Vietnam is the ASEAN country that both impresses – and troubles – me the most.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are exhilarating and exhausting in turn.
It's as if, after thirty years of war and deprivation, the Vietnamese are determined to make the best of life.
It's this same raw energy—this will to succeed at all costs—that makes me concerned when I compare the popular mood in Vietnam with the other countries in the region.
People in the original “ASEAN Five” nations have already gone through that burst of explosive economic growth.
Now, we're confronting the aftermath and– especially in Malaysia and Singapore – we're suddenly aware that life is going to be far tougher for the younger generation.
Of course, policymakers will point out that while the Vietnamese are ruthless competitors, the country's soft infrastructure, most notably its education system remains “light years” behind the rest of ASEAN.
However, recent surveys – most notably the OECD’s 2016 Programme for International Student Assessment (or PISA) have shown that Vietnamese teenagers have eclipsed their regional counterparts and are now consistently outperforming their American and British equivalents in mathematics and science.
Indeed, wherever I've gone in Vietnam I've noted how ordinary people benchmark themselves and their country against the North Asians: Taiwan, South Korea, China and Japan.
So while we in the region may see Vietnam as an integral part of Southeast Asia, I am unsure whether they share the same point of view.
In this respect, I would encourage people to stop by the Temple of Confucius in central Hanoi and observe as hordes of local schoolchildren are guided through by their teachers in search of both inspiration and blessings.
Of course, Vietnam's position in the PISA results is only part of the story. The reality is more complex.
As with much of the rest of Southeast Asia, the local education system is riddled with flaws, most notably it's obsession with rote learning and standardized tests.
A second major failing is that in age of sweeping technological change, students need to be equipped to think creatively.
The tensions inherent in this are self-evident, all the more so when one remembers that Vietnam remains – at least nominally – a Communist state.
Wanting to get a frontline (or rather, “front of class”) perspective on the issues facing Vietnamese education, I recently sat down to chat with Ms Dang Thi Doan Trang, a lively and attractive 43-year-old English language primary school teacher from a Hanoi suburb.
As the region's governments struggle to anticipate future challenges, education policies are becoming a major test.
How are governments handling the teaching foreign languages?
What about classes on religion – on moral and ethics?
To what extent does technology play a role?
It's clear that Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar’s governments are finding it extremely hard to resist the growing influence of religious fundamentalists.
Nonetheless, most Southeast Asian parents (not to mention investors) see English as a global lingua franca and that reliable teaching enables students to aspire to an enormous range of job opportunities.
Interestingly - and this is quite unlike much of the rest of ASEAN - Mandarin isn't seen as a critical language in Vietnam.
Ms Trang was quite dismissive: "Chinese? Why would we want to study Chinese?" – perhaps indicative of her nation's feisty relations with its giant to the north.
In contrast, Ms Trang devotion to English is infectious: "From the start, I loved the sound of English words. Of course, back when I was a student, I had to learn Russian but then in 1993 I was able to switch to English. I knew English was more important so I switched…Teaching English is my passion; I’m not doing this for the money.”
Ms Trang – who has been at it for 19 years – is just a contract teacher and not a civil servant. This means her salary (which varies from about VND1,280,000—4,000,000 depending on the number of classes she teaches a semester) is lower than the average and she won’t get a state pension when she retires.
However, as she herself admits, most teachers (much like many of their colleagues across the region) make a lucrative living providing tuition classes on the side.
But that’s the least of her worries: “Classes are very crowded; there are 44 students in my class…There are four lessons in a week lasting 40 minutes…I don’t think that is enough…Many parents have asked me to give tuition but I don’t have the time.”
“Equal attention should be given to four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing… [However,] writing is, for the most part, ignored. The higher-ups say that the syllabus for primary students should only focus on listening and speaking. But the textbooks used are unsuitable; the proof is that the students can’t speak at all after studying.”
A key challenge is pronunciation: “It’s terrible, the students pronounce many words wrongly. The word they struggle with the most with is ‘bathroom’...When they enter secondary school and meet foreign teachers, they can’t utter a word…They can only speak well when they go for private lessons…The syllabus doesn’t answer realistic needs.”
“Education bureaucrats simply impose the syllabus on students without knowing whether it suits them. I think they should come down to schools more often.”
Moreover, the World Bank reported in 2010 that the gross enrolment rate at upper-secondary schools in Vietnam was just 65%, compared with 95% of South Korea. Could Vietnam’s impressive PISA scores simply be because many poor and disadvantaged students drop out of school?
As mentioned, it’s not as if Vietnamese parents don’t care: “[There] are now many foreign firms coming to invest, they know that even factory workers need to know English…parents are very eager about their children learning English…At my district, it’s like a movement, everyone thinks that learning English is very important, not only in primary school but also at kindergartens.”
“The pursuit of knowledge is like a tradition to us…Without good education, their kids won’t get a good job in the future…[Unfortunately] the Ministry of Education never asks for parent’s feedback.”
To be fair, the Vietnamese government appears to recognize the challenges.
Education Minister Phung Xuan Nha has acknowledged that improving the quality of English teachers in the country is crucial, noting that: "It’s better not to learn at all than to learn from a bad teacher.”
So even though Vietnamese students are scoring well on the PISA tests, the Ministry of Education is reviewing the all-important Project 2020 – a blueprint for national foreign language teaching—which began in 2008 with a budget of VND10 trillion.
This ability to shift gears to deliver improved results is what makes Vietnam such a formidable competitor.
Their leaders are using the absence of democracy to implement necessary reforms and equip their people for the future.
While Ms Trang feels a little disheartened by what she sees as a failing system, her criticisms are already shaping the future response to foreign language teaching.
If - as I suspect - the Vietnamese Education Ministry figures out how to implement the changes, we will likely see more factories relocating to what is fast-becoming ASEAN’s most dynamic manufacturing hub.