to the U.S. market, not just Vietnam. Another reason for Vietnam’s trade surplus with the U.S. is because the U.S.’s import-export structure has always been a trade deficit in goods and an export surplus in services, Mr. Luong analyzed.

Prof. David Dapice, leading expert on development economics in Southeast Asia, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, highlighted that the development of economic cooperation between Vietnam and the United States is very “spectacular”: Vietnam’s total export turnover to the United States has skyrocketed from 1 billion USD in 2000 to 10 billion USD in 2007, which can be greatly attributed to the BTA. After 2007, Vietnam’s exports to the United States continued to increase. On the one hand, this growth was due to the shift in the global supply chain; on the other hand, foreign investors entered Vietnam to take advantage of cheap labor costs when China raised theirs. According to Prof. Dapice, another reason is that FDI enterprises in Vietnam are mainly export-oriented.

Guest speakers joining the virtual roundtable agreed that Vietnam and the United States continue to face a number of challenges such as trade imbalances, obstacles in entering markets for goods and services, as well as difficulties in administrative procedures and legal framework hindering US investment and business activities in Vietnam.

The future ahead

Vietnam is gradually becoming a production hub of the region, attracting FDI and organizing the production of processed and manufactured industrial products for export. This is an irreversible trend because of ongoing influencing factors such as U.S. – China trade tensions, or the transition of the global supply chain.

According to Mr. Nguyen Xuan Thanh, although it is not clear what specific trade policies under the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden are, it is known that Mr. Biden is a supporter of multilateralism and international cooperation. At the same time, as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Quoc Dung mentioned in his speech, Vietnam’s strategy is to integrate deeply into the global economy, multilateralize economic relations, and take advantage of free trade agreements (FTAs) for current and future development of Vietnam’s economy.

Mrs. Virginia Foote, President and CEO of Bay Global Strategies LLC, commented that the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam is partly due to the fact that the Vietnamese market is not friendly to imports from the U.S., especially investment in services, and implementation of foreign ownership limits in many sectors. Vietnam is an economy still struggling to find ways to implement structural reforms. In addition to the need to reform administrative and legal procedures, improve soft infrastructure, improve mid-level management skills for the workforce and keep up with international standards, Ms. Virginia Foote suggested that Vietnam should focus on developing the digital economy because there are currently no companies and industries that are not relying on digital economy; from e-commerce or e-payment to e-government.

On digital transformation, Mr. Hoang Nam Tien, Chairman of FPT Telecom JSC, shared that the company has just launched the first version of E-Covax (Economy Covax), a digital solution that helps businesses operate and continue their business without disruption during the Covid-19 pandemic. “With 8 years of experience working with leading corporations in the U.S., we see that the U.S. has a lot of solutions suitable for businesses, including small and medium enterprises in Vietnam. I hope that organizations in the U.S. will support us with not only medicines, vaccines, endowments, or food, but also sending us doses of E-COVAX. Because, 0.3% of Vietnamese people are currently infected with Covid-19, but 8% of Vietnamese businesses had to close due to the impact of the pandemic,” he shared.

H.E. Pham Quang Vinh, former Vietnam Ambassador to the United States, said that Vietnam can take the pandemic as an opportunity to start participating in the supply chain of manufacturing medical supplies or vaccines, or the supply chain of technology, such as semiconductor chip production because the United States is looking to reduce dependence on China in this field. “There are some areas where Vietnam can cooperate very well with the US such as electricity and energy. I very much look forward to Vietnam improving its business environment to turn the challenges of shifting the current supply chain into opportunities,” shared H.E. Vinh.

Guest speakers such as Mr. Hoang Nam Tien and Mr. Chris Malone, CEO of Panl, a strategic consulting firm focusing on projects in Southeast Asia with high social impact, shared the prospect of U.S. investment in education for Vietnam, especially educational technology (ed tech).

Mr. Chris Malone, CEO of Panl

“I see a future when Vietnam can do digital transformation in the education sector; this will create opportunities for domestic and foreign educational technology providers. If that comes true, Vietnamese businesses in education technology will also have the potential to export at least to the ASEAN region,” Mr. Chris Malone contended.

Thúy Hằng

A day in mid-2007, in the office of Ben Wilkinson, Harvard Vietnam Program representative of Fulbright Economic Teaching Program (FETP), a candidate for a part-time librarian position was waiting for a job interview.

The candidate was Truong Minh Hoa, a bachelor’s degree holder from Library and Information Science Faculty of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City. Hoa’s experience was still limited; having only worked as a full-time librarian at Van Hien University, HCMC.

Hoa looked anxious and nervous as he had never talked to a foreigner before, while he was the third candidate to be interviewed for this position. Much to his surprise, Ben spoke fluent Vietnamese; it made the interview much more comfortable and warm. Hoa wanted to be polite and called Ben “Sir,” making the latter laugh. Ben corrected him immediately: “I’m not that kind of high-ranking officer!” It turned out to be Hoa’s first memory about FETP.

Hoa got accepted for the position. In the library inside FETP’s small campus on Vo Thi Sau Street, District 3, his desk was set next to that of Ms. Mai, the full-time librarian. It was beyond his expectation that he would work here for 13 years, in a small library where he experienced the most exciting days of his work life.

For the pursuit of knowledge

Although the library of FETP was not home to a vast collection of books like those of old universities, it took Hoa by surprise in his first days of work. The library welcomed anyone seeking information, even if they were not FETP students. They could access all kinds of books, including the rare ones. Later on, Hoa realized it was part of Fulbright school’s culture: a student-centered approach for the pursuit of knowledge.

It was totally different from what Hoa experienced at other libraries, where books were strictly kept and the distribution of books to library users was restricted. Therefore, Hoa felt very pleased with FETP and quickly fitted in this new environment.

According to Hoa, FETP’s library also had a different approach towards its users compared to other libraries. Traditionally, students in Vietnam keep a certain distance with librarians; they feel reserved and uncomfortable when interacting. When they talk to librarians because they wish to borrow a book, librarians are addressed as if they were superior.

“They might think librarians are grumpy and unfriendly. But here at FETP, students could search and look for the books they wanted themselves, in a totally open library. They just had to sign up with the librarian if they wanted to bring the books home,” Hoa recalled.

The open library gradually grew the bond between Hoa and the students. Their interactions and mutual support formed a friendly and comfortable academic environment at Fulbright school, where the relationships between faculty and staff, library officers and students were more akin to a big family.

“FETP completely changed the way I think about my work, the way I interact with my colleagues and students, and made me understand that librarians can contribute to building the culture of “serving for the pursuit of knowledge,” Hoa emphasized.

A turning point in his career path was when Ms. Mai resigned from her position at FETP. Hoa became the full-time librarian, working very hard to keep up with all the responsibilities by himself. He classified the books, labeled them with barcodes, put them on the shelves… He settled into a routine in which he found excitement and inspiration.

After a while, he found the perks of being a librarian were not just helping students find the information they needed. It brought him endless opportunities to learn, immersing into knowledge in the wonderful academic environment of Fulbright.

Founded in 1995, FETP, which has now become Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), was a partnership between the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). IT was initially designed to teach applied economics for Vietnamese policymakers, with the curriculum “imported” from HKS. Books and other documents used at FETP were updated constantly by HKS.

“In an attempt to build the academic space at Fulbright, we bought a huge volume of books on modern economics and market economy, including macroeconomics, microeconomics, econometrics, development economics, and a vast literature reviewing economic development in East and Southeast Asian countries and in the world,” said Prof. Nguyen Xuan Thanh.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amazon had just began operating internationally, and it was not easy to source books for FETP. Imported books were also subjected to strict censorship before entering Vietnam. HKS supported FETP in accessing the latest books and other economic documents from abroad. FETP translated these books into Vietnamese for students, mostly public officers from various cities and provinces across Vietnam who came to FETP for public policy study and had limited mastery of English.

Since the early 2000s, the bilingual library of Fulbright school has been home to a vast collection of newly published books on modern economics, something you may not find in other libraries across Vietnam.

True to a student-centered approach, there was a close connection between faculty members, academic affairs officers and the librarian at Fulbright school. Hoa actively assisted faculty members to find documents and prepare for translations. Sometimes, Hoa would go out himself to source the books students could not find in Fulbright’s library.

“The Fulbright environment changed me completely, from someone who just sits passively waiting for students to borrow books to an active, multi-tasking librarian,” he reflected.

It was not just the books that consumed Hoa’s time and efforts. The librarian was also heavily invested in building and maintaining OpenCourseWare, an important online platform for FETP’s teaching and learning program built in the early 2000s. At that time, Vietnam’s internet landscape was dominated by internet cafés all over the big cities. FETP began to publish its teaching and research materials online.

Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare Initiative (OCW), FETP, and now FSPPM, publish course syllabi, lecture notes, reading lists, assignments and case studies online. Both teachers and learners can access these resources and freely download documents.

The OpenCourseWare requires constant updates on a yearly basis, from majors, lectures to assignments; for cases studies, updates are more frequent. For more than one decade, Hoa has kept a steady course at the helm of OpenCourseWare, a unique legacy for those learning and working in policy-related fields offered by Fulbright school.

Nowadays, the booming development of technological platforms allows easier access to knowledge. But Hoa still dedicates his time and efforts to the platform, with a systemized approach and in accordance with copyright laws.

“FSPPM’s OpenCourseWare is up to date and hits over 1.5 billion page views each year, not just from FSPPM students and users inside Vietnam. We also have users outside the country,” Hoa added.

Warm-hearted librarian

In 2008, FETP shifted from a one-year training program on applied economics to a complete Master in Public Policy. Hoa actively helped students find statistics for their research and graduation theses, though it was not part of his job. As students came from various cities and provinces and their graduation theses covered different areas, the statistics they required differed greatly. Each year, Hoa would contact the Bureau of General Statistics of Vietnam and the statistics offices from cities and provinces across Vietnam, collecting data from statistical yearbooks. So far, FSPPM has owned a collection of statistical yearbooks from all cities and provinces, providing a comprehensive compilation of statistics on social and economic conditions and activities at local level with constant updates.

“The collection of figures and statistical yearbooks has been a very interesting experience for me at Fulbright. In my first days here, professors taught me to search for official data from the databases of international organizations such as the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, Economist Intelligence Unit and more, all for the research and reports on macroeconomics; at that time, the data was not widely available online like today. That experience helps me a lot when I am assisting lecturers and students with their research and learning,” he explained.

Dang Thi Manh, former MPP2 student, remembered how busy she was in 2011, juggling her graduation thesis and a new job. Her thesis compared public finance models in Da Nang and Binh Duong provinces in relation to a socio-economic development model. She needed figures regarding the two provinces’ budget, revenue, and spending, and turned to Hoa.

“The collection of statistics became a burden for me given the pressure and time constraints. I deeply appreciated Hoa for his care and his willingness to help me gather the data for my thesis. I remember waiting for the release of the 2010 Statistical Yearbook to get the updated figures. As soon as the yearbook was available at the library, Hoa called me. Thankfully, I managed to use the figures to finish my thesis on time,” she recalled.

Hoa experienced memorable moments both bitter and sweet with the students of FSPPM who share the motto “Work hard, play hard.” He remembered the students of MPP4 class usually gathered to eat sweet soup after lunch under the tamarind tree when the campus was located on Vo Thi Sau Street. One of them would enter the names of all students present in an Excel file and use the Randbetween function. The random number indicated the person numbered would have to pay for all the sweet soup servings that day.

FSPPM students said they always remembered the 8:20 a.m. deadline to submit their daily assignments. Hoa was tasked with labeling the assignment papers as “Late,” in red letters, if they missed it.

Former students like Manh said they cherished the moments spent together and thought of Hoa as a sincere, warm-hearted, and dedicated person.

“He knew very well the topics that we were interested in and recommended books related to those topics to us. Whenever the school or each class hosted an event, he quietly held the camera and sneaked into different corners to take photos for us. When we had free time or took a rest, he always talked to us. During the lunch breaks under the tamarind tree, we chatted about our studying, our life, our family and our hometowns. Hoa became close to us. Looking at the number of former FSPPM students who attended his wedding, many people were so surprised and asked how come that young librarian had so many friends!” Manh recalled.

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Diep, a student of LM2020 class, also shared her warm feelings for Hoa, ‘the guy with the unforgettable smile’. “I wonder how he managed to finish so many tasks in such limited time. He has a lot of work to do, and many of us ask him for help, but he always smiles.”

“After the graduation ceremony on August 6, Hoa wrote a note to say goodbye to us on his Facebook page; he made me cry. I think our students may forget this or that person in school, but Hoa is always remembered. Thanks to him, I realized that a humble job done wholeheartedly is really valuable. The way Hoa is doing his job each day, the way he is serving students is a pillar of Fulbright,” she added.

Xuan Linh-Doan Hang

At the invitation of Pacific Forum, from 15-18 April 2019, Dr. Huynh The Du, Lecturer of Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management attended the seminar “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Approaches to Investment and Infrastructure”. The seminar took place in Tokyo under the sponsorship of the US Embassy in Japan.

The idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) was initiated by Japan and enthusiastically supported by the United States over a year ago. These are the two most powerful opposition countries to China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative (BRI). FOIP and BRI show competition for the influence of big countries. In order to be able to build a free and open Indian-Pacific region, institutions and rules are needed so that stakeholders can compete healthily and cooperate on common concerns.

In the first two days of the workshop, Dr. Huynh The Du gave a presentation on “Vietnam: Opening and Development”. In the following days, together with Brad Glosserman, senior consultant of Pacific Forum and two other experts from the University of Tampa and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Dr. Huynh The Du talked to the audience in the cities of Nagoya and Fukuoka under the topic “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

On 9th April 2019, Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management together with World Bank and Australian Aid organized a workshop on Vietnam economic growth model.

The workshop honorably received World Bank economists and members of Prime Minister Economic Advisory Group and other researchers and scholars. Keynote presentations featured Dr. Sebastian Eckardt, Lead Economist, World Bank Group in Vietnam and Dr. Vu Viet Ngoan, Former Head, PM Economic Advisory Group.

Participants focused on discussing problems of the old growth model and characteristics and suggested strategies for successful adoption of the new model. Briefly looking at the past achievemnets, despite 25 years of uninterrupted rapid growth, Vietnam’s per capita GDP at $2385 is still only about 40 percent of the global average.

Vietnam needs to sustain real GDP growth of at least 7 percent over the next 25 years to achieve high income status by 2045. Despite the specified objective, Vietnam maintained average growth rate of around 6.8 percent in the past 25 years. This implies uncertainty in continuing past achievements into the future.

Through extensive discussion, experts agreed that future economic drivers are an innovative ecosystem backed by sound policies.

More specifically, an efficient financial market is required to reduce the cost of financing and efficiently allocate domestic savings into profitable sectors. Furthermore, innovative economy demands a workforce with 21st century skills.

Developing an inclusive and competitive vocational training system and world class universities not only ensure competitiveness but also enable people to participate productively in a rapidly growing economy.