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Vietnamese ambassador seeks help from UC Davis to preserve country’s rice crop

Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington, Pham Quang Vinh, visited the Sacramento region Tuesday to promote trade and educational exchanges, and to further his country’s long-standing relationship with UC Davis.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis, have for years assisted Vietnamese universities and farmers in an effort to sustain the Mekong Delta’s rice basin, “known for productivity and the quality of rice,” Vinh said. “That area is suffering because climate change is causing the sea level to rise,” he said Tuesday.

Vinh said he also hopes to tap into the university’s expertise in biotechnology and engineering.

In a wide-ranging conversation hosted by Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren, who has been to Vietnam and is hosting a civic delegation there next month, Vinh said the communist country has evolved over 20 years of diplomatic relations with the U.S.

“The new Vietnam is very dynamic,” Vinh said. “More than half the population is under 30, 40 percent of the 91 million people have Internet, 28 percent are on social media and there are 128 million mobile phones, so some people have two.” A decade ago, he said, nearly a third of Vietnamese lived in poverty – now it’s down to 4.5 percent, and per capita income has risen from about $200 a year to $2,000.

The Sacramento region’s roughly 32,000 Vietnamese Americans include many who fled communism after the fall of Saigon 40 years ago and remain critical of Vietnam’s human rights record. They still use the name Saigon for Ho Chi Minh City, and some are pressing for the day when there are free, multiparty elections and freedom of speech and dissent.

Vinh acknowledged those sentiments, but insisted things are improving. “We have a one-party system, that’s a fact, but we have a constitution and everybody’s equal before the law.”

There are more than 17,000 Vietnamese students studying at U.S. universities, including more than 5,000 in California and hundreds at UC Davis, Vinh said. And the doors of trade are opening wider. In 2012-13, Vietnam imported $333 million worth of agricultural products from California, and in 2014, California exported $1.2 billion in manufactured goods to Vietnam.

On Tuesday, Vinh met with about 75 students and faculty at UC Davis, many of them Vietnamese. He fielded questions about why some U.S. investors are having problems doing business in Vietnam. He cited as progress the state’s move earlier this year to allow foreign companies to own 100 percent of the equity in Vietnamese firms.

“Vietnam has always been a little bit sensitive around Vietnamese American populations, not knowing what it will encounter, and this is the first time an ambassador from Vietnam has visited a California university and extended himself to students,” said Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde, an associate professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, who hosted the meeting. “He said they can help Vietnam create a better future.”

More than 40 professors from Vietnam have already come to UCD under a program funded through the Vietnamese government, said Jim Hill, associate dean emeritus of International Programs for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and a rice researcher. About 20 or more UC Davis professors and academic scholars have spent time helping at Vietnam National University of Agriculture, Nong Lam University and other schools, he said.

Warren said he extended the invitation to Vinh, who was making his first trip to the Sacramento region, to promote the area as a place to invest and visit.

“We’re an international city, one of the most diverse in the country,” Warren said.

The next step will be to encourage Vietnamese to invest in Sacramento, said Chris Worden, vice president of public policy at the Sacramento Metro Chamber, who attended a meeting with the ambassador and Warren at Sacramento City Hall. “It will take some additional steps to get large direct foreign investment from Vietnam, but we are sprinting forward to get the pieces in place,” Worden said. “A vibrant Vietnamese community locally coupled with continued investment from other Southeast Asian nations are key factors in our economic development.”

Accompanied by his wife and diplomatic staff, Vinh also visited city officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He plans to meet with Gov. Jerry Brown in San Francisco on Wednesday.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

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