Maryland Business Mission to Asia:
Final Stop: Hanoi Hop
Wheels Up from USA
Beijing: The Great
Maryland’s Got Seoul
Remember the rain? One half of a meter in 24 hours? Truly an amazing
amount of water: cars floating on their bellies, scooters
half-submerged, rivers running down streets, the incessant pounding.
Well, it’s quite a bit drier this time around for this short stop in
Vietnam and the reception couldn’t be more sunny. The Governor is only
on the ground for, quite literally, twenty-four hours and it turned out
to be a rich, though hurried experience.
In a way, this return visit links to our past efforts at conferences
related to the Environment in 2010’s
Forum, co-organized with the Maryland-Asia Environmental
Partnership. It was like old school week and we saw a number of friends
from the conference.
George Dang, Tony Hoang and Sandy Dang of Meiwah International, in
partnership with CESAIS, were critical to getting this part of the
itinerary put together and well-oiled, which included an exclusive
meeting with the VN Prime Minister.
“I am more and more convinced that the end of this war will not be
the end of our commitment in this area. There is so much here to be
done….[and] it is in the areas of personal contacts where we are
building something that can be called a foundation for the future. One
thing that I have confirmed by coming out here is the universal
constancy of human nature. People are people, no matter where you go.”
J.L.N. Violette, Air Force
Letters from Cam Ranh Bay AFB
Leaps and Bounds
First stop was at the US Embassy, where we received a rapid-fire
country briefing from Virginia Palmer.
The country is going through a period of “wild entrepreneurship.” The
concepts of corporate law and standard accounting methods are being
adopted. Hard and soft infrastructure, poor in many parts of the
country, are key sectors. That means roads, bridges, utilities,
wastewater treatment as well as education and workforce development.
With a high (>90) literacy rate and relatively low unemployment. The
economy is building quickly, but inflation is problematic, running at
20% per annum.
The US-VN bi-lateral trade agreement eventually led to VN’s accession
to the WTO and the present negotiations under the TPP or Trans-Pacific
Partnership, a regional multi-lateral trade regimen, which is pushing VN
to go to a “Gold Standard” with particular focus on improving the human
rights situation and addressing environmental degradation. “This is
great market” with very interesting demographics.
Vietnam seeks to be fully integrated in a global context and assume
the role it “should have played all along.” One of the challenges,
regionally, is the over-arching presence of China, which is projecting
its power far out of its own territorial waters, recently severing the
cables on a petro-seismic exploration ship 1000 miles from the nearest
Chinese shore. Vietnamese believe that China views Vietnam as its
“poorer southern province” and has occupied and invaded the country on
and off for a millennium. Joint cooperation between the US and Vietnam
is growing and Vietnam is very keenly part of the current US
administration’s political and trade strategy.
Gov O’Malley with George Dang, Meiwah International
Tony Hoang, Meiwah International
The US-VN relationship is increasingly multi-faceted and
complicated—Ms. Palmer shared an idiom with the group: “Complicated,” in
Vietnamese, is apparently “phuc tap” (pronounced “fook-dup”, say that
three times fast.)
One of the areas of disagreement and a little
phuc tap is human
rights. The US pushes Vietnam to reduce the pressure on dissidents,
advocating for increased openness, but without much effect. There are
lively open debates about the economics of the country and a certain
amount of media coverage of the political situation (the media are
state-owned) but reporting should not get “too close to the bone.”
Religious freedom, on the other hand, is relatively open and
improving. There are numerous Catholic churches, for example, in the
cities and worship is unobstructed.
Within the context of the whole US-VN relationship, health diplomacy
is a key part of the relationship and is generally non-controversial. It
was one of the first areas of cooperation post-normalization.
Country experts perceive several serious brakes on Vietnam’s
development: political freedom, infrastructure (including critical gaps
in electricity production and distribution), integration of roads and
ports and education. Still, there is a lot going for it, not the least
of which is a youthful population.
Another early area of cooperation has been the repatriation of US
MIAs, beginning as far back as 1985, when the first recovery was made.
Colonel Keane gave a briefing on the recovery efforts and lauded his
Vietnamese counterparts. “I have free reign to travel around.” A plaque,
honoring US service personnel who served, was presented by the Governor
and delegation member and Vietnam Veteran Dan Boccolucci to the Colonel.
On average, 15 or so US soldiers are returned home each year.
War legacies continue to be problematic, including the area around Da
Nang, where it is estimated that 30% of the land still has buried
hazards: landmines and unexploded ordnance. Agent Orange/dioxin
remediation efforts are ongoing, although a large effort is needed to
reduce the soil contamination around Da Nang airport and other war-time
storage locations. It is emotional and definitely phuc tap.
Two prime areas that make the business perilous for MD/US companies
include a poor track record on intellectual property rights protection
and environmental damage. To raise one-half of its population out of
poverty over the past 15 years, the government adopted pro-growth
policies and practices that have had a lasting negative legacy. Fossil
fuels are the predominant source of energy. Coal, for example, is
delivered around the city and used for cooking. The vendors make their
rounds with a few hundred pounds of coffee-can-sized lumps of carbon.
The environment is at a critical point and degradation is affecting
Vietnam’s quality of life. Sea level rise results in salt-water
intrusion into the two big deltas (Red River in the North, Mekong in the
South). This affects the ability to grow crops, notably in the
rice-producing areas of the south. A sizable amount of donor aid goes
towards mitigation efforts, however, the implementation of environmental
programs into projects takes a long time because ministerial-level
provisions are slow to trickle down to enforceable regulations. Finally,
many of the necessary economic incentives (or penalties) are just not in
place (or unenforced).
Coming and going
Governor O’Malley, Dan Bocolucci and Col Keane
Family Outing: Vietnam Mini-Van
Many critical needs are concentrated in the villages and in the
countryside. For example, loose garbage sequestration and poor landfill
practices have caused the contamination of drinking water.
Some solutions to deforestation and topsoil erosion seem natural. The
steamy climate is ideal for bamboo, which has many positive attributes:
first, it has many uses in flooring, furniture and construction.
Secondly, it grows quickly and can stabilize erosion-pone areas. It also
has the benefit of restoring damaged crop areas. So it goes with
Vietnam, where solutions might be at-hand, but resolve is low or
conflicts exist with other interests. For instance, while programs are
aimed at mitigating the damage to coastal areas from sea level rise, the
Vietnam authorities are also attempting to boost the economic
contribution from the country’s myriad islands through trade, food
production and tourism.
One of the familiar and friendly faces we saw during our visit was
co-organizer in the VEF program last year, Ms. Nguyen Ngoc Ly. She was
the first Vietnam student to attend the University of Maryland after
normalization of ties began, attending grad school in 1992 under a grant
program. She is a true pioneer and has been working as an Environmental
Engineer, with a notable recent project studying and base-lining the
many, many lakes in the Hanoi area. A great many of them are dying
because of all manner of urban pressures. The effort to baseline may
lead to awareness and future mediation. She calls them the “sleeping
beauties” of Hanoi that need to be re-awakened.
Nguyen Ngoc Ly and the Governor
Ho: An Iota of History
During an afternoon bus tour of the city we pass by Ho Chi Minh’s
mausoleum, where “Uncle Ho” is entombed in “a crystal coffin” according
to our tour guide. “He looks like he is sleeping. Do you think it is
really him there?” Ho left Vietnam when he was in his early 20s
(just prior to WWI) to go abroad and study French culture and understand
how to lift the yoke of oppression from France. Ultimately petitioning
the French government and, post-WWII President Truman to seek
independence for Vietnam. He was rebuffed and the rest, they say, is
With over-simplifications noted, Vietnam was a victim of the
fragmentation of crumbling post-colonial France and the end of WWII
power shuffling that left Indochina in disarray and an open wound that
the US would step into after France’s withdrawal. Vietnam has over 1000
years of a culture that has been inculcated to opposing occupying
forces. So, it’s really no wonder that the Viet Minh and the forces of
the Viet Cong were steel-hardened and committed to driving out the
occupying forces of the French, Japanese (the US helped VN during WWII)
and ultimately, the US.
We enjoyed a quick tour around the city and a visit to the notorious
“Hanoi Hilton,” built around the turn of the 20th C by the French to
jail dissidents during their rule. It was later used by Vietnam, of
course; Senator John McCain was interned there for a number of years
during the conflict. It is a somber, painful place with a
Ho Sleeps Here
Touring Maison Centrale
BlueWing Environmental signs with MONRE
Highlights of the day’s events were signing ceremonies conducted
between several Maryland businesses and partners in Vietnam. The first
MD-Vietnam Sister State partnership was signed with Ninh Thuan Province
(in the South). Cam Ranh Bay is located in Ninh Thuan and hosted one of
the biggest airport facilities during the “American War.” As our friend
Nathan Sage says: “Ninh Thuan is a like Baja Mexico. Lots of
potential, but mostly sand and sea.”
Another signing occurred between BlueWing Environmental (Ted Gattino
was with us last year) and MONRE. BlueWing manufacturers a “floating
island” technology that is used to cleanse damaged waterways.
And Meiwah inked agreements with hotels in Nha Trang.
It’s a Wrap
The delegation enjoyed one final formal banquet on the last night
before scattering before the winds. It was cheers and goodbyes and bon
voyages, but mostly it was, see you again.
My own good fortune continued after the delegation officially
disbanded, staying on another day and having the chance to meet the
families of our good friends and early partners Madame Le Huong Huong
and Ms. Nguyen Mai Sinh. STAMEQ has been a strong supporter of the
dialogue between the US and Vietnam and has been co-organizer of our
conferences over the years.
Through mutual interest and cooperation, one adds friends to a rich
portfolio of associations. We enjoyed a great lunch of shrimp cakes “Ho
Tay” and Hanoi Bia overlooking West Lake.
Which brings me to a final thought.
Chao Juliet, Sandy, Ted & Sujuan
Madame Le, Ms. Nguyen and Family
Chan, I guess you might glean that I rather enjoy the anthropological
aspects of travel; it is by seeing with your own eyes, one appreciates
the rich and varied substance of the human species. Habits, traits,
culture and customs come alive.
The reverse is also true. By joining with our brethren overseas we
give them a glimpse of US society. How do they feel when they meet us?
One hustler in front of the Rex Hotel in Saigon was persistent. He told
me: “You are a lucky man” and he meant it. Lucky? Because I get to come
and go, nearly as I please. He, and his offspring, will be on the
streets of Saigon, tricking and treating for anything they can.
Very lucky indeed.
*All observations, notes, statistics and factoids in this document
are the sole responsibility of the author. Apologies in advance for any
inaccuracies or misstatements and I welcome comments, clarifications and
Ho Tay: Okay!