From our 14th floor apartment, we can see cranes in every direction as apartment block after apartment block heads to the sky. Just half a mile to the north is a development of 5,000 apartments with its own supermarkets and international school where “you will be able to live as if you were in Singapore.” And there are similar developments of several thousand apartments each, all around the city.
Vietnam is far from being the most urbanised country in East Asia as two-thirds of its people still live in rural areas. However, it has one of the highest rates of urbanisation and it’s estimated that 50 per cent of the population will live in the cities by 2025.
The growth is driven by Vietnam’s two mega-cities: the capital, Hanoi, in the north (population 7 million) and Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), a thousand miles’ drive to the south (population 8 million).
These are also the two main cities for Vietnam’s rapidly growing universities. Vietnamese people believe in education and the government does too. Although there’s lots of room for improvement, Vietnamese high school students score as well or better than those in much richer countries. Why is this? The answer seems to be mainly parental support with the result that they study harder in and out of class. They are also motivated by the prospect of going to university. Between 2000 and 2013, the percentage of university-age adults attending university increased from 10 per cent to 25 per cent.
For a country where two-thirds of the population live in rural areas, becoming a student is often the first time they encounter the city. Students from the minorities move to the provincial capital, a place their parents may never have been to. Meanwhile, those from the ethnic Vietnamese majority want to study in Hanoi and Saigon.
The faster pace of life is exciting but often confusing and lonely. Students are caught between traditional Confucian values and the independence and individualism of the modern world; between the expectations of their families and the latest smartphones and K-pop. They have been brought up on communism and will still have compulsory classes in Marxist-Leninist-Ho Chi Minh thought at university. However, they are focused on finding jobs in a very capitalist world and in a country with one of the fastest growing export-oriented economies.
They admire America (and the UK, Korea and Japan) and loved Obama’s visit last year. They are uncertain about China, their powerful mega neighbour to the north. And they are almost completely unaware of Jesus.
A visiting Filipino with a passion for sharing her faith befriended some Vietnamese students.
“What do you know about Jesus?” she asked. “Who is he?” they answered, “is he a popstar?”
Another foreigner teaching a language class in a university in Hanoi had the opportunity to talk about their hero. So they talked about Jesus Christ, explaining who he is, what he had done, and why he was her hero. Only one of their thirty students had even heard of him.
These students are friendly to foreigners.
They want to practise their English and make friends, so the opportunities for English teachers are numerous. If you’re a native English speaker, you need a degree (of any kind) and a one month English teaching certificate.
The students are curious about Christianity. Christmas is a great opportunity to get beyond the main figure—Santa Claus, and tell them the real story—about Jesus. But when they believe they find themselves at odds with their families and traditions. Duy’s story is typical.
Duy felt lost when he moved to the city to start university. But he made new friends who shared the message of new life in Jesus. Duy happily committed his life to this God! He was enthusiastic to join a small group to learn more. But the pressures of studying and comments from his family meant that Duy’s interest faded. When he returned home for the Lunar New Year holiday, he told his parents about his faith. They were convinced he had turned his back on his ancestors and made him promise to never bow to Jesus again. They forced him to kneel and make an incense offering at the altar to his grandparents. He had started following Jesus, but when faced with opposition he stopped.
If you can’t come to Vietnam, these students are coming to you. A decade or so ago, the only Vietnamese studying overseas were a few government scholars. Today, there are over 5,000 in the UK alone, mostly funded by their families.
Ho Chi Minh, the national hero, said “To reap a return in ten years, plant trees. To reap a return in a hundred, cultivate the people.” Who will invest in these students, sharing Christ, walking with them in the struggles of discipleship, in order to reap an eternal return?