In the past thirty years, Washington has joined the world chorus in recognition of Vietnam as a responsible member of the international community.
On the busy streets of Hanoi, among the locals and especially young Vietnamese, there’s cautious optimism that the pandemic is receding. This bodes well for trade relations between the US and Vietnam since the health storm’s arrival two years ago, that resulted in disrupted supply chains, temporary manufacturing closings, and trade flow interruptions between the former enemies and now comprehensive partners.
US Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Knapper attends inauguration of the US-Vietnam Cooperation Center in Hanoi in 2021. Photo: US Embassy in Hanoi
As a journalist, I have had a front row seat in observing how Vietnam’s 98 million citizens experienced the rising tide of benefits from globalization. What’s clear to me is that despite the differences in political systems and ideologies, the Biden Administration regards Vietnam as a constructive partner. The trajectory of this relationship goes beyond the half-century marker since the end of the Vietnam War.
Over the past three decades, through its economic reforms and integration with world markets, Vietnam transitioned from one of the poorest nations to a middle-income economy in just one generation. Now on these hot and humid summer nights, thousands of young Vietnamese boys and girls circle the center of the city riding their shiny new Honda motorbikes around Hoan Kiem Lake, a freshwater lake at the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
The Communist Party’s shift to a socialist-oriented market economy propelled this meteoric leap forward and it was fueled by the jobs created by Vietnam’s booming export market, especially with the US since the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam in 1995. Bilateral trade reached almost US$111 billion in 2021, representing a 25.9% increase from the previous year. America is Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner.
Make no mistake about it. Washington’s policy experts among several different White House administrations have noted the rapid transformation of Vietnam’s economic liberalization, financial freedom and market openness.
In the bustling Long Bien fresh market in Hanoi post-pandemic recovery, 47-year-old Mrs. Tran Tien, along with her three children, Khanh Ngoc, Thuc Quyen and Thien An, 14, 12 and 11, are a postcard promotion of this new shining economic picture. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) employee in Hanoi, she and her family live near Lotus Lake, the little sister of West Lake, an affluent neighborhood with nearby private schools.
Change is evident throughout the country and most visible in the south, in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon.
Vietnamese citizens, know their history all too well. My conversations with older Vietnamese were often painful reminders as they shared their personal history and hardships endured from forces and events beyond its borders. From nearby China, Vietnam’s ancient foe, to the French, who turned the South into a colony and the North into protectorates, Vietnamese revealed their gritty nationalism and began rebuilding their nation.
The nation’s renovation remains evolutionary and the promise of Doi Moi is seen in the modern No Bai International Airport, where I have arrived on numerous trips from America aboard the wide-body Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.
In my journeys back and forth from the US to Vietnam and there were many over the past several decades, more triumphal stories came my way. I also came to know how the maritime regime, and especially the South China Sea (the Vietnamese prefer East Sea) is not just a geopolitical contested body of water but is also infused with humane values that may not be fully appreciated among policy experts but understood among all seafarers.
In Danang, a coastal city in central Vietnam, there remain a few reminders that it once served as a major base for the US Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. It was 57 years ago that 3,500 US marines leaped from landing crafts and waded onto Vietnam’s shores. They were the first US ground troops to arrive in the country. Fast forward to today. Danang, or what American soldiers called, “China Beach” or Nam O Beach, represents Vietnam’s modern miracle of development, with its sweeping tree-lined boulevards, high rises, luxury condos, clean sandy beaches, and 5-star golf resorts.
As part of my reporting in Danang, a major port city now, I went to the fishing communities to discuss with local commercial fishermen their lives.
Pollution, overfishing, and a dozen violent wars have diminished fishing, but still the boats return lying heavy in the water, hulls filled with tuna, mackerel, croaker and shrimp. Almost 50% of the animal protein consumed in Southeast Asia comes from the huge ocean shelf off the Vietnamese coast.
I recall my interview with Captain Dang Van Nhan, a third-generation local fishing boat captain, who has been casting his long line nets into the turbulent South China Sea for two decades. However, on May 26, 2014, dark political clouds suddenly came over his horizon, and his carefully maintained wooden fishing trawler was rammed and sunk by a Chinese naval vessel.
Captain Nhan and other fishermen have always been aware of the perils of a seaman’s life. Squalls capable of upending a trawler spring up quickly, and a fast-moving typhoon can easily outrun a ship. Their lives have always been at risk, but now heavily armed Chinese vessels pose a new and unfamiliar threat to their livelihood.
Growing disputes over fishing between China and other Southeast Asian claimants have added to the Chinese and Vietnamese frustration over the current situation in the South China Sea. Accounting for around 10% of the world’s annual fishing catch, the South China Sea has been a historical fishing ground for both nations’ fishermen.
No one disputes that the South China Sea fisheries offers a cheap supply of food, a means of livelihood, and a source of foreign exchange earnings. In addition, the sea’s turbulent waters provide the habitat and spawning grounds for the world’s most valuable shrimp and tuna fisheries.
In recent years, China’s assertive behavior and increasingly frequent conflicts with other claimant nations over fishing in the disputed area are causing diplomatic tensions and sometimes heightened mutual public hostility. It’s no wonder that Washington has re-emerged as more than an interested party in keeping the South China Sea open through its freedom of navigation naval exercises. The Seventh Fleet, which guards US interests in the Pacific has stepped up its port calls to both Danang and Haiphong in its desire for stronger naval ties with Vietnam.
The South China Sea is widely regarded as a potential flashpoint in the world. With its intractable sovereignty claims, threats to fishermen, exploitation of fish, coral reef destruction, biodiversity and ecological imbalances, so it was reassuring to travel to an uncontested and peaceful sleepy island in the East Sea where fishermen have adopted a sustainable ocean ethic.
Vietnam’s showcase commitment to marine protected communities.
“When I first proposed my idea that they needed to stop fishing near the coral reefs, they thought I was crazy,” exclaimed marine biologist Dr. Chu Manh Trinh flashing me his high voltage smile.
The sky was a crystal blue and the wind was so tame it barely wrinkled the surface of the protected harbor. We are standing at the clean and swept dock, along with neatly stacked recycled trash bags, at Cu Lao Cham, located about twenty kilometers from Hoi An on Vietnam’s central coast.
Through the clear water, there’s a patina of living corals; jewels of the sea that offer an iridescent combination of blue, pink, golden-yellow and green coloration. Here the residents know that their corals reveal many stories. My scientific friends remind me all too often, that corals are the canaries of climate change and indeed they face death from many threats, almost all of them man-made.
In this fishing community of 2,300, the islanders are harmoniously connected to the water. These fishers, some in their small wooden trawlers and many in the traditional round woven basket boats or “thung chai” cast their nets and lines for abalone, sea bass, grouper, lobster, squid and sea cucumber. Their home of more than 1,500 hectares of natural forest houses a critical ecosystem that includes coral reefs, seaweed and sea grass beds. It’s not surprising that in the 1960s, the island was referred to as “Paradise Island” with its unspoiled palm-fringed beaches. The island’s beauty has not disappeared thanks to the conservation and sustainability practices among the islanders in their marine protected harbor.
Can Tho student citizen scientists in Lower Mekong. Photo: Mekong Environment Forum (MEF)
“Yes, it was an on-going science educational campaign to convince the population that conservation would provide long term benefits to their way of life,” sighs Trinh, often referred to as ‘Mr. Professor when he is on the island.
In the past thirty years, Washington has joined the world chorus in recognition of Vietnam as a responsible member of the international community since it has adopted market institutions leading to its impressive economic performance. All this while leaving the country’s underlying political economy largely intact.
US foreign investment also helped propel Vietnam’s economic engine when the country first opened up its cheap labor market to investors. Over the past decade, Vietnam became a major manufacturing center in Asia and is listed among the top ten trading partners of the US
Vietnam is widely recognized as a major exporter of electronics and apparel. For example, Nike, a global brand, now produces almost 50% of its shoes in Vietnam, with Adidas following close behind. Vietnam’s manufacturing base is not limited to just textiles and apparel. Phone and components exports, at $45 billion, already exceed footwear and textile exports combined.
Vietnam’s skilled and low-cost workers, good infrastructure, stable government, and tax-free zones are just what US multinational companies are looking for when scouting locations for factories.
Mekong Environment Forum (MEF)
America has continued to honor its commitments to Vietnam to address the legacy of the War, from unexploded ordnances (UXO), demining, dioxin cleanup, and MIA remains. In recent years, the formation of the Mekong-US Partnership has also provided support for the Lower Mekong region.
James Borton and a Vietnamese Coast Guard captain.
Five years ago, I was fortunate in meeting Nguyen Minh Quang, a 27-year-old lecturer in Can Tho, Vietnam at Can Tho University. He was quick to inform me how generations of indigenous farmers in the Mekong Delta have relied completely on the river’s fish resources and rice production for their subsistence.
Their pulse of life is the river’s flow. But experts say that the intricate network of beautiful, dynamic and thriving river, its tributaries and canals that comprise the Mekong river system are under threat as the natural ebb and flow of the water is increasingly disrupted from the adverse impacts of hydropower dams
We also discussed how the US has pledged at least $153 million for collaborative projects in the Delta region, especially in addressing climate change. Over the past several years, the Mekong Delta has experienced historic devastating droughts and floods. Record low water levels in most of the waterways and rivers are causing saltwater intrusions that reach far inland, wiping out crops and contaminating water supplies.
It’s here downstream in the Lower Mekong Delta, where the Mekong Environment Forum, was co-founded with Quang. Together we have purposefully engaged the local farmers and fishers in citizen science or community science programs.
MEF continues to offer workshops that provide training in open access software for use in smartphones to address upstream environmental challenges. This is urgently needed since current science studies reveal that upstream dams are causing irreparable damage to the delta, altering fragile ecosystems and wrecking the livelihoods of the 2.3 million residents who farm along the Mekong river and the canals in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
From Can Tho University student volunteers, I have learned how the internet and new technologies, such as mobile apps for gathering data in the field and cloud storage tools, have made it possible for non-scientists to participate in the production of data and scientific knowledge.
Open Development Mekong, a project of the Washington D.C.-based East West Management Institute, as well as the Mekong Water Data Initiative (Mekong Water.org), a program under the umbrella of the US-backed Lower Mekong initiative, are among a few citizen-science platforms working to increase public awareness of the transboundary impacts of Mekong hydropower dams and other environmental challenges.
As a former educator, I remain very optimistic about these many signs of Vietnam’s grassroots participation.
A central feature of citizen science has been a shift in the way scientific concepts and information is communicated to non-experts. It is a shift not just in how the media is being used but also in media content, with hard data being supplemented by anecdote and narrative — for example, in the form of blog posts in Vietnam’s expanding social media usage. As Richard Louv in his 2011 book The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature explains, “Citizen scientists collect more than data. They gather meaning.”
The key to the success of current grassroots environmental movements is that networks of multi-stakeholders, including scientists, experts, journalists, government officials, students, and representatives from NGOs, civil society organizations, and communities are sharing the voices and needs of local people and ecosystems.
In Vietnam, an increasing number of Vietnam’s Party technocrats and policymakers appear to recognize the potential benefits of greater connectivity to promote openness and transparency, broadly speaking. Hanoi appears to have given a green light to environmental organizations looking to educate and inform the public about the impact of industrial pollution along the coast and in the Mekong Delta. In many ways, the Mekong Delta is a perfect setting for demonstrating the power of citizen science.
Student volunteers from diverse backgrounds and different universities in Southern Vietnam, like Pham Thi Phuong, Nguyen Hoai Chung (journalism students from Ho Chi Minh City University of Journalism and Communication), Lam Thi So Ri and Thach My Duc (Khmer students at Can Tho University) and Floor Matla (post-graduate internship from Utrecht University), have been trained as citizen scientists and citizen journalists who work to assist with people’s environmental literacy and introduce harmonious solutions to address overexploitation of groundwater, mangrove deforestation, and climate hazards.
Advocates of citizen science and there are increasing numbers believe they are witnessing a fundamental shift that is enabling ordinary Vietnamese, for the first time, to substantively shape policies that affect their land and climate. It’s a phenomenon that is best captured by a Vietnamese proverb: “The law of the king,” it says, “ends at the gates of the village.”
James Borton is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground that will be translated into Vietnamese.