Mark A. Ashwill
During my first trip to Vietnam in January 1996 to set up a summer program for U.S. students, I caught a glimpse of what could be a rapidly changing nation just opening up to world after decades of isolation and poverty, mostly the result of a U.S.-led economic embargo and the legacy of two cataclysmic wars with France and the U.S. following in the former’s bloody and foolhardy footsteps. What I knew about Vietnam at the time came mostly from history books and a few Vietnamese students studying in the U.S. in the “early days.”
Even though it was one of the poorest countries in the world then with a per capita income of just over $300 per year, I saw deep reservoirs of energy, spontaneity and ingenuity. I sensed a driving ambition and an ocean of untapped potential. Vietnam was a country that had survived the worst that two world powers had thrown at it and held its collective head high, ready, willing, and eager to forge ahead into a glowing future. It was an inspirational and electric place where necessity was truly the mother of invention.
That was a time when the historic renovation reforms of 1986 (Doi Moi), a fateful example of the official determination to bend rather than break, were beginning to kick in. There was the pervasive feeling that Vietnam would rise like a phoenix from the ashes, in spite of the legion of limitations imposed by war, poverty, mismanagement (then Prime Minister Pham Van Dong told a visitor in the late 1970s that “waging a war is simple, but running a country is very difficult”), and a U.S.-imposed comprehensive trade embargo. This sense of boundless possibility is one of the reasons I took the road less traveled by and moved here in 2005.
During the past 23 years, over half of which I have had the privilege of observing changes first-hand, including positive, negative and that vast expanse of gray, it has done precisely that, much to the credit of the Vietnamese people and some pivotal government policies.
The long and rocky road to progress
People fly Vietnam’s national flag in front of their houses in Hanoi for the National Day of September 2, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.
Unlike many foreigners, quite a few of whom who think they know better and who are imbued with a cultural superiority complex, also known as nationalism, I am not prone to offering unsolicited advice because, after all, Vietnam belongs to the Vietnamese. Even those of us who are here for the long-term, the expatriates and ex-patriots, are still guests.
Those of us who think and act as global citizens occasionally share our knowledge and experience not because we think “our way” is better but because we care. We know that Vietnam can be better than it is. We breathe the same air, eat the same food, walk on the same streets, and drive on the same roads. As employers, we hire from the same pool of applicants. Our motivation is a marriage of self-interest and altruism, both mutually inclusive, in this case.
Over the past 14 years, I have witnessed a number of unifying events that warm my heart and reinforce my view of Vietnamese as patriots who love and are devoted to their country, a dictionary definition of patriotism, taking joyful pride in its achievements, including tournament football. One notable cathartic event was not one of jubilation but rather profound national sorrow and loss: the 2013 death of General Vo Nguyen Giap.
While patriots justifiably celebrate national achievements in development, quality of life, education, the arts and sciences, and sports, etc., they are also capable of constructively criticizing their country because they want it to be better. In the words of Adlai Stevenson II, one-time U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador to the U.N., these individuals possess “a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
Land of opportunity & unmet challenges
Last year, Vietnam recorded a GDP growth rate of over 7 percent, the second highest in Southeast Asia and ninth in the world. This torrid growth, the result of strong exports and record foreign direct investment (FDI), while it doesn’t yet benefit everyone, is lifting the economic boats of most Vietnamese.
For these and other reasons,Vietnam has become a land of opportunity for millions of people, including foreign entrepreneurs who are adventurous, well-prepared, and flexible enough to set up shop and put down roots here and who, in the world of work, are able to build highly effective bilingual and bicultural teams.
Vietnam’s National Day is a fitting time to take stock of what this country and its people have accomplished but also to think about what each and every citizen can do to meet unmet needs and challenges and make Vietnam an even better place to live, including environmental awareness and action, heightened civility on the roads, business ethics, and other concrete areas that are within their control.
On a personal note, it is a time to reflect on my gratitude to this country, which has suffered so much at the hands of foreigners, including those from the country whose passport I hold, for its willingness to embrace me and many others, for giving me the chance to contribute to my chosen profession doing work that I find deeply satisfying and richly rewarding, and for allowing me to take the road less traveled by. It has indeed made all the difference.
*Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education (IIE)-Vietnam from 2005-09 and is the co-founder and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and HCMC. The opinions expressed here are his own.