Giles Lever, UK Ambassador to Vietnam

Giles Lever

British Ambassador to Vietnam

Part of UK in Vietnam

8th October 2014 Hanoi, Vietnam

Good to be back

Hello, and welcome to what I plan to be a regular blog about my work as the British Ambassador to Vietnam.

Although I only arrived here at the end of July, I’m not a stranger to Vietnam. I worked here in the 1990s as a young diplomat. When people hear this, their first question is “how do you think things have changed?” So that seems like a natural subject for my first blog.  (Actually, this is the second thing people ask.  Because this is Vietnam, the first thing people ask is “do you have a family?” Yes, I have a wife, Gill, and two school-age children.  But I don’t plan to blog about them!)

Vietnam has been on an amazing economic journey, and the signs of that are all around. When I first arrived here 21 years ago, this was a very poor country. GDP per capita was around $250 a year. One little personal memory from that time: the water supply to my house was so unreliable that in the morning, I often used to take a bucket up to the roof and wash with water from the rainwater tank. Now Vietnam has achieved Middle Income Status, there is a growing middle class in the cities and towns, and across the country there has been fantastic progress towards the MDGs.

I can still recognise the centres of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, despite all the smart new shops, restaurants, hotels and tower blocks. But take me out to the ever-expanding suburbs, and I get lost very quickly. 20 years ago, these areas were rice fields and sleepy villages. I had a moment of real culture shock when I went up to the viewing deck of the Bitexco Tower in Ho Chi Minh City. In the old days, the best view used to be from the roof bar on the 10th floor of the old Caravelle Hotel. I never imagined I would be gazing down at the city from the 49th floor of a building which featured on CNN’s list of the world’s 20 iconic skyscrapers.

And what about the effects of all this change on Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese people? Well, it will probably take me several years to be able to answer that question properly. But a couple of impressions stand out from my first few weeks.

One thing that hasn’t changed: people here are as friendly and hospitable as ever. I always feel that if you make a friend in Vietnam, you have a friend for life. On my first weekend here, some old friends and I travelled up to the valley of Mai Chau, in Hoa Binh province. We often used to visit Mai Chau in the 1990s, to play football with the local villagers and enjoy the beauty of the countryside. We were greeted by our hosts with great warmth and emotion, as if we’d never been away. And of course, we were soon enjoying a typical Vietnamese communal meal, with huge amounts of food and drink, noisy conversation and regular toasts. The importance of eating and drinking to Vietnamese family and social life is another thing which hasn’t changed!

A football match in Mai Chau

And one thing that has changed: the digital revolution has had a big impact on Vietnam, just as it has on the rest of the world. I see people using the internet and social media to connect with each other and debate issues of public interest, in a way it was hard to imagine 20 years ago. For example, Vietnam has some really interesting and widely-read bloggers.  (I had the honour of meeting some during my first week in this job.) Also, Vietnamese society feels a lot more global, a lot more internationally connected. More people speak better English; people I meet are more curious about global issues. This partly reflects the Vietnamese government’s strategy of “international integration”. But I am sure it is also down to the new technology which connects us all.

So, if I had to sum up in one word how I feel about Vietnam, returning to this country after many years away, the word is “optimistic”.   Of course, progress can never be taken for granted: the Vietnamese government, like all governments, will need to make the right policy choices on structural reform, on the business environment, on trade and fiscal policy. But if Vietnam has come this far in 20 years, how much more progress can it make in another 20 years? Sharing this perspective with people in the UK, and encouraging British companies and investors to take a long term view of Vietnam’s huge potential, will be an important part of my job here.

In my next blog, I plan to write a little about how the relationship between the UK and Vietnam has changed. After that, I’m sure I will not be short of topics. But I hope that readers, especially in Vietnam, will let me know what you would like me to blog about.

Of course, a blog isn’t the only way for us to connect with each other. The Embassy has a brilliant Facebook page, and I hope to see you on there as well. You can already see me – I’ve got a video there talking (in Vietnamese of course!) about my first impressions.

Until next time

4 comments on “Good to be back

  1. Giles ơi,
    Cô giáo tiếng Việt của Giles từ những năm 90 đây.
    Cô rất vui được gặp em và gia đình vào bữa cơm tối hôm ấy. Thật ấm cúng như một gia đình.
    Cô cũng rất tự hào là cô giáo của một nhà ngoại giao trẻ rồi bây giờ là Đại sứ.
    Thời gian trôi qua, mọi vật và con người đều biến chuyển, nhưng tình cảm, nhất là tình cô trò không bao giờ phai nhạt. Em vẫn thế như ngày nào mới tập nói từng từ, từng câu tiếng Việt với sự miệt mài, kiên nhẫn để rồi hôm nay em nói tiếng Việt gần như người Việt Nam. Thật dáng ngưỡng mộ một tài năng như em.
    Cô chúc em luôn thành công trên con đường sự nghiệp và gia đình mạnh khỏe, hạnh phúc!
    Chào em và gia đình,
    Cô Nguyệt
    (cô nghĩ từ nay, trong blog này, em viết bằng tiếng Việt đi, để nhiều người đọc được hơn!)

  2. Giles
    I look forward to meeting. I have been invited to Vietnam by their Government on a Study Group to visit the country from November 12th to 19th. I would like to share the programme with you and your team.


  3. Your Excellency Mr. Giles Lever ,
    well Sir , yr. headline is “Good to be back” and after reading yr. 1st. report twice I only can post : excellent & perfect. In my opinion esp. yr. chapter # 2: “…I can still recognize the centres of Hanoi & Ho Chi Min City…”. To me – very impressing lines. But pls. allow me also just ’cause of the outstanding story to chnage yr. headline a little bit. Of course in a very positive sense. For I do believe , that
    “Back For Good” (Take That, UK & GER. # 1, 1996),would also be suitable.
    To conclude : “Until next time”?
    Dear Sir , I do really hope that it will be soon !

    So congratulations & honest respect in re. of yr. new work,

    best wishes, take care & a lot of success, liebe Grüßle ond viel Erfolg ,
    Ingo-Steven , Stuttgart

Comments are closed.

About Giles Lever

I’ve been ambassador to Vietnam since July 2014. It’s a great privilege to serve as ambassador anywhere, but I’m particularly delighted to be back working for British interests in a…

I’ve been ambassador to Vietnam since July 2014. It’s a great privilege to serve as ambassador anywhere, but I’m particularly delighted to be back working for British interests in a country and a region I know well.

My very first job in the FCO, in 1991, was in the Southeast Asia Department, and that was followed by a posting to Vietnam from 1993-97 – an exciting time, as the “doi moi” process of economic reform and opening up gathered pace.

East Asia has been a bit of a theme in my career, as I also worked at the British Embassy in Tokyo from 2002-2006 (preceded by two years learning Japanese). But I’ve also been fortunate enough to work on a lot of other interesting regions and issues, including on the Middle East and North Africa, international development, and arms control/security. Immediately before coming back to Hanoi, I was Deputy High Commissioner in Abuja, Nigeria.

Outside of work, when I have time, I like running, reading, exploring, and trying to stay in touch from afar with the fortunes of Bolton Wanderers FC. Many of my Vietnamese friends love Premier League football, and are invariably disappointed to hear that the team I support is not in the Premiership!

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