It was a crucial turning point in former South Korean Ambassador to Vietnam Ha Chan Ho’s life when he switched from finance to diplomacy, and his appointment in the Southeast Asian country proved to be his greatest ambassadorship ever.
The ambassador has returned to Vietnam several times since he wrapped up his three-year tenure in Vietnam in 2013.
“The Vietnamese blood seems to always run in my veins, and many have mistaken me for a Vietnamese man,” Ha said.
Finance to diplomacy
“I was not born a diplomat and never thought of becoming an ambassador during my school years,” the veteran diplomat revealed.
After graduating from university with flying colors in 1976, he landed a dream job at Korea Exchange Bank.
“It was a well-paid, stable job but I was somehow not happy, until the dream of being a diplomat was lit,” he added.
Back in the late 1970s, South Korea was transforming itself from a backward economy into a thriving nation which has now achieved annual gross domestic product growth of 8.5 percent.
“A career in diplomacy was an immense source of pride among Korean youths back then,” Ha recalled.
He earned around US$300 each month as a bank clerk back then, which equals approximately $2,000 now.
“Meanwhile, the starting monthly salary for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which involves considerably greater pressure, was a mere $120, as the Korean government considers the job a chance for youths to contribute, not to earn money,” the former ambassador elaborated.
The low salary did not deter young intellectuals however, even if the recruitment ratio into the ministry was 50/10,000.
“Most candidates spent around four years revising for the fiercely selective recruitment exam into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while I allowed myself only two years to achieve the goal,” he further recalled.
The young man was working at the bank by day and revising hard by night and slept for only two or three hours per night.
At 25, his efforts paid off when he made his way into the ministry.
“Life as a state officer was financially tough. I had earlier provided sufficiently for my wife and kids with my job at the bank, but as a diplomat, I had to turn to my parents for support. But everyone was proud and supportive of me,” Ha said.
Ha’s diplomacy career in the following 35 years took him to many nations and territories in Europe, Central Asia and North America and offered him innumerable memories.
“I took office in Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion of the Middle East nation that ousted Saddam Hussein. The item I could not afford to go without then was my bulletproof vest,” the seasoned diplomat recounted.
After concluding his mission in Iraq, he began his tenure in Canada, where the climate and landscapes were a far cry from Iraq.
The best ambassadorship ever
Ha’s destiny with Vietnam began when then-Korean President Lee Myung-bak, after his visit to Canada, proposed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Ha be appointed as the next ambassador to the Southeast Asian country.
“I was slightly stunned by the decision, feeling like it was a demotion,” Ha admitted.
“To be honest, my first impression with Vietnam was not very good. I was instantly put off by the overwhelming traffic, reckless drivers, and unfinished construction sites on the way from Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi to the capital’s downtown areas,” he explained.
One week later the former ambassador fell hard for the dynamic city.
He began to spend a lot of time strolling around the capital and was attracted to the city’s iconic trees lining the streets.
Former Republic of Korea Ambassador to Vietnam Ha Chan Ho (fifth left) poses with students of Soongsil University, based in Seoul, where he used to teach. By courtesy of Ha Chan Ho
During his nearly-three-year ambassadorship, from 2011 to 2013, Ha traveled to most cities and provinces throughout Vietnam in a bid to foster bilateral ties.
“I then found President Lee Myung-ak’s decision to appoint me a really rewarding one,” he noted.
Ha’s ambassadorship coincided with the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the two countries’ ties (1992-2012).
“Unlike my ambassadorship in Canada during which I rarely received high-ranking delegations from South Korea, I welcomed one every two weeks or so during my tenure in Vietnam,” the diplomat said.
The frequency of such working visits was indicative of the importance of Vietnam and South Korea’s strategic ties.
The Republic of Korea’s first-ever female president, Park Geun-hye, paid an official visit to Vietnam in September 2013, her third overseas trip since taking office in February of that year.
“I take pride in initiating official development assistance [ODA] poverty alleviation projects in two underprivileged Vietnamese provinces, Lao Cai and Quang Tri [located in northern and central Vietnam respectively],” he explained.
Ha was also particularly impressed with the people living in thatched cottages along crisscrossing rivers and canals during his visit to Rach Gia City in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang.
Residents get around mostly on sampans and fetch water directly from the waterways for daily consumption.
“Despite sheer poverty, smiles always flickered on the faces of those I bumped into. That’s the vivacity of the Vietnamese people,” he stressed.
The former ambassador was also treated to exotic, weird-looking specialties, including cobra meat.
“I swallowed every morsel of the delicacy to avoid displeasing hospitable hosts. I got an upset stomach after the feast,” he said smiling.
“My ambassadorship in Vietnam was the happiest time of my entire 35-year diplomatic career,” he concluded.