Can Vietnam breed innovators?

A Vietnamese man talks on his mobile phone as he rides his bicycle on an old colonial-era iron bridge on the outskirts of Hanoi on Oct. 27, 2010.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam —Vo Van Toi’s high-tech laboratory clashes against its impoverished surroundings. Outside, cattle roam swampy fields and squatters sell sugarcane from wooden huts. Inside, he shows off his near-infrared spectroscopy machine, which measures oxygen content in blood, and a CT scanner.

The contrast sums up Vietnam’s current state of development: It’s a relatively poor nation, with per-capita GDP of $3,000, trying to follow its larger Asian neighbors’ leap into an era of skyscrapers and international commerce. To do that, it needs to bring in a plethora of new technology — and the innovators who come with it.

So where can Vietnam get its base of engineers, scientists and academics?

From abroad, especially from overseas Vietnamese who know the language and culture. They, like Vo, are invigorating the country’s growth that reached double digits before the 2008 economic downturn.

Vo is one of many, having returned to his hometown after he left the country in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War.

With a doctorate from Switzerland, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at a combined Harvard-MIT biomedical engineering center before joining Tufts University two decades ago. A specialist in ophthalmology equipment, he created Tufts’s biomedical engineering program and helped launch its biomedical engineering department in 2003.

Vo accepted a professorship at International University, where he founded the biomedical engineering department that now oversees about 60 students. “This is a good time,” Vo said. “Medical device consumption here is huge, while the local supply is almost nonexistent.” He expects a growing demand for his graduates, even if it takes a while for Vietnam to kick off its growth.

Middle income trap

In 2008, Vietnam reached a per capita income of $1,000, the lower end of the World Bank’s middle-income range. The new wealth is collecting in urban areas, where factories and slums are swelling against luxurious high-rises. But if Vietnamese universities don’t quickly churn out enough engineers and scientists, says a 2009 government report, the Vietnam dream will fall flat.

Economists call it the “middle income trap.” In this scenario — which has been taking its toll on Thailand and Malaysia — poor countries become too reliant on cheap labor and offshoring. They have trouble making the leap upward, that is, creating an educated workforce that can research and design its own products.

Vietnam’s successful neighbors, such as Singapore and South Korea, invested heavily in universities and science to pull themselves out of the trap. Today, Samsung and LG are world leaders in the mobile phone and television industries.

It also appears Vietnam is following a Chinese model of economic growth that emphasizes education, said Wolf Rieck, the president of the Vietnamese-German University. “There seems to be a connection between Vietnam’s strategy to develop the economy from a low level of productivity and industrialization,” he said, “to a science-based economy.”

The problem here, analysts say, is that while Vietnam has a high literacy rate of 90 percent, Vietnamese universities have for decades pushed aside hard skills in favor of rote memorization and communist theory. Companies complain graduates often need re-training. “There’s a lack of competent engineers who are capable of fixing problems,” Vo said.

Intel learned that lesson two years ago. When the company was building a $1 billion chip factory outside Ho Chi Minh City, it gave a basic screening exam on technology topics to 2,000 graduating students. Only 90 test-takers scored at least 60 percent, and half failed an English competency test.

Reversing brain drain

Vietnam is reaching out to overseas Vietnamese, seeking to persuade academics to return to their former homeland and train students in hard skills.

Vo's university, IU, operated under a state-run umbrella group of schools called the Vietnam National University (VNU), tries to alleviate “brain drain” by offering wages 10 times higher than many other local universities.

Some IU students get the chance to study for two years at universities in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia, the sort of training that develops their English-language and hard-science skills.

IU, which was founded in 2003, says it's looking to Western education models for inspiration. After several trips abroad to start the university, “we learned from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries” on how to run a university, said IU’s rector, Ho Thanh Phong.

Education here is becoming a big business. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of students enrolled in universities or colleges here rose from about 900,000 to 1.6 million, according to the World Bank. And by 2020, Vietnam hopes at least one of its schools will join the ranks of the world's top 200 universities.

To do that, the strategies are numerous.

For instance, Vietnam is appealing directly to foreign governments to help set up schools. One university based on the German curriculum, the VGU in Ho Chi Minh City, opened its doors two years ago to 32 students. It’s set to finish building its campus by 2016, hoping to enroll 12,000 students.

In what was once a staunchly communist country closed off to foreigners, that sort of collaboration is something of a breakaway. The university is the first of its kind to get a charter, for example, that promises a level of academic freedom resembling that of Germany.