In 2015, when the Ministry of Education and Training announced that up to 70 percent of Vietnamese students who study abroad did not return home after graduation, it became clear just how serious Vietnam’s brain drain problem really was. Citing better employment opportunities and living conditions, the statistics more or less confirmed the public’s fear that Vietnam was losing some of its best talent to foreign countries.
Five years later, Vietnam is a very different place. The country has reported one of the fastest economic growth rates in the region with GDP per capita doubling in the last ten years. Not surprisingly, Vietnam has become a sought-after living destination for expats from across the globe.
Have the astounding economic growth and the increase in living standards swayed overseas students’ decision not to return home post-graduation? Vietcetera asks five Vietnamese Gen Zers and Millennials about their plans.
Early career opportunities abroad
Though acknowledging positive changes in Vietnam, Annie Phan, a recent graduate of Brown University, has decided to remain in the States for at least five more years. She tells us she will be working as a consultant at Keystone Strategy before pursuing a master’s degree in Data Science — also at her alma mater.
I want to continue learning and gaining real work experience.
She further tells us, "I believe the best place to do it is in the States. The economy here is more developed, more organized, and more diverse, allowing a young person like me to grow much more."
Indeed, early career development opportunities are a major if not the most important concern for recent graduates. These formative years right after university can define and shape their professional career. Whilst Vietnam’s fast integration into the global economy means plenty of professional offerings, overseas graduates still see the opportunities provided in Vietnam as not comparable both in quantity and quality to those abroad — especially in cities like London, New York, and Boston, where headquarters of large multinational companies are located.
Nathan Nguyen, a recent Master's graduate at Imperial College London | Source: Nathan Nguyen
Sharing similar sentiments is Nathan Nguyen — a recent Master’s graduate at Imperial College London — who has also decided to delay his return to Vietnam to work at HSBC UK for the next few years. He claims that professional graduate programs abroad are more extensive and better structured than those in Vietnam.
The programs abroad follow a more scientific approach, enabling me to develop in more extensive ways.
He adds, "They are also more holistic. Besides preparing me for technical tasks, they equip me with the soft skills to deal with any challenges I may face in a dynamic workforce."
Technical skills can only take you so far in your career, many overseas students like Nathan noted. They see leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills as essential in order for them to climb the career ladder. Fearing that graduate programs in Vietnam can at times be inadequate in helping them build the required skill set, they opt to gain work experience abroad instead.
A sign of weakness
Compounding the problem is the fact that many overseas students see coming home right after graduation as a sign of weakness.
Hiep Nguyen, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he majored in Finance, tells us that he plans to come home and work as a research analyst at Korea Investment Management in Vietnam until the pandemic abates. However, he fully intends to go back to the States to pursue a Master in Finance degree and a career in the Finance industry.
Succeeding in the States means a lot of things.
"It means prestige, not only for ourselves, but also for our parents. It means ‘making it’ in the toughest and most demanding working environment in the world," he admits.
Having spent thousands of dollars on a degree in a foreign country, overseas students are pressured by parents and, above all, themselves to succeed abroad. They feel that by coming home they are setting their career back. To them, not succeeding abroad also means that they are not good enough or have not tried hard enough to ‘make it’ in a foreign country. Therefore, many suppress their desire to return to their homeland and remain abroad for a little bit longer.
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Untapped economic possibilities
Regardless of their position on the career ladder, most of those already in the workforce desire to go home. Especially when they have achieved professional success and nothing is holding them back.
Though Nathan, Bao Anh, and Hiep all plan to stay abroad after graduating, they ultimately hope to put down roots in Vietnam.
Whilst Bao Anh plans to return and contribute to Vietnam’s economic development, Nathan hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and transform Vietnam's digital landscape. As for Hiep, he looks forward to building the first jitsu and grappling gym in Vietnam.
In other words, whilst overseas students’ short-term goals are abroad, their long-term plans are in Vietnam.
Perhaps surprising to many, the more time students and graduates spend overseas, the greater is their desire to return. That is especially true for Vietnam, where a fast-growing economy offers many untapped opportunities. Annie proclaims,
Majoring in Economics and Development Studies in college shows me that Vietnam is a lucrative market to tap into.
She continues by saying, "I have realized that the big global trend is to shift resources to emerging markets, such as Indonesia and Vietnam. As opposed to markets in China and India, which are too big, too complicated, and too saturated, markets in Vietnam are still ‘fresh’ and full of unexplored possibilities."
Echoing her is Nathan,
I want to grasp the unexplored opportunities in Vietnam and bring back to the country innovative and marketable enterprise architecture solutions to transform businesses’ IT infrastructure to meet their strategic needs.
Similarly, Hiep thinks that,
There are niche markets and business models that have great potential in Vietnam.
"Yet, they have not been tapped into and tried out. Particularly, I see great prospects for a jitsu and grappling gym in Vietnam. We have the raw talent and we have always been receptive to new forms of martial arts," he adds.
Overseas students are excited about new economic opportunities in the country. They want to be a part of the workforce that is driving Vietnam’s economic growth. That said, they want to gain industry expertise, and social and economic capital while working abroad first. Only then, they feel, can they fully realize their potential and contribute to Vietnam’s progress in a meaningful way.
Defining modern Vietnam
Being part of the generation that represents the new, outward-looking Vietnam, many overseas students feel that the only way to truly participate in shaping the social and economic activity in the country is from within. For the generation that is quickly shedding a parochial worldview and embracing more forward-looking global values, Vietnam is an exciting place to be right now.
Thao Dan, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York | Source: Thao Dan
Thao Dan, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, returned home just on the heels of the pandemic. She has decided to stay put because of her desire to contribute to the changing landscape of the film industry in Vietnam.
It's the best time to make films in Vietnam. New and young Vietnamese film-makers are curious about a lot of things and are willing to explore.
Thao Dan further states, "Luckily, the film industry in Vietnam is more ‘open’ than before and consequently there are spaces for film-makers to experiment. Occupying these spaces are the young filmmakers who are reshaping what it means to be a creator in the country."
Thao Dan's goal is to bring the image of modern Vietnam closer to the world:
I have friends abroad who still think of Vietnam as a war-ridden country.
"They would ask me how I would get to school with the conflict going on. I would laugh it off before informing them that’s not the case. Realizing that the image of Vietnam has been heavily reduced to the portrait of war, I want to tell another story of Vietnam through videos, the medium that I work best with, " she tells us.
Linh Dan, a graduate at NYU Tisch School of Arts | Source: Linh Dan
Linh Dan — Thao Dan's sister — is also a filmmaker (creativity certainly runs in the family). A graduate at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, she has also decided to come home and make films about Vietnam.
In the States, I came to realize how central being Vietnamese is to my identity. I began to rekindle my roots with Vietnam and explore questions pertaining to my Vietnamese identity.
Linh Dan further tells us, "I also came to realize the type of movies I want to make. Movies about Vietnamese people and their lives. Naturally, the best place to make these films is here, in Vietnam."
Linh Dan and Thao Dan both hope to be able to continue representing Vietnam at an international film festival. Many other overseas students share the same aspiration — through their professional pursuits, they hope to elevate Vietnam's standing on the global stage. Many of them feel that the only way to achieve that is through working in Vietnam. Counterintuitively, they choose to come back to Vietnam in order to bring Vietnam closer to the world.
Indeed, overseas students are spending the early years of their professional career abroad. Many agreed that Vietnam’s developing economy holds a lot of promise, yet unfortunately a great number of businesses and firms do not have a structured graduate training program in place.
That said, overseas students recognize that Vietnam is changing rapidly — economically and culturally. In the hope to capitalize on the economic opportunities and contribute to the cultural transformation happening in Vietnam, they fully intend to return home at some point in the future. Most likely, after they have earned their stripes abroad.
So it’s only a matter of time then before they return to the land of their birth and claim their share of the cake. The cake that is the new, modern Vietnam.