Giles Lever likes to run. Last year, the British ambassador ran 42 kilometres in the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sapa, and this year, he has ambitions to do 70.
“When I did the 42km race, I didn’t do any media or have any offi cial interactions, I just turned up to run with my friends and have a beer afterwards,” he says. “When I’m round the trails, there’s no ambassador or excellency, I’m just another guy sweating in his trainers, labouring up a hill in the woods somewhere.”
While he’s technically always on duty, Giles values things like this — those things which give him privacy like running a marathon or eating nem chua on the sidewalk. They give him space to recharge. “You protect some time for yourself, and I think during that time, the family and I are able to be normal citizens.”
This may be Giles’s first full ambassadorial post, yet it’s not the first time he’s been posted to Hanoi; he began his career in the diplomatic service back here in the 1990s. From 1993 to 1997, he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Hanoi.
“A lot of the work in those days was connected with the problem of Vietnamese migrants in Hong Kong, for which the UK was still responsible, up until the handover,” he recalls. “The embassy was much smaller [then]. Nowadays, there’s around seven or eight people covering the various bits of the job I used to do.”
After this, he moved on to work in Japan, Iraq and then Nigeria, where he served as Acting British High Commissioner until 2014, when he took up his post as ambassador to Vietnam.
A key part of his job here has been learning the language, something seen as being of high value in British foreign affairs. “If you can understand the language and how people express themselves, you get direct insight into the way they think. It helps you understand the richness of life in Vietnam.”
“For example, I love that people’s names mean something in Vietnamese,” he says, chuckling at the fact that the woman in charge of finances at the embassy is named Ngan which happens to mean “money”.
On the list of the embassy’s priorities here, the economy ranks high.
“We want more British companies exporting to Vietnam, and more British companies doing business in Vietnam,” he says. “You have to look at the areas where you have a comparative advantage as an economy, and then look at where there is a demand.”
There’s huge demand coming from the educational sector, both in overseas study and educational services in Vietnam, and it’s a gap the UK hopes to fill.
Filling the Gap
“The challenge for Vietnamese education is obviously upper high school,” says Giles. “Up until 15 [years old], the Vietnamese education system is very good, it’s very inclusive. After that level, the dropout rate is high compared to other more developed countries in the region.”
The UK is doing all it can to solidify its relationship with Vietnam, including the first official prime ministerial visit from David Cameron in July last year.
“We’ve tripled the number of Foreign Office scholarships in Vietnam,” he continues. “It’s a prime beneficiary of our science innovation partnership programme. We’re doing a lot of work with the business environment. But a head-of-government visit, in its own way, can send an even more powerful message.”
According to Giles, this is the art of diplomacy, “trying to understand what makes your host country tick.” Vietnam he says, is interesting because, in terms of hierarchies, it can be quite flat. In other words, authority is widely diffused throughout the system.
“There are many different stakeholders in any given problem,” he explains. “And you need to understand how they relate to each other, as well as to the problem in question. You always have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, identify what it is that they’re interested in, and find some common ground to build on it.”
The Brexit Factor
Lever also has to be aware how events back in the UK are seen overseas, such as the country’s recent decision to quit the European Union (EU).
“In the short term, I don’t think there’s any direct impact,” he says. “We’re still a fully paid-up member of the EU, with all the rights and responsibilities and commitments that entails. The Prime Minister has said she doesn’t expect to invoke Article 50 before 2017, and after that, we can expect a process that lasts up to two years.”
Longer term, however, he believes that the UK will have to work even harder to project influence.
“We need to make sure people see the UK as a country that’s not turning in on itself,” he says, “but is still active and engaged on the global stage.”