Former Australian Ambassador John McCarthy: Vietnam has grown in strides

WVR - During his return to Vietnam, with the World and Vietnam Report, Mr. John McCarthy, former Australian Ambassador to Vietnam (1981-1983) has shared his feelings about Vietnam's long journey and positive developments in the bilateral relationship over the past 40 years.
Cựu Đại sứ Australia tại Việt Nam John McCarthy. (Ảnh: Việt Nguyễn)
Mr. John McCarthy, former Australian Ambassador to Vietnam. (Photo: Viet Nguyen)

Could you share your feelings after 40 years back in Vietnam since you were the Australian Ambassador to Vietnam?

Actually, I have been back in Vietnam for six times, four in the North and twice in the South. In 1981, when I first came to Vietnam, your country had been at war essentially since 1939. People's living standards are very low. The economy faced many difficulties. The shadow of the war was so great that it was difficult for people to walk through. In the past 40 years, it has grown in strides. The Doi moi liberalization in 1986 and the country’s opening up to the West after the 1991 Paris Agreements on Cambodia has allowed for considerable economic expansion.

Now, according to the IMF, your Gross Domestic Products (GDP) is higher than the Philippines and your GDP per capital is just a little bit lower than Indonesia. So in 40 years, you have come a very long way. Vietnam has to take credit for that.

What do you think are the biggest change in Vietnam?

I think the biggest change is the huge expansion in the economy. When I was in Hanoi, there was rationing. There was a severe limitation on food. A lot of people were close to malnourishment.

When I first landed in Hanoi, there was only a two-lane highway, one each way. So effectively a one-lane highway and very often, you have to draw to the side to let vehicles come by. You have rice drying on the road between Noi Bai and Ha Noi and you have to wait for the one bridge, even though there were few vehicles.

Now, Hanoi has roughly 10 million people. You have a road to the airport, which you can travel in half an hour. It is so interesting to witness the expansion of the Vietnamese economy. I think everything has been remarkable.

Could you share some of your memorable experience during your tenure?

I was in 1981 while I have been the Chief of Staff to our Foreign Minister. At the end of that assignment, they ask me to station in Vietnam as Ambassador. I felt flattered because I was quite young, 38 years old to be precise. I was delighted and I found it pretty interesting. I was intrigued by the prospect of going to Vietnam.

At the time, it was quite difficult, politically, because Western countries had cut off aid to Vietnam in 1979. The relationship was not a warm one, but I was treated with great civility and courtesy by the Vietnamese. It was not an easy period but the Vietnamese were prepared to see me.

We talked about what was happening without any real progress in the relationship but then in early 1983, the government changed and became more sympathetic to Vietnam. In mid-1983, Australian Foreign minister Bill Hayden came to Vietnam. The visit was returned by your Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach in mid-1984.

From then on, although it took a while for full aid to be restored from Australia to Vietnam, the relationship got a lot warmer and there was a lot more interchange.

Former Australian Ambassador: Vietnam has grown in strides
Ambassador John McCarthy (third from left) and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach in Canberra in 1984. (Source: Australian Embassy in Vietnam)

In 2023, Vietnam and Australia will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relations. How has the bilateral relationship changed over the years?

If you look at growth projections of Vietnam and the strategic importance of the country, I think you had to say that apart from Indonesia, our biggest neighbor with a crucial relationship, there is no country more significant than Vietnam. Now, the relationship with Vietnam-Australia, from being of middling importance 25 years ago, has become a relationship of prime importance today.

In recent meetings and visits, our two countries have talked about considering upgrading the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. As an observer, how do you evaluate the potential?

Personally, I am not much concerned about the title. Nevertheless, I think it is important because it give signals to both governments. Both have to take the lead with the business community to demonstrate the possibilities to the other country.

I think Vietnam National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue’s recent visits had sent the signal. I hope that in the context of the two countries celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, there will be a high-level visit by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Vietnam soon enough.

Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tet, is coming up. Do you have anything to say to the Vietnamese as well as Australian living in Vietnam?

Well, I think just have a good time and relax. I think it is a great event. For me, back when I was stationed in Vietnam, the thing that I remembered most distinctly after spending three Tets in Vietnam was the extraordinary noise with the fireworks. I could not believe it. The first time I had experienced this was during a midnight. I almost felt like there was a bomb exploding, but it turned out the firework was just a tradition. I am glad to return to Vietnam during this time!

Thank you!

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