A Vietnam-UK bridge celebrates its 10th anniversary

The shaping and growth of the VUKN is an inspiring story of enthusiastic British volunteers dedicated to fostering friendship and cooperation between the two countries and their people.
A Vietnam-UK bridge celebrates its 10th anniversary ảnh 1A concert organised by VNUK in London celebrates the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the the Vietnam-UK Network and 50 years of Vietnam-UK relations. (Photo: VNA)

London, (VNA) - If modern-day Vietnam was not well-known in the UK 25 years ago, it is now, especially as a tourist destination with amazing cuisine and scenery, and as an exciting trade partner and investment destination.

This development has its roots in two things: firstly, strenuous efforts by the two governments to facilitate business and political links, and secondly by growing people-to-people links in a range of non-government fields involving individuals and organisations keen to promote stronger bilateral ties. Among these is the Vietnam-UK Network (VUKN), a friendship organisation run in the UK by volunteers, which was formally established in early 2013.

The shaping and growth of the VUKN is an inspiring story of enthusiastic British volunteers dedicated to fostering friendship and cooperation between the two countries and their people.

The idea for such a body began to be shaped in 2000 when Warwick Morris started his three-year term as Britain’s Ambassador to Vietnam. The veteran diplomat - awarded an OBE in June 2023 for his services to the UK's relations with Vietnam and the Republic of Korea - recalled: “I had three fascinating and busy years as Ambassador in Vietnam, but I was increasingly conscious that there was no forward-looking, modern Vietnam-UK body in the UK to help underpin and supplement the growing government relationship. Vietnam, the 13th most populous country in the world with a fast-growing economy, was not as well-known by British people as it deserved to be.’’

A Vietnam-UK bridge celebrates its 10th anniversary ảnh 2From left: Vietnamese Ambassador to the UK Vu Quang Minh (2nd) and the three co-founders of the network - Warwick Morris (1st), Ben Chapman (3rd) and Paul Smith (5th). (Source: VUKN file photo)

In June 2011, by then retired from the Diplomatic Service, and serving as Chairman of the long-established British-Korean Society, Warwick raised the idea of some sort of Vietnam-UK equivalent with the then Vietnamese Ambassador in London, Tran Quang Hoan. The idea received his strong support and subsequently that of his successor, Ambassador Vu Quang Minh (currently Ambassador to Germany).

Minh in turn contacted Ben Chapman, who had recently stood down as an MP and as the first Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Vietnam, and asked him to become the first Chairman of the newly proposed body. Ben, who in his APPG role had established a cooperation agreement between the UK parliament and Vietnam’s National Assembly, was enthusiastic, sharing the belief that a new non-governmental and non-political bilateral relations body could pull together and develop, under one umbrella people-to people links in areas as diverse as trade unions, NGOs and charities, education and culture, and of course trade and investment.

A Vietnam-UK bridge celebrates its 10th anniversary ảnh 3 Founding Chair and President of VUKN Ben Chapman (Photo: VNA)

Shortly after that, Paul Smith, founder of software group Nash Tech, with decades of business experience including in Vietnam under his belt, came on board, joining Warwick as a Vice-Chair, a position he was to hold until 2022. His vast business experience was to prove of enormous value. A Committee made up of further volunteers was then created, a formal structure for the new body was drawn up, several companies volunteered some financial support, and by early 2013 the Vietnam-UK Network was ready to be launched, well-placed to help support and underpin the Strategic Partnership which the two governments had signed in 2010.     

That said, the Network’s early days involved some tough challenges given that it was run entirely by volunteers, a model that its founders believed right to ensure discipline within the organisation, and to gain trust from potential financial sponsors, said Ben Chapman. As a Vice Chair (for 6 years) from the beginning and then Chair until he stepped down in March 2023, Warwick too recalls the challenge of finding the right volunteers to share the various tasks, especially when many already had full-time or other jobs, and ensuring ongoing financial support to help fund the Network’s events and activities.

A Vietnam-UK bridge celebrates its 10th anniversary ảnh 4Co-founder and former Chair of VUKN Warwick Morris  (Photo: VNA)

However, with each leading member of the Committee having his/her own strengths and network of contacts, together with valuable cooperation with the Vietnamese Embassy in the UK, the British Embassy and Consulate-General in Vietnam, Chambers of Commerce, and officials and politicians in both countries, the VUKN was able to overcome the various challenges. It has especially valued ongoing financial support from British and Vietnamese businesses, including NashTech, Prudential, Arup, KPMG, Dragon Capital and Vietnam Airlines.

During his time as Chairman, Ben Chapman led two visits by leading VUKN Committee members to Vietnam - taking in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang. Though valuable in terms of contact-building, these were not easy to organise, and could only go ahead thanks to the support of Vietnam Airlines and, for some accommodation, of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During one of these visits, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Vietnam-UK Friendship Association and the VUKN, soon to be renewed by an MOC.   

All in all, the VUKN, privately-funded entirely run by volunteers, can be proud of its achievements in its first 10 years of operating. Starting with a hard-core of three determined volunteers, and now with some 500 followers, it has become a bridge for much greater bilateral activity, stimulating trade, investment, and education links and, as Paul Smith sees it, promoting “Brand Vietnam” across the UK and helping to build a sustainable trade platform for the future.

A Vietnam-UK bridge celebrates its 10th anniversary ảnh 5Former Vice-Chair of VUKN Paul Smith (Photo: VNA)

The Network has also played an active role in helping to facilitate and support ministerial visits in both directions. It has already run or supported nearly 60 trade events, attracting more than 3,000 UK business representatives, including the first ‘UK-Vietnam Women in Business’ workshop held in London in October 2019, attended by over 200 delegates.

The Network’s annual Lunch or Dinner held in the House of Lords, with important keynote Speakers, often Ministers, are always fully booked, providing great networking opportunities.

During Covid-19, the VUKN continued to be active, maintaining links between its followers and Vietnamese partners by hosting a series of Zoom meetings, to discuss new developments or policies in areas including education, medical cooperation, legal changes, the Free Trade Agreement etc, which were attended or addressed by Ministers, senior officials and diplomats from both countries and from elsewhere.

Despite its limited funding, the Network has over the years made several donations to charities, non-governmental organisations and societies in Vietnam. These include the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin (VAVA), the Vietnam Veterans Association, the Vietnam Red Cross, and British charities operating in Vietnam, including Saigon Children’s Charity, Facing the World and the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation.

The Network has also arranged one or two cultural events in London, most notably, under Vice Chair Bao Ha’s leadership, a wonderful classical music concert involving Vietnamese musicians in London on 7th September, to mark both the Network’s10th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Vietnam-UK diplomatic relations.

Above all perhaps, on its 10-year journey to strengthen people-to-people links between the two countries, VUKN has become a reliable resource for British businesses, organisations and persons seeking information about Vietnam in general, and business opportunities in particular.

An important tool in advancing people to people relations between the two countries, the Network is always ready to support events and activities organised by respective Embassies, and its own activities, helping facilitate networking between the business and educational/student communities, as well as cultural interchange, said new Chair Mark Kent, who is Chief Executive of the Scotch Whisky Association and a former British Ambassador to Vietnam.

Mark stressed VUKN will always welcome new ideas and initiatives and look to work with, and complement the activities of other organisations, to promote the image of a modern, welcoming Vietnam, offering huge potential for collaboration in an ever-widening range of fields.

All in all, despite the pressures, Warwick Morris said he had much enjoyed being a part of the Network, and was hugely grateful to all those who had played a part in establishing, running and supporting it. Unlike many of those involved though, he was glad he had not been trying to manage a full-time day job as well. But as has been said many times, it is often the busiest people who seem able to make time for what they believe in. It is the belief in the importance of the Vietnam-UK relationship, and in the need to do more for the interests of the two countries and their peoples that lies behind the dedication and commitment of volunteers like Ben, Warwick, Paul and the other British and Vietnamese Committee members. Long may that belief, enthusiasm and commitment last./.


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