Story by Kieu Thi Thoan Thu

March 10, 2024

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The lifted US-Vietnam relationship is just something that Melissa Bishop, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Vietnam, probably couldn’t have even imagined ten years ago.

Indeed, it was a highlight in her career when she witnessed the relationship upgraded twice to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which best reflects where the cooperation has gone from 2013 to 2023. It's expanded from health to climate, education, people-to-people, economics, trade, and security.

"And it also shows how enduring a partnership is and will be," Bishop told The Hanoi Times in a recent talk.

 Overview of the visit to Vietnam in September 2023 paid by US President Joe Biden. 

Back in 2013 when she served at the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, Melissa Bishop was excited to see the relationship was upgraded to a Comprehensive Partnership. So, it was an extremely exciting time for both countries when the relations were upgraded in September 2023 during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam.

For the veteran diplomat, it’s probably the highlight of her career to go to the airport and welcome her president here to Hanoi. She said she was so proud to be part of the Vietnamese people welcoming President Biden here.

"The people in the United States as well as the Vietnamese, we’re just excited that we were able to make this huge step to a comprehensive partnership."

The relationship milestone demonstrates the stride made over the past years and the groundbreaking for the US new embassy compound is part of the relationship. It’s a billion-dollar-plus investment in Hanoi for a new embassy. The diplomat said it’s to show the world that the US is here because it's been a strong partner and it’s here to stay. And she will have to come back to see it when it’s finished.

 

“I have actually seen the US-Vietnam relationship grow throughout my career. And it’s exciting,” said the Deputy Chief of Mission.

 

The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) is the driving force behind the expanded cooperation in different areas ranging from health, education, combating climate change, and the high-tech sector, especially semiconductors.

According to Melissa Bishop, the US and Vietnam are working closely together, and the private sector is involved. The multisectoral cooperation shows that the US is trying to help Vietnam achieve its ambitious but attainable goal: to become sort of a middle-income country by 2030, a high-income economy by 2045, and a net zero economy by 2050. Vietnam will be able to reach these goals in partnership with others.

 
 DCM Melissa Bishop at a meeting with Deputy Chairman of Quang Tri People's Committee Hoang Nam in May 2023. 

Since the CSP, the US Semiconductors Industry Association has visited Vietnam twice. A semiconductor firm has opened a US$1.6-billion factory in Bac Ninh Province. 

In another move, Arizona State University has cooperated with Vietnamese partners in the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) program to develop some of the upskilling programs. In addition to the partnership, the private sector is also working closely to help Vietnam reach its goals.

The fruitful partnership is also making huge strides in trade. Two-way trade reached US$124 billion in 2023 and it’s growing. Notably, it works well on both sides, with a wide range of staples being traded.

Regarding agricultural products, it's wonderful to see our apples in stores and to be able to buy dragon fruit in the US, she said, adding that all of these things continue to strengthen the relationship between the countries.

 

Part of the agricultural cooperation is the launch of United Taste in Vietnam. United Tastes is a project supported by the United States Department of Agriculture to promote US food and beverages in Vietnam. United Tastes aims to connect, educate, and inspire Vietnamese consumers about the high-value, high-quality, safe, and healthy products available in the US. 

 

Melissa Bishop stressed the quality of US products, especially the best combination of US and Vietnamese food when they come together. In fact, Nebraska beef or some other American beef tastes well in pho. Those sorts of combinations make such a difference when American products are used in Vietnamese cuisine. 

 

Among the sectors of the comprehensive partnership, education plays an important role, reflected in the growing number of Vietnamese students who are studying in the US, which at 30,000, ranks 5th among international students in the US. It is the 4th largest number of undergraduates and the 2nd largest number of community college followers. The figure goes up to 300,000 when it comes to online programs.

Vietnamese students have some connection to US programs through constant communication and contact, which makes their ties so strong. There are also a lot of education programs happening here in Vietnam including English language teaching courses and the operations of Peace Corps.

With the comprehensive strategic partnership, the two countries are focusing heavily on high-tech and expanding into the areas of STEM. The US Fulbright Program has announced more scholarships in the STEM areas. It will also help Vietnam reach its goal of training 50,000 engineers in the coming years.

According to a US senior diplomat, education is a small part of the strong relationship between Vietnamese people and Americans, and Americans love Vietnamese people. It’s a two-way street and she believed these people-to-people ties will continue to strengthen.

 
 

Regarding this factor, she stressed the role of the Vietnamese Americans, saying they are a bridge between the two countries. To support her idea, she talked about the time when she served in Washington City on immigrant visas. She helped Vietnamese of different ages immigrate to the States for different reasons. “What I found really fulfilling was that it was a two-way street. They emigrated to the United States but they were not forgetting Vietnam.” 

Sometimes people would go back to visit their families during Tet, sometimes, they would send their children back to Vietnam to learn Vietnamese and make sure that they remember the culture. Many people then ended up coming back to Vietnam to invest.

Vietnam is an attractive investment destination for Vietnamese for a variety of reasons. It’s just an exciting time to be here, with strong GDP growth, an emerging middle and affluent class of people, and a market of over 100 million potential consumers. “We’ve seen an uptick in the number of people from the United States, Vietnamese Americans, and other Americans that are investing here in Vietnam. I think that will also continue to strengthen the ties between the two countries.”

 

Melissa Bishop said she’s been very lucky to have lived in Vietnam for many years, three in the south and Ho Chi Minh City and five in Hanoi. The best part about living in Vietnam for so long period has been raising her children here. Her daughter finished high school in Hanoi. And both her son and daughter went to elementary school in the South. So, they were able to make lots of Vietnamese friends and learn a lot about the culture. 

“What I found even more important was to understand what I call Vietnamese values,” she said, arguing that the most important things she wants to pass on to her children are the importance of family and love, education, and curiosity. And she thinks she’s already seen her children succeed.

 

Her son is working as a computer engineer in the United States and her daughter is studying to be a doctor. “I think they will be successful because of the foundation they learned here,” Bishop said. 

 

Over the years, the wonderful values that her family has experienced have come from traveling throughout the country. From Sa Pa to Cantho, Da Lat, Danang, Hoi An, Ninh Binh, Ha Long, and Mui Ne – the place where her husband and daughter took their kitesurfing lessons and had their best experience to date yet. There are so many different places to see and they feel that Vietnam is such a rich country in culture and beauty. 

They were up in Sapa once over Christmas, and it wasn’t snowing, but it was pretty cold. And then they just went down to Ho Chi Minh City and enjoyed the beautiful hot weather. For that reason, Bishop called Vietnam an amazing place and she’s very happy to have lived in the country for so long.

 

Among destinations in Vietnam, her favorite place is probably Hanoi, where she sees charming. “I love the alleys. I love the lakes. I love the people.” 

 

"I have told many people coming to Vietnam for the first time that the best time to see Hanoi is at 5:30 am. Walking out to West Lake, the scenery is all the people exercising around the lake, and they can be both ladies doing their stretching exercises and very active men on very expensive bicycles, in addition to walkers and runners. They’re all enjoying seeing the city wake up and there’s no motorbikes and honking. It’s just beautiful. And that’s my favorite part."

 

One of the other things that she loves is coffee. Coming to Vietnam, it’s not just coffee, but egg coffee, coconut coffee, yogurt coffee, black coffee, Café nau da or Café sua da (coffee with condensed milk), depending on where you are in Vietnam. “I love just sitting with friends with a little cup of coffee and then just sort of watching people walk by so that’s another part that I’m going to miss a lot.” 

 

Speaking of food, some of her favorites are pho, banh xeo, and bun cha. In her family, everyone has a different favorite fruit and they always have their specialty, not only in cooking but also in fruit. Interestingly, when she goes back to the States, she can get dragon fruit there in the stores so she can continue to enjoy some of the specialties of Vietnam. 

 
 

Tet or Lunar New Year – the most significant event in Vietnam – is something the US veteran diplomat has enjoyed many times, and she loves the quiet atmosphere in Hanoi, where she lives very close to the food and temples. 

In her eyes, some crowds go to the temple in the New Year, offering incense and praying for good luck and peace. Even though there are crowds, it’s not like people going to work as there’s no honking and no stress. It’s just families walking together, buying offerings and fruit, and then going to the temple.

The diplomat said she was very interested in this scene, and she loved watching it, so she brought her camera and tried to take pictures of all the different scenes that she called wonderful.

 

"I have been invited to the homes of some of her Vietnamese friends during Tet. I felt very privileged. There were so many people (the host’s extended relatives) who came to meet and talk with me. There I was served lots of delicious food. It was wonderful and very special."

 

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