Fewer immigrants live in the whole of Vietnam than in the borough of Westminster

I’m reminded on a pretty much daily basis that I’m a minority here in Vietnam. People double take at the sight of a caucasian walking or cycling past. One time I was unlocking my bike when someone walked past and glanced over at me, they walked on for a few steps more before scooting backwards and looking again to check that yes they really had just seen a white person. I’ve also had strangers ask to have their photo taken with me.

[I should make clear, this interest is almost always benign and that you generally don’t get harrassed by touts and the like the way you do in many other developing countries.]

The context for this is that according to UN figures just 1 in a 1000 residents in Vietnam were born in another country. They suggest that only Cuba has a lower share.

To put that in context, that’s 32 times smaller than the share of the global population that live outside their country of birth and 142 times smaller than the proportion of immigrants among the population back home in the UK.

Or put another way, there are probably about 90,000 foreign born residents in the whole of Vietnam (the 14th largest country in the world by population). That’s fewer than in the borough of Westminster in central London (which is only the 69th largest municipality in the UK, a country that is itself only two-thirds of the size of Vietnam).

This tallies with my experience. For example, to apply for my work permit I had to go to the ominously named ‘department for alien elements’ at the interior ministry. I followed the signs to the department and eventually wound up in a room that could easily be mistaken for a medium sized post office. A rather modest outfit to be dealing with immigration issues for an area that’s home to millions of people!

At the other end of the spectrum from Vietnam and Cuba is the Vatican City whose entire population is thought to come from elsewhere. That’s followed by various wealthy Gulf states and island territories.

Source: FiveThirtyEight

Caveat: the UN data comes with the warning that “[b]ecause the database is based on different sources, discrepancies between tabulations are inevitable”. My Vietnam/Westminister comparison is potentially rather dodgy because I’m comparing figures from two different datasets. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone would seriously disagree with the proposition that the foreign born population of Vietnam is very low.

Britain is still the most powerful nation on earth (in this one regard)

Britain long ago ceased to be a regular superpower but no other country has more ‘soft power’. The small mindedness of the present government is putting that at risk.


When we talk about the power a nation wields, we normally mean its military or economic strength. But as well as being able to force other nations to do something or paying them to do it, there’s another way to exert influence: soft power.

The term was coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye. He argued that:

A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.

The Economist recently reported on an effort to quantify this kind of power:

[This index was produced by] Portland, a London-based PR firm, together with Facebook, which provided data on governments’ online impact, and ComRes, which ran opinion polls on international attitudes to different countries.

Surprisingly the nation emerged on top was not a behemoth like the USA, India, Russia or China. The latter nation actually came bottom of the list. Instead, the nation ranked first was the medium sized country on the periphery of Europe from which I hail.

The Economist explains that Britain ‘won’ because of its strength in a range of categories:

Britain scored highly in its “engagement” with the world, its citizens enjoying visa-free travel to 174 countries—the joint-highest of any nation—and its diplomats staffing the largest number of permanent missions to multilateral organisations, tied with France. Britain’s cultural power was also highly rated: though its tally of 29 UNESCO World Heritage sites is fairly ordinary, Britain produces more internationally chart-topping music albums than any other country, and the foreign following of its football is in a league of its own (even if its national teams are not). It did well in education, too—not because of its schools, which are fairly mediocre, but because its universities are second only to America’s, attracting vast numbers of foreign students.

That tallies with my experience living in Vietnam. This is a country in whose history Britain has played a relatively modest role* and to whose present it is almost irrelevant. The two countries are geographically far removed, do little trade with each other, the Vietnamese diaspora in the UK is small and the UK is not a big aid donor. Despite this, due to customer demand, the language centre I work at teaches British rather than American English: parents want their children to be able to pass the battery of tests like IELTS run by Cambridge University. It’s touch and go whether British or Korean bands deliver more soft pop auditory torture. And it’s rare for me to teach a class in which a kid is not wearing an Arsenal/Man Utd/Chelsea football shirt.

Sadly for a patriotic Brit, I have to wonder if this might be waning:

….many of the assets that pushed Britain to the top of the soft-power table are in play. In the next couple of years the country faces a referendum on its membership of the EU; a slimmer role for the BBC, its prolific public broadcaster; and a continuing squeeze on immigration, which has already made its universities less attractive to foreign students.

This is one of the less discussed but most concerning legacies of David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister. It should be the subject to more debate: Conservatives ought to be called out for their failure to conserve the cultural institutions that give Britain a role on the world stage it could not get simply from its economy and military. It might be better to be feared than loved but if the present government isn’t careful Britain may wind up being neither.

*At some point I will write a post on why Britain has actually had more of (a generally malign) influence on modern Vietnamese history than is often supposed. Nonetheless, the point stands that compared to China, France, America, Russia and Japan it has been a bit player.