By: Elite Plus Editorial Team
Recently, Elite+ magazine had the opportunity to sit down with HE Nguyen Hai Bang before he completed his tenure as Vietnam’s ambassador to Thailand to discuss Thai-Vietnamese relations and opportunities in business and investment.
To begin, could you tell us something about yourself and your career as a diplomat?
I am a career diplomat. I graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi, where most Vietnamese diplomats are trained. I spent the first 20 years of my career in Europe, serving in the United Kingdom, Denmark and Norway. This is the first time I have been posted to an ASEAN member country. I have found my tenure in Thailand to be quite interesting as my graduation thesis dealt with the confrontation between ASEAN and Indochina. At that time, we belonged to opposing sides in the Cold War. After graduation, I was sent to the former Soviet Union for post graduate studies. I then earned a master's degree in public policy in Singapore through a scholarship program at the National University of Singapore, NUS.
When I graduated from the academy in 1985, none of us ever thought that Vietnam would become a full member of ASEAN just 10 years later. Furthermore, at that time, I never imagined I would become Vietnam’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand. I will be sorry to leave.
When did you know you wanted to be a diplomat?
Actually, it happened by accident. I was born to a teachers’ family. Both my parents were teachers. My mother was a secondary school teacher and my father a university professor, both teaching literature. They sent me to have the best education because they didn't believe I could enrol in such a prestigious institution as the Diplomatic Academy, which is commonly understood to be a place for only the children of the elite. Anyone from outside Hanoi, in the countryside, isn’t expected to be accepted there. Still, I tried and was accepted.
What I remember is when they asked me to come for my interview before the entrance exam, the interviewer looked at me, and he didn't seem to want to ask me any questions because I looked so small and underweight for a 17-year-old boy. They said that a diplomat has to be taller. However, at that time, the war had recently ended and everyone was small because we didn't have enough food in the early 80s. Vietnam was suffering because of the economic embargo imposed by the West. Furthermore, our allies during the war, the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, stopped sending aid. China stopped their support as well. It was a very difficult time for us. Therefore, people at that time looked a lot different than now. We were very small, very thin and very pale. Now, we are much stronger.
How would you say your viewpoint of ASEAN has changed since 1985?
You have to remember that ASEAN was created at a specific time in history. It was in the context of the Cold War when it was established by the five founding countries, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. We were taught in school that it was formed as a security block to protect against Indochina. The original goal of this union was not to form a common market like the European Single Market.
Now, though, the world has drastically changed. Today, there is no cold or hot war, and our role in this region is totally different. Over the years, ASEAN has changed as well. It's very clear that ASEAN has become the only regional organization in Southeast Asia that includes all 10 Southeast Asian states, unlike in other parts of the world, like Africa or Latin America, where there are more than one regional organization. Here, we are the only one. That's our natural strength. Everybody comes to see us because there is no other representative body. Today, ASEAN is a free trade, common market, but more than that, our community is united under three pillars: security, economics and social-cultural relations, upon which we cooperate to assist each other in our development.
How do you view the development of Vietnam over the past 40 years?
This is a very long story. I was born in the 60s, when we always had to take cover from the bombing when we went to school. There were the American B52s overhead dropping bombs, and all of the kids in the class would try to get a seat nearest to the entrance to the bomb shelter. We wore straw helmets to protect ourselves from the shrapnel. Then, the war ended in 1975. However, we were still so paranoid from the sound of the bombing and people screaming.
The 1980s was a time when everyone was trying their best just to get through each day, to get enough to eat. When we graduated from the general school, we were supposed to join the army. I did not have to join the army while others did. This was when there was a border war between Vietnam and China in 1979.
Then in the 1990s, things began to change. We withdrew from Cambodia and managed to begin to slowly open up a little to the outside world. At the same time, the economic hardship imposed by the United States and Western countries ended, and things started to change. Ordinary people now had enough to eat.
The economy started to grow and develop. Nowadays, a number of my Thai friends, who visited Vietnam many years ago have been shocked on their return because of the drastic changes. However, many Vietnamese are still not satisfied and want development to go even faster. You must remember we were forced to fight in wars and feel we lost a lot of time, and now we want to get ahead. We have felt very envious of Thailand, who fought no wars, who have been living in peace for hundreds of years and have never been colonised. The Vietnamese want to catch up and develop faster to make up for the time lost during the wars.
Can you tell us something about Thai-Vietnamese relations?
You cannot imagine how fast Thai and Vietnamese bilateral ties have developed over the past 25 years. Tremendous changes have taken place. We used to belong to two opposing camps in the Cold War. We were afraid of each other. No one would have imagined that we would form the first strategic partnership among ASEAN member states. Thailand supported Vietnam’s entry as a member of ASEAN in 1995, particularly after Thailand saw the potential and decided to view Vietnam and Indochina as a market instead of fearing us.
Currently, a lot of global investors, including Thais, are investing more and more in Vietnam. How do you view this trend?
In recent years, there has been a mega trend of Thai big businesses investing in Vietnam. Currently, I think the 10 biggest Thai companies are in Vietnam; CP, Central Group, Thaibev and SCG are all involved in major strategic projects. Then, there are PTT and the AMATA Smart City. I would say the biggest focus is in energy, for example, solar and wind power. This is understandable as Vietnam is a huge market, 96 million people, the majority middle class, and they desire family holidays, something they never experienced before. Vietnam had always been at war so that many people have never had the chance to go on a vacation. Now, they crave it. Vietnam has a large populace with enough purchasing power, and Thailand sees this opportunity very well.
Another thing is the Vietnamese market is very close and connected to the Thai market. Before Covid-19, there were almost 50 flights a day connecting several destinations between our two countries. There are also the similarities in our culture, religion and way of life that both Thai and Vietnamese can relate to. Thai people enjoy Vietnamese food, although Thai food is a bit stronger and spicier. However, Vietnamese food is very healthy.
Some Thai businesses are today earning more money in Vietnam than they are here in Thailand. So, why not invest in Vietnam?
You mentioned the 10 major Thai companies investing in Vietnam. What about smaller companies?
Right now, I would say there are only the big Thai companies investing in Vietnam. Maybe, smaller Thai companies are satisfied with their domestic revenue. Whatever the reasons, the big ones are investing in Vietnam, and currently, Thailand is ranked ninth in foreign investment in my country.
What about Vietnamese companies investing in Thailand?
We are too humble. There are almost no investments from Vietnam coming to Thailand, and this is something we are trying to promote. Our two countries have many of the same products, and frankly speaking, it is rather hard for Vietnamese companies to compete with Thai companies. What we need to do is not compete, but divide the market, let Thailand have the upper market and Vietnam can have the lower market.
Coffee is a successful example. We try not to compete directly with Thai companies, but have tried to divide the market, by talking to each other. One area we are strong in is IT, especially in human resources, our engineers and programmers. This is an area where I believe we can at least match Thailand while we still cannot compare when it comes to infrastructure or capital income.
What did you recommend when a Thai entrepreneur came to you for advice?
I recommended that they invest in Vietnam now because our diplomatic relations are perfect. There are no problems, and we have a very good political and economic environment for investment and trade.
Since I arrived in Thailand, I spent most of my time talking to Thai business people as diplomatic relations did not require much of my attention. A lot of Thai entrepreneurs came to me and asked for information about Vietnam. The most common questions I received were about preferential treatment.
Vietnam is now considered one of the most attractive countries for foreign investment. You can see it in the statistics. This is because the Vietnamese private sector is still young and faces financial constraints. Thai entrepreneurs seem to have a clear advantage when it comes to market potential, but soon the Vietnamese private sector will be on an equal par and this will no longer be the case.
Furthermore, the Vietnamese government has lifted restrictions and now foreign investors can own 100% of the project they are investing in. This applies to almost all sectors, except for security and defence. A very good example is Thaibev. Previously, Thaibev invested in a joint project with the Vietnamese government, but now the government has withdrawn its share so the project will be become completely Thaibev owned. This is because my government has decided to step back and let the private sector own their projects. We call this process "Equitization", instead of "Privatisation". This is why I say it is the perfect time for Thai entrepreneurs to invest in the Vietnam.
One big reason attributed to Vietnam’s development appears to be education. Could you please elaborate on this?
Education is considered a very high priority in Vietnam. We have learned that people are the most important factor behind change. Therefore, we have invested a lot in education. A large part of our national budget is allocated to general and university education. We have been rather successful in developing the quality of our education. Our younger generations have been widely recognised by many institutions of higher learning around the world. However, I still feel we have a lot to do regarding education. Our general educational system is satisfactory, however, at the higher-level, like our universities, we still need to improve. I would like to see Vietnamese universities earn higher rankings while we answer the demands of the private sector in general education as there is a gap between what students learn and what they do in their work.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Vietnam has been praised for its low rate in infections. What would you attribute to this success?
We are lucky. As we are a tropical country, our temperature is very high, but there are many other reasons. I think two decisive factors for our success are "Trust" and “Sacrifice”. The people have trust in what the government is doing. They believe the government is doing the best for them, and they are willing to give up some of their individual freedom and put society first. These are strong points of Vietnamese society. We have been trained to sacrifice as we have been through a lot of wars and during that time, we had to sacrifice a lot.
We also have a very good health system, like Thailand, where there are clinics in the smallest villages and volunteers helping people. For example, in Hanoi, where I live, even though it is a populated city, everybody knows everybody else where they live and they help each other. Also, the people will listen to the government because they believe it is acting in their best interest.
Before the imposed lockdown, what types of cultural activities were you promoting since your posting to Bangkok?
Many plans have been cancelled and delayed due to Covid-19, and I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to complete them. We had planned to organise a series of activities to promote tourism as well as Vietnamese culture and cuisine. This was going to be a joint project between the Vietnamese embassy and Thai private sector, bringing Vietnamese products to Thailand as well as bringing Thai dancers to Hanoi to perform at the ASEAN Summit. However, everything was cancelled. We also organised activities involving the Vietnamese-Thai community, such as a celebration to honour our late president, Ho Chi Minh, in Nakhon Phanom. Now, unfortunately, I have come to the end of my three-year posting, and so won’t be involved in any such activities.
Since coming to Thailand, what has impressed you most about Bangkok and other parts of the country?
I am very impressed by the people, the social organizations and the way Thais behave, especially by those working in the service sectors. I also appreciate Thailand's infrastructure. The roads don’t just connect provinces; they also reach the most remote villages. I would like to see similar improvement in my country; however, we still don't have enough money to do it as fast as we wish. I also like the mindset of the Thai people; they seem so relaxed. In Vietnam, everybody is trying to move faster, be more competitive.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
I would like to encourage Thai entrepreneurs to go to Vietnam to see the opportunities with their own eyes before it’s too late. They can always contact the Thailand-Vietnam Business Council and Vietnam Trade Office here at the embassy for assistance. I would also like to thank the Thai government and the Thai people at large for welcoming me and making my stay here so enjoyable and fulfilling.