A man of peace

As the world spotlight falls on Vietnam as it hosts the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, Embassy editor Elizabeth Stewart sat down with Vietnam’s Ambassador to London. As a survivor of the Vietnam War, Tran Ngoc An (whose given names mean ‘Precious Peace’) is a strong believer in solving disputes through diplomacy. Having joined the foreign service at the start of Vietnam’s ‘Doi Moi’ (economic reform) he shares the secrets of his country’s booming economy (which is held up as a model for other nations coming out of isolation). And, as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the EU, he shares his thoughts on Brexit and explains why Vietnamese cuisine is conquering the world

To start off, let’s go back to the beginning. Why did you want to become a diplomat?
Since I was small I’ve always been interested in foreign relations.

Growing up during the Vietnam War had an impact on my thinking about war and peace. Like other children living in Hanoi, I was evacuated to the countryside with my grandparents. For the first eight years of my life we lived on constant alert. Whenever we heard the sirens that the bombers were coming, we had to rush to a shelter. Those were very difficult years. We were short of many things – food, clothes and medicine.

Apart from that I am rather good at foreign languages and I also like travelling and taking photos. So all that attracted me to the foreign service.

You first got to know the UK as a Chevening student in 1996. What do you remember about that time?
My study in the UK in 1996 was important for me in terms of intellectual thinking. I read a lot – can you imagine that in one year, I lost 7kg because I spent so much time in the University’s library. But I didn’t regret it! I had a greater exposure to various schools of thought and theories. It also helped me with deeper critical thinking. But more importantly, it gave me more confidence in what I believed.

I was also very impressed with the beautiful English spoken by the native speakers and the wonderful garden of English roses in Canterbury where I studied.

Education is a promising area of co-operation between the UK and Vietnam, isn’t it?
Yes! The two countries established a strategic partnership in 2010 and education was identified as one of the priorities in bilateral relations. In the 90s, when I was a Chevening student, most of Vietnamese students studying abroad were on scholarships from foreign countries. Seeing my Asian friends coming to the UK to study with their families’ financial support I wondered when the Vietnamese would be able do the same.

Now we have 12,000 Vietnamese students in UK and most of them are self- financed. It shows that the Vietnamese economy is developing so fast that more families can afford to send their children overseas.

There is also a cultural factor contributing to that. Vietnamese families attach great importance to the education of their children. Parents are prepared to save money to give their children the best education. Meanwhile, the UK has many world-class universities and colleges.

In January, we hosted the largest-ever education delegation headed by the Minister of Education of Vietnam comprising more than 80 universities and education-related businesses from Vietnam for a week-long visit to the UK. More than 40 agreements and MOUs were signed, which is a vivid manifestation of the great potential of education cooperation between the two countries.

The UK and Vietnam celebrated 45 years of diplomatic relations in 2018, with a visit from your Foreign Minister Mr Pham Binh Minh. Tell us about the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership.
In 1973, the two countries established diplomatic relations and in 2010 we became Strategic Partners. I am very pleased to see that the bilateral relations have developed rapidly both in length and in depth in various fields – politics, trade and investment, education, culture, security, defence and cooperation at international fora.

The two countries also share many things in common: we both believe in multilateralism, the rule of law, to name a few. So there is a lot of untapped potential for further cooperation.

You mentioned UK-Vietnam cooperation at International Fora. Vietnam is running for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for 2020-2021. What contribution can you make?
As Vietnam has endured many years of war with all the atrocities, we cherish the values of peace and security so our proactive participation in an organisation whose main responsibility is to maintain peace will surely add value.

Vietnam is a strong believer and promoter of the rule of law, the settlement of disputes through peaceful means, multilateralism and a liberal trading system. We also support a UN that is transparent and effective.

We cooperate with the P-5 countries in many areas including alongside the UK in recent peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. It’s also worth noting that Hanoi was chosen to be the venue for the historic second DPRK-US Summit to settle the issue of peace on the Korean Peninsula. So these are some of the examples of Vietnam as an active and responsible member of the international community.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said a priority for ‘Global Britain’ is supporting a rules-based international order. Will that be important for Vietnam in resolving the territorial dispute in the South China Sea?
When it comes to the territorial and maritime disputes in the East Sea or the South China Sea, the rules-based international order plays a very important role. It will shape the responsible conduct of the parties and require the parties to settle the disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982.

The support of the international community, particularly the P5 countries such as the UK, therefore, in this matter will be a valuable reaffirmation of the role of the rules-based order.

As the East Sea or the South China Sea is the second busiest sea lane in the world, maintaining peace, stability, maritime security as well as the freedom of navigation and overflight is in the common interests of all countries.

You also mentioned there is scope for more growth in trade and investment with Britain – which sectors should British investors be looking at?
With a sustained and fast-growing economy and a market of soon-to-be 100 million people, there are opportunities in many sectors for British businesses – finance, insurance, banking, high tech and renewable energy.

Because of our rapid economic growth, there is also huge demand in Vietnam to upgrade our infrastructure. British engineering consultancy firms could participate in big projects such as airports, seaports, railways, highways and the metro system. Our fast-growing stock market is another opportunity for investors.

Our economies are complimentary, which is why in recent years the volume of bilateral trade has grown at double-digit rates.

What are your thoughts on Brexit and how a trade agreement between the UK and Vietnam will look once the UK leaves the EU?
Every coin has two faces. There are difficulties the UK will have to face but there are also new horizons opening up as UK leaves the EU. The recently concluded EVFTA between Vietnam and the EU will be an important basis for a Vietnam-UK Free Trade Agreement in the future. And the two sides are working on it.

As for Vietnam, we view Brexit both as a challenge and an opportunity. However, given the fact that Vietnam and UK have a lot in common and there are many complimentary factors in our economies as well as the existence of our strong common desire to ensure no disruption in the flow of bilateral trade and investment after Brexit, I strongly believe that opportunities will overtake the challenges. And I am confident that our strategic partnership will go from strength to strength in the interests of both countries.

The Vietnamese economy is booming, particularly in manufacturing. What is your secret?
The Vietnam economy has enjoyed sustained growth of 7.5% over the past 30 years and attracted more than US$300bn in foreign direct investment. Last year, despite the many global uncertainties, our GDP growth was 7%, one of the fastest in the world. There are many reasons for our success story, but I’d just highlight four:

Firstly, Vietnam enjoys long-term socio-political stability. Secondly, with a population of almost 100 million, and as a member of the ASEAN Community, as well as being a member of a global network of 15 bilateral and multilateral FTAs – including the EVFTA with EU and the CPTPP – Vietnam is a really big and attractive market for foreign investors. Thirdly, Vietnam has a big pool of young, hardworking, well educated, skillful but low-cost work force. And finally, Vietnam is one of the few countries that have the so-called ‘chopstick culture’ (together with Japan, China and Korea). It is believed this is a reason why we are skilled at small, sophisticated tasks that require dexterity. That’s why many electronic goods like smart phones, cameras, computers are manufactured in Vietnam.

Speaking of chopsticks, Vietnamese ‘culinary diplomacy’ is a growing force. What makes Vietnamese cuisine special?
Vietnam is a country with 54 ethnic groups and from historical point of view, Vietnam has been greatly exposed to the influence of the Chinese and French. So Vietnamese gastronomy is the delicate combination between the French and Chinese schools of cooking and with our own local cuisine. Our food is light and healthy with lots of fresh vegetables and herbs and less fat. Foreigners both from the West and the East find something familiar in the taste of Vietnamese food but recognise a distinct delicacy. For those reasons, the Vietnamese cuisine is gaining popularity worldwide.

And I am delighted to see more and more Vietnamese restaurants in London in recent years. What we need now is a fine dining option.

Looking back over your career what have been the highlights?
I joined the Foreign Ministry 30 years ago in 1988 at a time when Vietnam just embarked on ‘Doi moi’ or renovation. It was a difficult but very important time for my country’s development.

My first posting overseas as diplomat was in 1993 at the Vietnamese Embassy in the Republic of Korea when the two countries established diplomatic ties. This had a great impact on my later career.

As a newly opened Embassy with a small staff, as a young diplomat, I covered many portfolios at the same time – political, economic and administrative – so I learned a lot.

Returning from Korea, I worked in ASEAN Department from 1996 to 2004. At the time Vietnam was fully integrating into the region (Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995). Those eight years were great experience in multilateral diplomacy.

My first ambassadorial post in Finland during 2005-2009 period was another milestone in my diplomatic career. Being a Vietnamese Ambassador at the age of 41, at that time, was considered very young by our standards. And frankly speaking there was even some doubts if I would be up to the job! Fortunately, I did OK and the positive views from the leadership meant other younger colleagues could be considered for important posts.

And of course, being the Ambassador of Vietnam to the UK is a privilege and a dream for English-speaking Vietnamese diplomats like me.

Do you have time for any hobbies while in London?
Despite the busy schedule, I still try to find free time to pursue my photography hobby, playing golf, vising museums and having the occasional beer with friends.