Vietnamese talents: Leave or stay?   

University students exchange talks with a guest speaker during a seminar on overseas study in Ho Chi Minh City.

It was a Wednesday evening, October 12th 2016

Editor’s note: Giang Pham is currently studying in the Erasmus Mundus program for Master of Journalism, Media and Globalization in Denmark and Germany. He has also worked as a freelance photojournalist and writer for several media since 2013.

Farewell, my friends!

It was a Wednesday evening, October 12th 2016. At Tan Son Nhat International Airport, the main airport of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Viet Nguyen was bidding his farewell to his family and his friends before leaving for Germany on a 2-year Master Program in European Studies, European University of Flensburg. They gathered for a group photo, broadly smiled and gave Viet best wishes for his upcoming trip. Viet and his friends are a group of close friends, studying for a bachelor’s degree together in International Relations. Two months earlier, the group also stood here, saying goodbye to another classmate, Ha Phan. Ha left Vietnam in August for studying in the United States. However, she chose another path, she started again from a bachelor’s degree in another major which can help her find a job easily after graduation in the U.S.

Two years ago, there was a hot story in Vietnamese media: 12/13 winners of Road to Olympia Peak did not return to Vietnam after graduation. Road to Olympia Peak is the leading knowledge gameshow for high school students in Vietnam, which has been broadcast on the national channel Vietnam Television annually since 2000. The final winner of each year gets a full scholarship of US$35,000 to study in Australia. Now the number increases to 15/16 with only one winner returning to Vietnam, while the rest stayed in Australia to work, or moved to other countries to continue their higher study.

Viet, Ha and the gameshow’s winners are among the new wave of Vietnamese migrants in the world, who travel abroad for their study or for work in developed countries. Some of them have returned, but many of them chose to stay. And the number of Vietnamese leaving the country is rising year by year. According to International Organization of Migration (IOM), in 2015 there were 2,558,678 Vietnamese leaving their country of origin, equal to 2.67% of all Vietnamese citizens. With the data counted since 1990, it means on average there are about 100,000 Vietnamese leaving the country every year, making Vietnam’s stand in the top 10 emigration countries in East Asia and Pacific in 2013 according to Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016 of World Bank Group. Are these numbers big enough to think about?

Vietnamese migrants, a quick glance

If you meet an Asian-looking person, with yellow skin, black hair and small eyes somewhere in Europe or America nowadays, don’t quickly assume that he is originally Chinese, he might have his ancestors coming from Vietnam. Vietnamese have a history of migration for over a century, since the first immigrants from French Indochina, the French colony that included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, came to Europe in early 20th century to work and to fight against both the Central Powers in World War I. There were also students from wealthy families coming to France to study at that time. This wave of immigrants lasted till 1954, when the French withdrew from Indochina and the infamous Vietnam War began. The next generation turned their major destination into the United States of America when the Americans got their influence in the region during the Vietnam War. They became a huge group when the war ended in 1975 with millions of people coming to the U.S., Europe, Australia and some other developed countries. There was another group of Vietnamese migrants leaving Vietnam for Eastern Europe in the 1980s, which made Vietnamese now become one of the biggest immigrant groups there. Then comes the current wave of Vietnamese migrants since the end of the 1990s. This group consists of people who leave the country for better education or higher paid jobs in both developed and developing countries, regardless of whether they are America or Europe, Japan or Singapore, United Arab Emirates or Qatar.

The more to leave, the more to worry

And the trend seems to be growing now. In a report from Migration Policy Institute in 2015 by Karl Miller, among 100,000 Vietnamese leaving the country each year, labour migration has a strong increase. Between 2000 and 2010, labour migration had the annual growth rate of 5.5%. On average, about 90,000 Vietnamese now leave Vietnam each year to work on a contract overseas. There were 552,000 migrants from Vietnam that are tertiary-educated in 2011, which meant nearly one-fifth of the total migrants had finished education in college or university, the number must be increasing now when there are more and more students going overseas for their education. Up to now, Vietnamese students can be found in over 50 countries, with 90% paying for their own schooling. Kate Miller also revealed that between 2000 and 2014, enrolment of Vietnamese students in American educational institutions got an impressive growth rate at more than 700% though the U.S. is one of the most expensive destinations, putting Vietnam at sixth in the top 10 countries of foreign students in the States with 29,101 students in December, 2016. With that high number of overseas students, there is a sad truth: nearly 70% of them do not come back home after graduation in 2011, according to Vietnam News, and that percentage seems not likely to drop down now.

The ongoing migrant flow is something problematic to Vietnam, a country with a population of approximately 95,000,000 in 2016 on United Nations database, with an annual GDP growth rate of around 6% and a GDP per capita that has tripled to over 2,000 U.S. dollars in 10 years. That should be a promising vision for young people. Hence, these numbers sounded the alarm. National media filled their headlines with the so-called “brain drain”, expressing their worry about the issue. It also became a nationwide debate on social media and national newspapers with the topic “Stay or return”, involving students, parents, government officers and experts. “Brain drain” even came into the conversation between former President of the United States Barrack Obama and Vietnamese youngsters during his visit to Vietnam in May 2016, when a young girl asked him how Vietnamese firms and government could keep their talents. For the Vietnamese government, the headache of “brain drain” is getting more severe.

What makes them leave?

Media and experts tried to find the answer to why young Vietnamese are leaving the country. In general, there were several typical causes: people are losing their trust in the government and they want better quality of life. As a country with high corruption rate, Vietnam is becoming less preferable for students when they decide their post-graduation life. Imagine that you have to pay someone a big amount of money to get hired into an office or pay bribes to Vietnamese officials to get your project finished if you are an entrepreneur, you will be likely discouraged from going back home. Life quality is also considerable. First, the Vietnamese education system is still struggling to reform, especially in higher education which is criticized as “old-fashioned” and “unpractical” by experts and employers.

Vietnamese students with foreign classmates in a field trip in Japan.

Second, pollution in Vietnam is getting more serious. While air pollution in two big cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh is often measured as “unhealthy”, the catastrophe of sea pollution due to steel production of a foreign company in central Vietnam in 2016 has increased the number of fishermen leaving their home for making ends meet in big cities or becoming export labour, also raising health risks in people. “You don’t want to raise your kids — no job is so important that it’s okay if your children have asthma and they can’t breathe,” said Obama. Vietnamese people usually think for their next generation; they just do not want their kids to grow up with ashes around their nose. But are they conscious enough to see the big picture?

Not really.

Though trust in the system and quality of life might be crucial, many young people only think of them as supporting factors. In fact, though having a big number of migrants, Vietnam is still behind other fellows in Southeast Asia: the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar. And it is even farther behind other countries in Asia-Pacific, even developed Western Europe countries like Germany or the United Kingdom in the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016. Whether the issue might be overrated, there should be something bigger behind the emigration happening all over the world, regardless developing or developed countries.

Globalization should be another explanation for this.

‘We choose the best place that fits us’

According to the United Nations, in 2015 the number of international migrants, who live in a country other than their birth country, reached 244 million, increasing 41% compared to that in 2000. And 2.5 million Vietnamese migrants are only 1% of this. Globalization has been in its blossom period since the end of the Cold War. In globalisation era, transactions and interdependence between countries grow, meaning that levels of money, ideas, messages, business or people crossing borders are getting higher. With globalization, less fences are imposed. Like the European Union, the birth of Schengen Area has led to visa-free entry to all citizens of its member countries, increasing movement between borders. In Southeast Asia, 20 years ago it was really hard for a Vietnamese to travel to Thailand, due to complicated visa regulations but now it is just 2 hours of flying with a passport due to arrangements between member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (or ASEAN). The appearance of international institutions like International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Trade Organization (WTO) or numerous agreements made by governments also reduce barriers in trade, investment and capital flows, bringing more opportunities for people who want to do their own business somewhere away from home. Taking Zalora Group as an example. Zalora Group is an e-retailer founded by a German company named Rocket Internet with operations in several East Asian countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Brunei. Thanks to this international operations, it brought Phuong Chu a chance to work overseas. Phuong Chu, 26, a talented Vietnamese girl, is now a PR executive in Zalora headquarters in Singapore. Working as a PR manager in the Vietnam branch for 2 years, Phuong got promoted to the regional office last year. She is now working in an international environment, speaking English all the time and living an expat life. Phuong is still traveling between Singapore and Vietnam quite often to visit her family and it is not a problem when it only takes one and a half hours to get home.

With the expansion of markets and the appearance of multinational companies, there are more opportunities for all citizenships. In Google’s regional office in Singapore for instance, there are not only Singaporeans but also Vietnamese, Thais, Indonesians, Australians and even staff from European countries working in projects and solutions for every specific market. And you can find the same image in many offices around the world. Even in Europe, with the aging population, there is more demand for semi-skilled and unskilled workers like construction builders or cleaning staff, which creates more opportunities for labourers from developing countries.

But young people only choose to work overseas when they are ready for it. Growing up in an era when information is booming, these generations have a different mentality from their parents. Youngsters now are usually seen as “global citizens” who are a part of a global society. They see migration is a way to experience the wider world and to gain independence, instead of escaping from their country. “We know who we are and we also know how to integrate into the world. We only choose the best place that fits us,” said Thu Pham, founder of ICHA, a project that helps young Vietnamese gain practical experience with traveling trips along Vietnam and direct interaction with different working environments. Graduating in Education and Psychology in the U.S., Thu chose to return to Vietnam because she wants to apply what she learnt to Vietnamese society. Thu believes psychology and education are still less developed so there are more opportunities for her. “Opportunities to try new things” is also the reason that took Giang Dang, a PhD in Development Economics in Austria, back to Vietnam. Acknowledging the need of social studies in Vietnam, he decided to go back to experiment and do something to help. “I do not regret my decision to return after 13 years, I’m happy with what I am doing now,” Giang said.

It’s all about opportunities

“So do you mind going back?” I asked Phuong about her future plan. “I don’t mind. No matter where I live, to me it’s more important that what I can do,” she replied. In her point of view, Phuong thinks Vietnam needs to let its young generations see more opportunities if it wants them to return. Phuong affirms Vietnam is a growing market, which means there will be more opportunities for young people. Giang shares a similar perspective: “people need a good environment to develop, it means a better administration and welfare from the Vietnamese government is necessary.” Both the government and the young Vietnamese should take action. “Those who studied in Vietnam value seniority and are somehow less adaptable to change while graduates of international schools or those returning from abroad are more open to new things and can easily adapt,” said Vanessa Ventura, an expat who has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for 4 years. In Vanessa’s eyes, one of the immovable weaknesses of Vietnamese youngsters when they go to work is their work style and attitude. Young Vietnamese are nice and easy to work with, although sometimes they want everything to happen fast, which means more money and fast promotion. As an employer, she has personally experienced dealing with young talents who confirmed to join and cancelled it one day before. However, “Vietnam is still a lucrative market and students who study abroad have lots of opportunities here,” said Vanessa.

How about Viet? He has no intention yet, but he thinks he will stay for a while to work for experience and savings then return home as a high-quality educator. “As long as you are excellent, you can stay close to your family while still having time to see the world,” he concluded.