A New Chapter for the U.S. and Vietnam

Andrew P. Rowan
Jul 17, 2016 · 5 min read
President Obama at Dreamplex in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Andrew Rowan

During President Obama’s May, 2016 visit to Vietnam, the removal of the lethal weapons ban — which prevented lethal arms sales to Vietnam since the end of the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War) in 1975 — marked the beginning of a new chapter of fully normalized relations between Washington and Hanoi. As the United States and Vietnam continue to move from a relationship between former adversaries toward a strategic partnership, what will the way forward look like for entrepreneurs and youth of both countries?

One of President Obama’s policies during his administration has been the promotion of global entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the creation of the Global Entrepreneur Summit (GES) in 2009 with the intention of igniting a wave of entrepreneurship around the world. Last month, the GES was held in the U.S. for the first time at Stanford University where the U.S. Department of State sponsored event welcomed entrepreneurs and investors from around the world (including eight entrepreneurs from Vietnam) to experience Silicon Valley for themselves.

About a month prior to GES at Dreamplex, a coworking space in Ho Chi Minh City, President Obama interviewed a mixed panel of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans who had studied in the U.S. and then worked at or started companies in Vietnam. Prior to the panel discussion, President Obama was clear in his opening remarks about why he had come to visit one of the fastest-growing countries in the world: “Entrepreneurship is also the fuel for prosperity that puts rising economies on the path to success.” President Obama continued: “I’m here today because the United States is committed to being a partner as you grow.” Part of that growth support will be in the form of Women’s Entrepreneurial Centers of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment (WECREATE) which will be established to enable more women to join the formal economy in Vietnam. He concluded in this nearly hour-long event: “My message to all the entrepreneurs here today is that I believe in you, America believes in you, and we are going to keep investing in your success.”

Currently, Vietnam is one of several countries that participate in the Ambassador’s Entrepreneurship Challenge (AEC), which focuses on the three major cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang. Teams of 2–5 individuals, consisting of at least 50% Vietnamese nationals, then submit a social entrepreneurship or startup idea — in English — for the chance to win seed funding to take their concepts to the next level. Each city selects/determines its best team to compete at the national level.

Also announced by President Obama in late May was the introduction of the Peace Corps to Vietnam for the first time whose volunteers will focus on teaching English. These Peace Corps activities in Vietnam will enable more people-to-people ties as selected Americans can experience today’s Vietnam for themselves while serving among the dynamic and driven young Vietnamese who are eager to learn and master English.

With a median age of under 30 in a population of more than 90 million, the youth of Vietnam have been a particular focus for U.S. Department of State supported programs such as the Young South East Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) that has over 13,000 YSEALI members in Vietnam. YSEALI focuses on building the leadership capability of the youth across the region and promotes cross-border collaboration to address 21st century challenges in areas such as community development, climate change, and local government. The direct and indirect impact on the youth of Vietnam and across Southeast Asia will only deepen as the U.S.-ASEAN Connect hubs announced earlier this year are established around four pillars: Business Connect; Energy Connect; Innovation Connect; and Policy Connect.

Along with entrepreneurship and “big thinking” of the Silicon Valley brand, American higher education continues to beckon new generations of Vietnamese students. Almost 19,000 Vietnamese students currently study in the U.S. — more than from any other nation in Southeast Asia. For those who can’t study abroad, Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City will become the first independent, not-for-profit American-style university in Vietnam later this year. American universities also have taken a closer look at Vietnam, such as the University of Dayton (UD), which recently established a new leg of its New Venture Creation competition in Vietnam via a local partner sourced by the U.S. Commercial Service. The winning team from the region will continue on to Ohio where it will compete against American teams for up to $25,000 in seed funding.

Vincent Lewis, director of the Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Dayton recently visited Vietnam for the first time in May. “Our desire to get involved in the start-up ecosystem in Vietnam revolves around several key initiatives [tied to the University’s mission] within our nationally ranked entrepreneurship program,” he said. “In today’s climate, young entrepreneurs need to understand how to do business globally. Flyer Pitch, UD’s global New Venture Creation competition that will hold three rounds in Asian countries this year, gives our students the opportunity to work side-by-side with start-ups from around the world.”

This cross-cultural exposure between Vietnamese and American students can establish a solid foundation for increased trade between Vietnam and the U.S. in the future. According to The White House, trade between the U.S. and Vietnam has almost tripled in the last seven years and now tops $45 billion annually. And if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is ratified by its 12 members, new trade opportunities will open up for both countries. However, the ratification process may not be completed for up to two years. So, in the meantime, the promotion of entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology all will be at Washington’s disposal in an effort to bolster ties with Hanoi and between the American and Vietnamese peoples.

Earlier this year, President Obama became the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the normalization of relations between these two sovereign states in 1995. However, the next U.S. president is scheduled to visit Vietnam in 2017 for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit along with representatives from 20 Member Economies. Whoever becomes the next president will have a tough act to follow, given how well-received President Obama was by the Vietnamese people and the recent progress in strengthening U.S.-Vietnam relations. Yet, the next president also will have momentum on his/her side — last year the U.S. and Vietnam celebrated 20 years of normalized relations. And, if the recent progress made is any indication how the future may unfold then the next 20 years could be a Golden Age for relations between these one-time enemies.

An AmCham Hanoi event in May, 2016 with U.S. Members of Congress during President Obama’s visit to Vietnam. Photo: Andrew Rowan

Andrew P. Rowan

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Author of Startup Vietnam: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Socialist Republic. More at www.andrewprowan.com