Ambassador Nguyen Quoc Dzung was appointed as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to the United States in January 2022. He has worked in the Foreign Service for more than 30 years, most recently serving as the Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting Leader of Vietnam; and Ambassador to Hungary, accredited to Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania.
Ambassador Dzung spoke with Kim Montgomery, Director of International Affairs and Science Diplomacy at AAAS and Executive Editor of Science & Diplomacy, on Vietnam’s approach to science and technology, and the exciting potential of the country’s young population. This conversation is part of the Ambassador Conversation Series, which was launched in Spring 2021.
Kim Montgomery (interviewer): The U.S. and Vietnam have been trusted partners since bilateral relations were established in 1995. You were appointed as Ambassador to the United States, in January 2022. After almost two years in the office, what do you believe are the most significant scientific priorities shared by our two countries?
Ambassador Dzung: From my observations over the last decades, I think that the most significant point of scientific cooperation between Vietnam and the United States has centered around life science, healthcare, and medical research. We have just celebrated 20 years of cooperation between Harvard Medical School and Vietnam’s Ministry of Health through the Partnership for Health Advancement in Vietnam (HAIVN), which has led to some truly remarkable achievements.1 Vietnam also has a considerable population of postdoctoral scholars, students, and workers making a living in the United States in a variety of fields, specifically IT engineers working at U.S. tech companies, especially in Silicon Valley. These are two areas where I have seen successful cooperation throughout my career, and I anticipate such cooperation will continue.
Looking toward the future, I think science and technology (S&T) will start playing an even bigger role in our bilateral cooperation. During President Biden’s visit to Vietnam this September, the new U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) was announced, listing science, technology, and innovation as a key point of engagement.2 High tech is one of the most important pillars—this includes the semiconductor industries, renewable energies, digital transformation, and more. Responding to climate change and investing in climate resilient agriculture are two other significant parts of the CSP. Cybersecurity is another area of critical importance and is something the U.S. is really leading. Vietnam has some strengths it can offer in this as well.
Montgomery: Vietnam has a Science and Technology Strategy that is focused on promoting economic growth, implementing a national digital transformation, and improving people’s lives with sustainable development. Could you please share more about this strategy? Additionally, what are some of the unique features of Vietnam’s S&T ecosystem?
Ambassador Dzung: We developed a strategy for S&T because it is what we call a force of production and is really a deciding factor in a country’s prosperity. As S&T is an important element of soft power, being a leader in S&T can really contribute to a nation’s strength. What is unique about our strategy is that its core focus is on our people. Vietnam is lucky to have a very young, dynamic, and talented population. Our population is full of incredibly creative and hardworking people, perhaps because of the war and the difficulty of life in the past. There is a big push for our younger population to involve themselves in STEM subjects. It shows that the labor force is our most important asset, and that makes investing in education and training one of the most important ways we can serve our society.
The second thing to note is that, as a developing country, we are working from a different starting point—this makes cooperating with other countries and integrating our work into the world economy a necessity. Basically, you either get on the S&T train or you get left behind, and this strategy shows we are determined to be on the train.
Montgomery: In 2010, AAAS and the Royal Society of London developed a framework with three dimensions to better understand the nexus between science and diplomacy. These dimensions include science helping to inform diplomatic objectives and policymaking, diplomatic initiatives helping to foster international scientific collaborations, and scientific engagement helping to advance diplomatic priorities. Over your diplomatic career, how have you seen these dimensions being used to advance Vietnam’s foreign policy objectives?
Ambassador Dzung: It is very interesting to hear this definition because, even though my background is not in science, I think these dimensions can fit into a number of fields I’ve encountered in my career—beyond science and diplomacy, I think you also see culture and diplomacy, education and diplomacy, security and diplomacy, and more interact and intertwine in similar ways. A lot of times these dimensions just appear naturally, rather than being intended. I could pull a lot of examples from my career, but I would not have realized at the time that one dimension or another was at play.
For example, last month, I was honored to take part in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of HAIVN. This point of cooperation would likely not have existed without diplomats initiating it and introducing these medical institutions, a perfect example of diplomacy for science. But, in turn, I likely would not have been at that celebration had this collaboration not been such a positive force for our bilateral diplomatic relationship. Furthermore, because of the success of HAIVN, policymakers have realized the importance of science and technology and have made it a pillar of our strategic partnership. These three dimensions are very closely linked and occur naturally, but they are always at play. I thank you for this observation and these definitions, because they have led to a nice moment of reflection.
Montgomery: Over the past few decades, Vietnam’s economy has seen transformative changes that have resulted in millions of people being lifted out of poverty. More recently, Vietnam has been undergoing another transition led by digital technology. How is the Vietnamese government supporting the digital economy? How will it ensure that the digital economy benefits everyone?
Ambassador Dzung: It is like what I said previously: you either get on the train or you are left behind. In 2020, Vietnam launched its National Strategy on Digital Transformation. At the moment, the digital economy’s share of Vietnam’s GDP sits around 14%. Our strategy sets a goal of increasing this share to 20% by 2025 and 30% by 2030. These are the targets, but the question is, how do we make sure that this increase in spending will be to the benefit of our population?
I think the answer to this question is twofold: we must build, and we must protect. In terms of building, I mean that we need to build the infrastructure and the environment to accommodate this increase. Then, we need to protect people’s privacy and ensure that the use of digital technologies is not abused. It is a bit of a dilemma, finding the balance between development and progress, while trying to protect the privacy of individuals, the protection of copyrights, and so on. This is why building and protecting must go hand in hand—we always want to make sure that our people only benefit from this strategy. This is a big reason why we have been so adamant about collaborating on cybersecurity.
Montgomery: Vietnam is a country at risk for natural disasters, including typhoons and flooding. Many, if not most, countries are at risk of such disasters, which makes it a common challenge primed for international scientific cooperation. How does Vietnam work with countries around the region and the world on disaster risk reduction?
Ambassador Dzung: It is true that Vietnam is subject to extreme weather events, and we are among some of the countries most affected by climate change. We have to divide natural disasters into regional and global issues. If the issue is regional, it can be handled by our own national government. However, extreme weather events can happen across borders, which means we have to cooperate, because we cannot face them alone. That is why Vietnam participates in various disaster response and disaster management mechanisms with our neighbors. For example, this year, Vietnam is Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Committee on Disaster Management.
Then, on a global level, we are very invested in working together to address climate change. We have of course signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), our Prime Minister made a very bold commitment to have zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is a very ambitious goal that poses a lot of challenges, but we have to set these goals if we want to have an impact. Also, once again, we have to collaborate with other countries, particularly the United States, because we alone do not have all the necessary resources. That is why responding to climate change is another pillar of our CSP.
Montgomery: Vietnam invests heavily in education, peaking at 5.7% of its GDP in 2013, but consistently staying above 4%. Since the country has a relatively young population, how do you see this investment in education paying off in the near and long term?
Ambassador Dzung: Vietnam is very lucky to be home to a lot of young, determined people, and we have seen in Vietnam, as we have consistently seen around the world, that investing in education has great impacts. We also have a lot of people working in the United States and abroad, and we have a lot of people who go to university here and then return to Vietnam—at present, there are 30,000 Vietnamese students studying in the United States. Regardless, there is a big payoff—they either return home and contribute to our country directly, or they go abroad, building up our relationships elsewhere.
It is not a coincidence that the United States agreed to choose technology and semiconductors as a pillar for our CSP; they can see our labor force, our investment in education, the talented people of Vietnam. On October 29, the Vietnam Semiconductor Innovation Network was officially launched. Part of the goal is to form a workforce of 50,000 engineers by 2030.3 Goals like this cannot be achieved without investing heavily in education. Vietnam also aspires to be a leader in the AI industry,4 and hopes to follow a similar path in that sector. We want to keep creating these opportunities for our people, and to keep being competitive with opportunities elsewhere. Our young and talented population is perhaps our greatest strength.
Montgomery: What are some must-see travel destinations in Vietnam? In particular, are there things that you would recommend for someone visiting who is interested in science or technology?
Ambassador Dzung: There are so many places to choose from. I am personally from Hanoi, which is the capital of Vietnam. I would say that Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are our two biggest centers, and there is nothing you cannot find in them, be it culture, history, or science and technology. They are great places to go for a bit of everything.
But there is a lot outside of big cities. I must mention Da Nang—it is still a city but is a smaller one, and it has been voted as the most livable city in Vietnam. It has beautiful beaches and is a hub that has seen quite a bit of urbanization. There is also Binh Duong province, just north of Ho Chi Minh City, which has been designated as a Smart City by the Intelligent Communities Forum.5 There is a lot of innovation to see there.
Last, I must mention Quảng Ninh province, which is very famous for its beauty. It is home to Hạ Long Bay, one of the new seven wonders of nature and a UNESCO world heritage site.6 Not only is there natural beauty, but you can also find very innovative cities and transportation around. I could name many more, but let’s stick with these few for a first visit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- Maria R.F. Buckley, “Trust and global partnerships: What HMS is learning from a 20-year effort to strengthen Vietnam’s health care system,” Harvard Medical School, May 5, 2023, https://hms.harvard.edu/news/trust-global-partnerships; “HAIVN: Celebrating 20 years,” HAIVN, accessed October 30, 2023, https://haivn.org.
- “FACT SHEET: President Joseph R. Biden and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong announce the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” The White House, September 10, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/09/10/fact-sheet-president-joseph-r-biden-and-general-secretary-nguyen-phu-trong-announce-the-u-s-vietnam-comprehensive-strategic-partnership.
- “Vietnam Semiconductor Innovation Network officially launched,” Viet Nam News, October 31, 2023, https://vietnamnews.vn/economy/1635934/vietnam-semiconductor-innovation-network-officially-launched.html.
- “Vietnam is at the ‘leading edge’ of AI developments in emerging Southeast Asia: JPMorgan,” CNBC, October 29, 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/video/2023/10/30/vietnam-ahead-in-ai-developments-in-emerging-southeast-asia-jpmorgan.html; US and Vietnam unveil billions in semiconductor and AI deals,” Financial Times, September 11, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/a162bc92-806f-48f0-adae-367daaf7f982.
- “Binh Duong Smart City,” Intelligent Communities Forum, accessed November 7, 2023, https://www.intelligentcommunity.org/binh_duong_smart_city.
- “Ha Long Bay,” New 7 Wonders of Nature,” https://nature.new7wonders.com/wonders/ha-long-bay-vietnam/.