HO CHI MINH CITY – Local and foreign businesses here are closely watching how the newly anointed Communist Party of Vietnam leadership handles recently agreed trade deals with the United States and the European Union. In December 2015, Vietnam became the second member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations after Singapore to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. The announcement came a month after Vietnam was named as one of 12 countries accepted in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which member countries will formally sign in New Zealand on Feb. 4. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, seen as a non-ideological pro-business type of communist, made a strong challenge for the party leadership during the Jan. 20-28 CPV congress in Hanoi, losing out to incumbent leader Nguyen Phu Trong. But Dung’s tenure saw Vietnam make a start on a needed transition, from an economy centered on low-cost manufacturing to high-tech and services industries, particularly in and around the country’s biggest city and commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City. Tran Nhan, a client solutions manager at Glandore Systems Vietnam Co., a technology company that provides online human resources services in Ho Chi Minh City’s outskirts, said there were lots of jobs in Vietnam for skilled graduates in information technology. “Young Vietnamese generally feel optimistic about our country and about our chances of finding a good job,” she said.
VINH-O COMMUNE, QUANG TRI PROVINCE, VIETNAM – The Ben Hai river running through this small mountain village in central Vietnam marks the 17th parallel — what was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam prior to the exit of US troops and the communist victory in 1975. It is a historic but neglected part of Vietnam – a world apart from the bustling capital Hanoi, with cell phone coverage disappearing on the snaking road up to the village, as the early morning drizzle falls over the steep, foliage-laden slopes on either side. Most of the people living along the rural river area are Van Kieu, one of 54 officially-recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam, a country where rising income levels for urban Vietnamese have not been matched by improved living standards in some isolated rural areas where minorities live. Despite Vietnam’s “tiger” economy years, “upland farmers [including and in particular the minority ethnic groups of the Central Highlands] have been left behind,” says Roger Montgomery of the London School of Economics.
DANANG – Nguyen Nguc Phuong is 33 years of age and a confident, articulate public speaker – comfortable on a podium in front of an audience. He is resourceful and self-motivated, as seen in his decision to leave school at 16 and relocate to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, to learn to be a mechanic and an electrician. Nguyen later returned to his hometown of Danang, one of Vietnam’s more touristy cities, and opened his own repair shop. However, after seeing the impact of Agent Orange – a defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to destroy the crops and jungle upon which the Viet Cong relied for food and cover – he decided he wanted to volunteer his time to help the children born mentally or physically handicapped due to the herbicide’s tragic and grotesque effects. “I wanted to become a teacher to do something for them,” he says, pointing out to over 40 children and teenagers at the Danang Peace Village – a center run by the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin to care for children and teenagers affected by Agent Orange.
BANGKOK — Five days of joint US-Vietnam naval exercises that started Monday in Vietnam are the latest signals of growing cooperation between the one-time enemies.But as the US and Vietnam draw closer, the communist government’s human rights record is raising questions among activists whether the US is sufficiently vocal about political, economic, and free speech violations in Vietnam, a single party state.According to Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch: “There is a real need for sustained US pressure on Vietnam to free political prisoners, respect freedom of expression and the vibrant blogosphere that is making Vietnam one of the fast growing users of the Internet in South East Asia, and repeal repressive laws that Hanoi uses to quash individuals and groups that the government doesn’t like.”
HO CHI MINH CITY– With average per capital annual incomes of just over US$1,000, Vietnam is officially a lower-middle income country. In Hanoi, the seat of government and commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City – still popularly known as Saigon – property prices are on an upward curve with new buildings sprouting-up faster than new growth in Vietnam’s lush tropical rainforests. But Vietnam must also address rising inflation, forecast by Standard Chartered Bank at 19.7 percent in December and with an 11.3 percent rise forecast for 2012. The Dong is expected to continue to depreciate throughout the year, given Vietnam’s US$8 billion current account deficit and low foreign currency reserves. With the State Bank of Vietnam attempting to sop up liquidity, tight monetary policy is starting to put pressure on the banking sector, with the result that some small banks have raised interest rates as high as 18 percent despite a request from the bank to keep it to 14 percent.