he flight takes nearly twenty hours from New York to Vietnam, a country name that, for a generation of Americans, usually precedes the word “war.” Landing at Tan Son Nhat Airport in what is officially Ho Chi Minh City (although the ticket designation is SGN, and Saigon is how most people refer to this city of more than ten million), I glimpse a few remnants of war amid the new construction: concrete bunkers that once housed U.S. aircraft. My mind turns briefly to 1968, the nightly “honor roll” of dead soldiers on Channel 5 and images of the body bags flowing from those very bunkers on their journeys home.
But I am not in Vietnam for war remembrances. I am here to bring a different kind of American experience: higher education.
I have been visiting Vietnam for more than a decade. In 2002, as a new college president, I received an invitation from a friend to meet an “interesting woman who wants to start a school” in Vietnam, which was just emerging as an economic force in Southeast Asia. Bicycles eclipsed motorbikes on the street. Cars, along with other signs of conspicuous consumption, were rare. Not quite “quaint”, Saigon nevertheless maintained elements of that Graham Greene, French colonial appeal, even as the first shopping malls and high rises were beginning to transform the skyline.
Thinking about changes in education was in vogue then (as it remains now), and my contact, Madame Binh Tran, envisioned grand designs for the project. She saw K–12 schools, a college, a university, a university village with housing for faculty and students, a shopping center for the community, and maybe even an airport rising into the future. Sports fields, mascots, cheerleaders, too, could not be far behind. This is the stuff of Vietnam: dreams. I saw water buffaloes, rice paddies and bare-chested farmers eking out an existence in the shadows of District 1, downtown Saigon. But I took her point.
A decade later, having retired as an educator in the United States after a thirty-year career, I’m off to Vietnam again on a flight from Newark to Taipei (where I studied for a summer during the height of the Vietnam War) and on to Saigon. The changes to the city in the decade since I last visited are dramatic: new high-rise apartments, five-star hotels and a growing fast food industry. Kentucky Fried Chicken (with its iconic Colonel Sanders face, to me vaguely reminiscent of Ho Chi Minh) is complemented by Circle K convenience stores, Burger King, Pizza Hut and even a knock-off Starbucks or two, not to mention the luxury stores of Prada, Gucci, Marc Jacobs and a Mercedes dealership.
So the Communists won the war, but apparently we capitalists won the argument. Reforms known as doi moi opened up the Vietnamese economy, leading to membership in the World Trade Organization, the historic visit of President Clinton (one pho eatery renamed itself Pho 2000 to honor the year of his visit), and the transformation of the economy from a rigidly state-run system that barely met basic needs to a more free-wheeling state capitalism that encourages foreign investors, public-private companies and a host of joint ventures in nearly every sector of the economy. While small-bore entrepreneurship is rampant, Vietnam is still a “Communist” country with a one-party system and a controlled media. But in the past decade the portraits of Ho Chi Minh (who died before the country was reunified) seem to have gotten a little smaller, and remnants of what the Vietnamese call “the American War” are harder to find. Yes, day trips to the famous Vietcong underground complex of tunnels at Cu Chi are available, now with expanded passageways for wider-girthed Westerns. But there are also nearby “cultural villages”—a kind of self-conscious theme park to make Vietnamese life fit more easily for Western visitors—and a waterslide park for the kids. The war museums in Saigon still showcase Western atrocities and those by the losing South, but Saigon Tourist promotes these museums less than it does the local markets, musical performances or exotic boat trips on the Mekong.
Along with the opening of the economy, there were to be changes in the education system. The Communist Party promised increased literacy, educational access and a more open marketplace of ideas. As Meat Loaf once sang, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” Today Vietnam boasts a literacy rate above 90 percent and invests a higher percentage of its GDP in education than the United States or France. Quality K–12 schools exist in the major cities, as do private schools whose tuition eclipses average income. Many of these schools are quite rigorous, with standardized testing, international faculty and strong links to U.S., Canadian, British or other nations’ accreditation standards.
On the “open marketplace of ideas” front, however, results are mixed. In the larger universe of learning, a quick scan of the shelves of the major book chain in the country, FAHASA, reveals plenty of books on business, personal growth, technology, English as a second language and vampires. But books on current affairs, politics, history (except government-authorized ones), critical thinking, modern art or anything that might be even indirectly critical of the regime simply are unavailable.
Everyone wants to learn English. The government, recognizing the need, mandated “Project 2020”, which promised, optimistically, national English proficiency by that year. It is trying to certify countless new teachers, and mandatory instruction starts in third grade. There is a lot of work to do: More than 90 percent of current high school English teachers in Vietnam fail to achieve even minimal ability in the language, financial resources are stretched, and the concept of professional development for teachers is non-existent.
But whatever the supply, there is no doubt about the demand. Everyone craves English, and American English at that. A government official in Da Nang bemoans local hotel workers’ inability in “the world language of English” while asking me about language schools so his relative can prep for a Fulbright. Kids stop me in parks and coffee shops to practice their school lessons (along with soliciting advice on getting a coveted visa to the United States). Even on a visit to the convent of the Sisters of Saint Paul de Chartes, part of a Vatican-like complex on the edge of my neighborhood, I cannot escape the English bug. Sister Mary describes the history of the French order, waxes nostalgic and invites me to return: “Perhaps you can teach our novices English”, she shyly suggests, “because no one cares about learning French anymore.”
English language schools appear to exist on every street corner in Saigon (my favorite is the Intergalactic Language Center on Dien Bien Phu Street). The schools cram as many Western-sounding education-related names onto their lobby walls as possible: “Cambridge exams, College Board, TESL, TOEFL, University Foundation Year” and other shorthand for standards and legitimacy. But in a land without accreditation standards, Vietnam falls victim to fly-by-night and marginal operators both domestic and international. A Vietnamese friend proudly tells me of her Columbia MBA, but when I wax enthusiastic about the university and life in New York, the confused look on her face leads me to learn that her “Columbia” is a mail-order shop operating out of a post office box in some Southern U.S. state. To its credit, Vietnam has begun a crackdown on these “schools”, but enforcement is often uneven, and since the environment for education is as fertile as the Mekong delta, new scam schools simply pop up as others disappear or are shut down.
Corruption, too, plays a role in inhibiting the development of education in Vietnam. Studies by the World Bank, the United Nations and the Vietnamese government bemoan the level of corruption that permeates the country in health care and land purchases as well as education. Exam results being sold, teachers requiring an “envelope” to provide good grades, and a host of other shakedowns regularly make headlines in the local media.
Many Vietnamese laugh off corruption as “the Vietnamese way.” They view the judgmental notion of corruption as a Western construct. What is clear is that corruption—along with a lack of transparency, competing and often conflicting edicts from myriad agencies, overlapping local autonomy within a highly centralized government and political system, and fear—inhibits the development and completion of projects in Vietnam, including educational ones. Of the 11,000 foreign-invested projects in Vietnam in 2010, only 134 involved education, according to the Ministry of Investment and Planning (MOIP), which is the first stop in getting authorization to invest in education in Vietnam. University projects need at least three levels of licensing; for investing, for operation, and for curriculum and degree granting. Sound daunting? It is.
n Vietnam the hoopla of school groundbreakings—the dragon dancers, party officials, educators and assorted dignitaries—are commonplace, along with investors willing to pour millions of dollars into projects that often fail to launch. One reason is that a byzantine system of approvals at different levels by conflicting agencies are required not just from the MOIP but also from local People’s Committees, national and local ministries of education, and others. To get these licenses you have to provide detailed plans down to the square meter per student/per classroom, and the number and nature of computers, for starters. Beyond the multi-million-dollar initial project investments, all this costs money.
Step one, the investment license, gives one the opportunity and indeed the obligation to posit a timeline for construction (as well as spend money). If you pass muster, your school is then allowed to move to step two, permission to apply for an operating license. In Kafka-like Vietnam, this gives you approval to operate but not the approval to offer a degree. And this also costs money. While high schools readily receive such approvals (subject to caveats such as mandatory instruction in ideologically correct Vietnamese history, geography and culture), the government is less accommodating when it comes to universities. Looking at the role that students, energized by Western ideas and ideals, have played in political upheavals globally (and the fact that the U.S. universities encourage critical thinking, discourse and the like), official Party documents have questioned the “threat to Ho Chi Minh thought and socialism” raised by “insidious” entities such as NGOs, the Peace Corps, universities and Western media. To date, only the Australians and Germans have succeeded in starting full-fledged universities in Vietnam. They have done so by partnering with existing home institutions and, in the case of Germany, forging strong political and financial connections between Vietnam and German industry, and getting World Bank subsidies and support from the German state of Hesse.
“American style” university education has not failed for lack of trying. The IIE (Institute of International Education) college fairs attract dozens of U.S. schools and thousands of interested students in Vietnam annually. At a 2007 meeting with Vietnamese and U.S. officials, then-head of the California State University system, Charles Reed, reportedly suggested that it would be wonderful if the Cal State system had a campus in Vietnam. Unrelated, a 2009 report by Harvard University and the New School talked about an “Apex University” in Vietnam and its likely price tag of at least $100 million. In short order, Vietnamese officials and press were buzzing about American interest in establishing such a university, to be called Tri Viet, funding it, turning it over to the Vietnamese and making it one of the top 200 universities in the world. In a land where symbols devoid of substance are common, such an announcement stirred a lot of humid Southeast Asian air.
Tri Viet University, touted in the Vietnamese and Western press as the “first university of its kind” in Vietnam with private funding, influential Vietnamese supporters and diverse international advisers, had all the makings of a quality institution: focus groups, meetings, workshops and a strategic plan. Developed by Madame Ton Nhu Thi Ninh, a respected diplomat, along with leading international and Vietnamese educators, it was hailed for its comprehensive five-year plan to organize the first private university in Vietnam. It was to be focused on the liberal arts, civic engagement and a “green” campus. But it was not to be. For reasons still deep in the murk, the university was stillborn, with the Tri Viet website recasting the effort as a mere “project” since the “climate is presently not right for the development of our university.”
Meanwhile, down the road in an industrial district southwest of Saigon, Madame Dang Thi Hoang Yen, a leading businesswoman and head of the Tan Tao conglomerate, eased her way into a license (or licenses) with connections, resources, initial government support and the enthusiasm of former educators at prestigious U.S. universities such as Rice and Duke. There was great hoopla in Vietnam, as well as in the international press, and accolades aplenty for Tan Tao, as there had been for Tri Viet.
The honeymoon, alas, ended rather abruptly. Elected to the National Assembly as an “independent” (there are a percentage of slots for those so designated, provided they are vetted and approved by the Communist Party), Madame Yen was accused of having misrepresented a wide range of items in her biography, and faced other financial and personal “issues”, and was ousted from the National Assembly. Tan Tao University opened anyway in autumn 2011, but less than auspiciously. It offered full scholarships to 750 students, but fewer than forty enrolled, all of them in need of remedial English. The provost, Dr. Vo Tung Xoan, put on a brave face to the press, saying, “with this number of students I get to shake all of their hands.”
Tan Tao had other problems as well. As the anchor of the Tan Tao business empire, it was perceived by some as a “real estate deal” designed to enhance real estate values on the adjacent properties and provide cheap labor to Tan Tao enterprises. Foreign teachers went unpaid, technology failed, lavish plans for swimming pools emerged even though the dorms lacked running water, and a host of other problems, real and perceived, created a negative firestorm of media and government response. One student who sought to defend the school on its website damned it with faint praise: “Tan Tao really isn’t some kind of scam.” In year two, the university, designed for 10,000 students, announced that its enrollment had reached into the eighties, all of whom were on scholarships.
The project of which I am part, the American University of Vietnam, has had its own fits and starts. With an initial investment license, issued in 2009, and a ceremonial groundbreaking in September 2010, all expectations were for a full-blown university to be up and running by now. Between funding challenges, economic uncertainty and the myriad bureaucratic hoops and hurdles, the effort has been limited to offering introductory college courses (transcripted by accredited U.S. colleges), hosting foreign exchange students from the United States, and building partnerships with a range of American colleges and universities for the eventual launch of this liberal arts university with professional programs in business, hospitality management, communication and other disciplines. We may get there, or we may not, depending on our ability to slay the voracious, bureaucratic monster standing between us and success. But we don’t know we won’t, so we keep at it.
eanwhile, even as Vietnam has opened up to the world, there remains a domestic culture of fear. The government-controlled English language press carries daily reminders of the dos and don’ts of freedom of expression in the country. “Police detain pair for anti-State propaganda”, “Bloggers involved in counter-revolutionary activity”, “Dissidents arrested, found fermenting revolution”, “Universities need to practice self-control” are headlines that have graced the Saigon Times and Vietnam News at one time or another. The charges against these handful of dissidents range from the plausible (having flags from the former South Vietnamese government, or advocating for multi-party democracy) to the absurd (plotting the overthrow of the government, or planning a faith-based indigenous kingdom in the Central Highlands). Still, the arrests, show trials, confessions and lack of public outcry have a chilling effect on intellectual life.
While even neighboring Cambodia has land protests, union demonstrations and new political parties (however neutered), Vietnam maintains a thorough clampdown on public expression. Not long ago the government allowed a rare protest (against Chinese belligerence over the Paracel and Spratly islands) to gather steam and numbers for two weeks. But when the protest grew too fast in size and fervor, plainclothes policemen moved in, beat up demonstrators and arrested many of them.
The only independent academic think tank in the country folded a few years ago, noting that it was difficult to pursue patents and research when the government mandates the number of topics approved for such undertakings (the last time I looked it was 287). No wonder that the country has produced fewer patents in its entire history (colonial and independent) than any good department at a typical research university lands in a year.
Still, I remain an optimist about Vietnam and have learned to practice the virtues of understanding and patience while living and working here. Since its initial independence from China in 938 CE, the Vietnamese have been in a perpetual state of war with regional tribes, China (again), France, Japan, America, Cambodia and, of course, with each other. The country has been unified only since 1975, and there remains a great deal of fear (some would say paranoia) regarding separatism, foreign ideological influences and what goes by the phrase “disruption of social harmony.” In a sense Vietnamese society is both Confucian and Communist, but it is also a place with ebullient entrepreneurship and optimism. It is a youthful nation (the median age is 28), wired, connected and informed. It is also a nation increasingly studying abroad (ranking ninth globally in the number of students), and is thus being exposed to different ways of seeing the world. Advocates of change are increasing in number, both outside and inside the government.
So every time I get frustrated by the traffic in Saigon, the midday heat, the bureaucracy, conflicting messages from officials, corruption or the slow pace of change, I get a phone call or an email that restores my faith in progress. The way I have come to see it, most all stories end in either death or redemption, so maybe forty years after the end of our time here in war, an American has a chance for redemption by helping to give the Vietnamese one of the greatest gifts we have to offer as Americans, education. Ultimately, it should prove easier to do than winning a war, right?