I arrived from an African posting as British Council Director Vietnam in June 2000 – a new millennium, new continent and new job. On my first day in the office I was struck by the fact that over 90 per cent of my new colleagues were young, female, and that most of them seemed to be expecting babies (perhaps I exaggerate slightly!).
This turned out to be something of a metaphor for British Council in Vietnam more generally: the directorate was refreshingly young, dynamic and expanding. Vietnam itself was emerging from years of international isolation, and to build new and enduring links with the UK (which, of course, had never been a traditional partner for Vietnam) presented a stimulating challenge.
To do all this we had some excellent projects. The thirst for English language was palpable, and our teaching centres in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and our examinations department were stretched to meet demand, particularly after we acquired “public” status to open our doors to paying customers. But our teachers were keen and enthusiastic and did some excellent work The English for Senior Officials Programme (ESOP), funded by the UK Government and delivered by the British Council, was a real flagship project and established enduring friendships.
One of the training cadres comprised military officers, and I well remember attending the early morning graduation ceremonies in the Officers’ Mess – sharing a warm Bia Hanoi at 0830 with the Colonel in charge. (This was a bit early in the day for me, but duty called....). On the arts side, our collaboration with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO), led by Professor Colin Metters and our own Graham Sutcliffe – was ground-breaking. We had some quite excellent evenings out at the Hanoi Opera House.
Expansion was physical, too. When I arrived in Hanoi the office was located in Cao Ba Quat, in a low-lying part of Hanoi notorious for flooding during the rainy season. On one of my first days in the office I was ferried by cyclo through the flood waters from the car to my office – I think the waters had just about subsided by the end of the working day. We were all pleased to move to larger and much more suitable premises in an annex to the Horison Hotel in Cat Linh, where our teaching, examinations, arts and education programmes could be managed within a properly integrated environment. Our information centre was always abuzz with young Vietnamese seeking to broaden their international horizons. In Ho Chi Minh City we also underwent a premises change, creating an excellent facility within a wing of the British Consulate.
However, I think the most striking thing for me during my time in Vietnam was seeing how our Vietnamese staff developed in confidence and grew into their jobs. We established local staff roles on the Senior Management Team – taken for granted nowadays, but innovative back then. It was very rewarding to see how colleagues – a little anxious at first and therefore reluctant, perhaps, to assume new responsibilities – responded so competently. Patricia, Timothy and I also have very fond memories of Tet holidays, when we would celebrate the Vietnamese new year invited to colleagues’ homes where we enjoyed excellent hospitality. Great company, food to die for, and – I vaguely recall – no shortage of seasonal drinks! Tet in the UK – not a kumquat tree in sight! – is just not the same.
"We left Vietnam for London in June 2004, and subsequently moved on to Brazil and to South Africa. But nothing quite matched the excitement and pace of development of Vietnam.
The very best of wishes for the next 25 years!"