A key group that has helped improve relations with the United States - are seen here taking a break

A key group that has helped improve relations with the United States - are seen here taking a break from school to have lunch. (Photo: Lien Hoang)

Take a look around Southeast Asia. Which country do you think sends the most students to the United States?

The answer is Vietnam. Four decades ago, the United States and Vietnam were fighting each other in a war. But now their friendship is better than ever, and the education sector has helped. Lien Hoang reports from Ho Chi Minh City.

It’s a weekday afternoon here in Ho Chi Minh City. And instead of going to work, dozens of Vietnamese are at the American Center, which is attached to the consulate. They’ve come to meet a recruiter from a U.S. university. 

It’s not hard to recruit Vietnamese students. They already love the United States – they love Hollywood movies, they love the iPhone, they love Mariah Carey. So for a lot of them, studying abroad would be their American dream.

I meet one of these dreamers, a woman named Nguyen Thi My Huyen. She’s 23, and she took an hour off work to hear this recruiter talk about a master’s program. 

Huyen already knows what she wants, because she’s studied in the United States before, in Pennsylvania. And she tells me it totally changed her.

“When I came back to Vietnam, my parents and my friends were so surprised because the way I think is now different. I see things in a different perspective. And they told me that I’m more mature,” she laughs, “I think that’s a good thing but I’m still learning. And one year in the U.S., that gave me the foundation to grow myself to a different level.”

This isn’t exactly an education story. It’s really a story about how Vietnam and the United States have become such good friends, even though, 40 years ago, their militaries were killing each other in the Vietnam War.

Today they’re pretty close. And if you think about it, it [kind of] makes sense that education is one of the things that brings them together. 

U.S. colleges have one of the best reputations in the world. And Vietnamese are obsessed with education. 

Here’s a factoid U.S. diplomats love to throw around: Vietnam sends more students to the United States than does any other country in Southeast Asia. But not everyone can afford a plane ticket. So pretty soon, the United States will be sending its education to Vietnam.

Right now, construction is underway on Fulbright University Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City already has a Fulbright program run by Harvard, but it’ll transition into this full, independent university. It’s supposed to be Vietnam’s first non-profit, American-style school, using American teaching methods. 

That’s how the U.S. consul general Rena Bitter described it.

“Vietnam’s next generation of leaders deserves the opportunity to receive a world-class education here in their own country, an education that will allow them to lead their country into the future,” says Bitter, “They should not have to leave Vietnam to get that.”  

Of course, the United States isn’t just doing this out of the goodness of its heart. U.S. companies want to hire Vietnamese, but for now, they’re mostly getting cheap workers. 

Sesto Vecchi is an American lawyer who’s lived here for two decades. He says the labor force needs more training and skills, and school is a big part of that. Here’s his advice.

“Improve education, help graduates move up the value chain. We all know Vietnam does very well in science, math, technology. What it needs, and what employers talk about, is greater language skills, greater ability to work in teams,” he says. “Those are the kind of education and environment that students should have in order to be ready to join the workforce. The same is true also of skilled factory workers.”

And U.S. companies are investing in education, too. Intel general manager Sherry Boger says better education will see Vietnamese get the technical chops they need to work for the chip manufacturer.

“I’m very proud of, and I have full confidence in, our Vietnamese youth,” says Boger, “They have proven at our site to be eager to learn, to be committed, and to contribute to both the company and society, and to develop their technical and leadership capabilities more and more to the advanced levels. So I’m very proud of our workforce.”

So U.S. companies get more skilled employees. And Vietnamese get some of that U.S. education and expertise to rub off on them. 

Just to emphasize how popular the United States is here, take this statistic from WIN/Gallup. They surveyed people around the world on how much they like U.S. president Barack Obama. Globally, his average support was 59 percent. But in Vietnam, his approval rating was 87 percent.

Huyen, that young woman I met at the American Center, she’s definitely one of those who want Hanoi and Washington to get closer. She sees Fulbright University Vietnam as a way for that to happen, and says was thrilled when she heard about it.

“I was so happy. It’s probably the first American university in Vietnam. And Fulbright is so well-known,” she says, “So I was so happy and I was hoping for better connections, a better relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. When we have more opportunity to exchange the knowledge, the culture, and make a better world.

Once the school opens, Vietnamese like Huyen can get a U.S.-style education, without ever stepping foot in the U.S. 

 

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