Hanoi, Halong Bay and Digital Diplomacy

Hanoi street scene

At the end of October, I found myself in Hanoi talking to Vietnamese civil servants and diplomats about the social media revolution and how they needed to get involved. Then I took a couple of days holiday to explore Hanoi and make a quick trip to Halong Bay, one of the most bewitching places I’ve ever visited.
Dusk in Halong Bay
Some of the photos I took during the trip can be seen here.

I also recorded some audioboos including this one about eating in Hanoi:

And also this video walking through Hanoi:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "Walking to lunch in Hanoi", posted with vodpod

I wrote a blog post about the digital diplomacy event which appeared first on the blog of Stephen Hale, the head of digital diplomacy at the Foreign Office, then in Vietnamese on the BBC Vietnamese service website. Here it is:

“It was one of the most daunting audiences I’ve ever faced. They sat in formal suits ranged behind tables in the windowless conference room of a Hanoi hotel and as I began my presentation I was not quite sure just how I’d ended up there or whether anyone wanted to hear what I had to say. But a quick trick I’ve used on audiences ranging from schoolchildren to business leaders seemed to relax everyone.

I got out my mobile phone and took a picture of the audience encouraging them to wave at me and just a few minutes later I was able to show them that a photo featuring some of the cream of the Vietnamese civil service had been posted on the social networking site Twitter, where they were now waving to the world.

The event was the Digital Diplomacy Workshop organised by the British Embassy and Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I had been invited to come and speak. As I explained to my audience, I am neither a diplomat nor a politician, but a journalist – so in fact it’s my job to be as undiplomatic as I can manage without getting into trouble.

But I did feel that we had something in common in that my world as a BBC reporter had been turned upside down by technology in recent years, and theirs was undergoing a similar revolution. My presentation was entitled “Learning To Talk”, and my message was that in a world where just about anyone can get their voice heard there is no alternative to joining the global conversation.

When I started in broadcasting more than a quarter of a century ago, news editors thought they knew what was good for the millions who tuned in to our TV and radio news bulletins – and those audiences had few alternatives but to sit back and accept what they were given. Similarly, politicians and diplomats in the analogue age were able to talk for hours, and the world had to listen, or at least fall asleep quietly.

Now the internet has given just about everyone the chance to talk back at journalists, politicians and diplomats – whether though blogs, through YouTube videos or most likely through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The reaction of those who used to be in charge of the conversation was at first uncertain, but now mainstream journalists, governments, corporations, governments and diplomats are plunging in, writing blogs, recording YouTube videos, tweeting and Facebooking as if it were going out of fashion – which may indeed happen once something new comes along.

My message to my Hanoi audience was to embrace this new world – but be aware that there are new rules, and just because you are keen to talk it doesn’t mean the world wants to listen. So I showed them one blog from a big pharmaceuticals business which had attracted no comments at all – and a YouTube video from the same company where comments were disabled. Not much of a conversation there.

And I warned them that they might find it difficult to walk the hazy line between the personal and the professional which is an essential feature of blogging and social networking.

When it came to question time, I was pleased to discover that the audience was keen to engage. They’d already shown that they were not shy about cutting through to the essentials, putting Stephen Hale from the UK Foreign Office on the spot about the cost of digital diplomacy.

But it was that issue of personal and professional which was the focus of many of the questions to me – and the other speakers. How could institutions trust individuals to blog – or tweet – without strict supervision so that they did not make up policy on their own? We explained that this was an issue of trust – my employer expects me to be as impartial in my blogs or social networking activity as I am when broadcasting, and the Foreign Office trusts its ambassadors to behave as cautiously in the digital sphere as they do elsewhere.

Still, there was already widespread familiarity at the workshop with Facebook, Twitter and other aspects of modern web culture and everyone seemed keen to plunge into digital diplomacy – as long as it could be done within existing departmental budgets. There was, however, an elephant in the room – the question of free speech in a society where the government has not been tolerant of bloggers and journalists considered to have acted against the interests of the state. Before the workshop, someone had sent me on Twitter a link to an article in The Economist about the recent arrests of three people who had written critically online about Vietnam-China relations.

At various stages during the workshop, I attempted to steer our debate towards the free speech issue, stressing that once you plunge into the digital conversation you can expect to hear plenty of views you may find annoying, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. But I detected some reluctance, not just amongst the Vietnamese officials but also from two overseas online businesses working in Vietnam, to confront this issue.

That evening, I did get another chance. At a British Embassy reception, I found myself talking to the spokeswoman for Vietnam’s foreign ministry and, plucking up courage, I asked her why her country had chosen to arrest bloggers for expressing their views. Politely, but firmly, she corrected me, insisting that it was not what they had written that had got the bloggers into trouble but their involvement in other public protests. Amidst the hubbub of the embassy party, I found it difficult be quite clear exactly what they had done but one message did come through loud and clear – don’t try and tell a country where memories of the war with the United States are still fresh that it does not have the right to impose limits on what can and cannot be said.

To this first-time visitor, Vietnam appeared to be a country making rapid strides into the technological future – from the young people answering their mobile phones from speeding motor scooters, to civil servants working out how to use the web to promote their country’s interests, to the bloggers testing the limits of their government’s patience. It will be fascinating to see just how Vietnam adapts to a world where everyone seems to want to be part of the conversation.”

One response to “Hanoi, Halong Bay and Digital Diplomacy

  1. Halong Bay looks incredible. Well worth buying 2 hats for.

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