You can tell a lot about the values a country wishes to project by looking at the embassies and consulates it constructs. Where the world’s big and mighty nations might greet you with a great wall of bollards, the smaller ones are not afraid to show their softer side.
Standing at the gate of the Consulate of Portugal in HCMC, one gets a full view of a well-manicured garden and a French colonial villa shaded by a generous jackfruit tree. Through the same wrought-iron gate you can just as easily spot Afonso Vieira, the Consul, in his ground floor office. As you reach for the doorbell, Afonso looks up from his desk and waves you in.
Installed in 2018, right after the heritage building was leased from a local family and carefully renovated, the we-have-nothing-to-hide gate conveys respect for openness that is characteristic of the Portuguese society. Inside, the original floor tiles, exposed brickwork and French double doors speak of Portugal’s appreciation of the past while showcasing cultural ties between the two countries.
Afonso is quick to provide context, “I often find myself reminding people that Alexandre de Rhodes, although a Frenchman, was mainly known here for his work on the Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary published in 1651.” Another historical fact frustratingly few people are aware of is the role Francisco de Pina and other Portuguese missionaries played in developing Chữ Quốc ngữ, the Vietnamese alphabet, in the 17th century. But as more Vietnamese discover the sunny country in the southwest corner of Europe, old ties will be rekindled, hopes Afonso. In the meantime, he is happy to tell those stories himself.
As we sit down for an interview for our ‘Ask a Senior’ series, the Honorary Consul tells us about his many responsibilities, why Portugal’s Golden Visa program has been such a hit with the Vietnamese and shares his FDI predictions.
Your full title reads “Honorary Consul with extended powers in Vietnam”. What does it mean, in the context of foreign service?
Few countries can afford the cost of sending career officers to every consular post, so sometimes they are supplemented by empowered honorary officers, usually residents engaged in business who are citizens of the country that nominates them. Since 2018, when the government empowered the HCMC outpost, bilateral ties have markedly improved. We have also been helping Portuguese companies find local business partners in close coordination with Aicep Portugal Global, a government trade agency. Once Vietnam has opened its own Portuguese Embassy (currently it’s in Bangkok), we will be able to accomplish even more.
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From a hotelier in Europe and China, to entrepreneur in the wealth management industry, to Honorary Consul — that’s quite a journey. How did your past experiences prepare you for your current role?
As a consul, you are commissioned by a state to foster commercial affairs of its citizens and corporations in a foreign country, while at the same time performing routine functions such as notarial services. The skills I developed working in the hospitality industry in five countries like communication, cultural awareness, and attention to detail, serve me well today. Being an entrepreneur in the wealth management industry in Singapore sharpened my skills in several areas, such as discretion and trustworthiness, compliance, resilience and adaptability, while enlarging my knowledge of world economics and the financial markets.
You’ve been in Vietnam for over 15 years as a businessman, and the last two as part of the Consular corps. What are some of the achievements of the mission that you are proudest of?
There are three economic areas that have shown significant growth. Firstly, 300 Vietnamese investors (plus over 1,200 of their family members) took advantage of the Golden Visa program offering a fast track to residency, placing Vietnam at number 6 globally in terms of take-up. The number of Vietnamese students enrolling in higher education in Portugal is also on the increase. A few years ago our universities were not even on the radar but today we are competing head-to-head with other EU countries teaching in English language. And lastly, we’ve seen a marked increase from two types of tourists: Vietnamese Catholics and the local LGBT community, as Portugal is a traditional country but with modern laws and mores.
There’s a lot of excitement around the Portugal Golden Visa Program. What is it exactly?
Most EU countries have immigration programs, and Portugal is no exception. But unlike the traditional programs that require the applicants to live in the country for six months or more, the Portuguese Golden Visa program for entrepreneurs and investors allows them to live wherever they choose. Launched in 2012, the scheme has many incentives that makes it especially attractive to business people from emerging markets like Vietnam: the option to relocate the extended family to Portugal; the possibility (but not the obligation) of obtaining citizenship at the end of 5 years, with a dual nationality option; no worldwide taxation; and the option to join the program via the purchase of free-hold property. All these factors contribute to Portugal being now a favored investment destination for the Vietnamese business people.
For the Vietnamese who want to learn the language or about the culture of Portugal, what opportunities exist in Saigon?
The best ambassadors of Portugal's culture are the Vietnamese who have been to Portugal. They are very active on social media and engage others in organic conversations about their positive experiences. The content strategy of the Consulate's official Facebook Page is adapted to the preferences and interests of our 2,000 followers: we usually share snippets and interesting facts about Portugal, in Vietnamese and other languages. In terms of language studies, an international private school in An Phú will launch classes for beginners in 2021.
As for the trade and investment activities, how strong are the business ties between the two countries?
The total annual bilateral trade is around USD 500 million, with Vietnam exporting around 10 times more than Portugal. This is obviously small but the growth rate is increasing very rapidly. Currently the only FDI from Portugal is Logoplaste, a high-tech plastic bottle manufacturer for Procter & Gamble in Bình Dương province, plus a few rep offices. I don't expect the FDI figures to change as Portuguese companies are usually very small (95% have less than 10 employees) and large corporations are based in San Francisco, New York, Paris etc. In the other direction, we are starting to see FDI from Vietnam in Portugal, mainly in real estate, hospitality, and agriculture.
Any advice for the young Vietnamese who want to build a career in the diplomatic corps? What knowledge and skills should they work on?
There is a broad range of skills, including communication, cultural awareness and attention to detail. But in my opinion, to have a meaningful and lasting impact in the diplomatic corps, the individual has to be fluent in English, well-versed in world history from the 19th century up until now, world economics, and the private-public sector relationship. Vietnam is a very old nation but politically speaking a young country, so the diplomatic challenges in the 21st century are enormous. If I were a young Vietnamese, I would be very excited to contribute to the diplomatic efforts of Vietnam in this century.