A bridge, but not on the River Kwai
History brought it about, and it might make economic history: during the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese studied in Hungary. Many, lasting personal connections were born.
A bridge, but not on the River Kwai
Culture and Innovation

A bridge, but not on the River Kwai

The Bãi Cháy Bridge in Vietnam (Photo: iStock)
Sándor Pető 20/02/2023 05:00

History brought it about, and it might make economic history: during the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese studied in Hungary. Many, lasting personal connections were born. In addition, a sizeable Vietnamese community was established in Hungary, serving as a stepping stone to a market with tremendous potential for growth but which is extremely difficult for Westerners to access.

In 2021, the GDP of Vietnam, a country ten times more populous than our country, was only twice that of Hungary. Already a substantial market, it could be on the verge of a major expansion. Its annual growth rate in the third quarter of this year was 13.67 percent. Within only a few years, Vietnam’s share of the global economy will be far greater than the 0.27 percent it was in 2021. Vietnam is Hungary’s largest trading partner in the region: between 2016 and 2020, the Asian country’s annual exports to Hungary increased eightfold, to $1 billion.

Diplomatic contact between the two countries has been active up to the highest level for quite some time, and was elevated to the level of comprehensive partnership during Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trọng’s official visit to Hungary in September 2018, a first in the Central and Eastern European region. During a joint press conference with the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explained the opening of the partnership as follows: ‘Hungary has chosen Vietnam as a strategic partner in the region because diplomatic cooperation between the two countries has been going strong for some time, in addition to the fact that approximately 3,000 Vietnamese citizens have completed their university studies in Hungary, and there are thousands of respected, hard-working Vietnamese families living in Hungary.’

From scholarship to friendship

Many of those arriving with the first generation were committed supporters of establishing friendships; just like Tran Dinh Kiem, who came to Hungary on a state scholarship in 1966, and received his BME (Budapest University of Technology and Economics) gold diploma - given to those who graduated from university 50 years ago - only a few months ago. Following graduation, he returned to Vietnam where he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He later became a Hungarian interpreter, and then served as First Secretary at the Embassy in Budapest, throughout the second half of the 90s.

Here, he wrote a conversational phrasebook which became so popular that he was encouraged to compile a dictionary. His Vietnamese-Hungarian and Hungarian-Vietnamese abridged dictionaries were published in 2000, but as he was not satisfied with them, and in retirement he had more time on his hands, he spent five years improving them into unabridged dictionaries, which were published in 2015. But this ‘put me in a very difficult financial situation’, he wrote to our paper. Despite his pleas for support, he could not find Hungarian sponsors and was forced to pay for the publication of his books out of his own pocket, with the support of some Vietnamese friends.

We also asked Tran Dinh Kiem, who later published, among other items, a Hungarian grammar book for Vietnamese at his own expense, about those from whom he had learnt in Hungary and had gone on to play a significant role in Vietnam. Without intending to be exhaustive, he singled out – in Hungarian – Tran Dinh Hoan, an ex-member of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s political committee, and former ministers of education Nguyen Van Nhung and Le Hong Quan, stating that they had done much to improve relations between the two countries prior to the Hungarian regime change. On the economic front, he highlighted the achievements of Vo Van Mai and Nguyen Quand A, the Vietnamese translators of János Kornai’s works.

Difficult terrain

Relations already have their own momentum, but institutional, subsidised cooperation between businesses in the two countries, such as the Hungarian-Vietnamese Business Council, operating within the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, continue to play a crucial role. In 1992, Tradeland Kft., the company of its managing director Róbert Forintos, opened an office in Hanoi. As many of you may recall, they made a splash in Asia with ‘Plussz’ effervescent tablets, and they were the largest Hungarian exporter to Vietnam two and a half decades ago, with an annual turnover of $8-9 million.

‘Asia is a challenging place to do business, and Vietnamese people who have studied and lived here are a tremendous help in maintaining business relations,’ Róbert Forintos told us. ‘If you haven’t been socialised in this country and have a romantic idea about the way things work here, you will never make it to the finish line,’ he noted.

The export of environmental and water technologies is one of the primary areas of commerce represented by Tradeland and the Hungarian Water Partnership, a non-profit organisation that brings together Hungarian enterprises with similar profiles. The water treatment plants already installed in Vietnam supply 120,000 people with potable water.

The most recent round of high-level negotiations took place in July, when Vuong Dinh Hue, President of the National Assembly of Vietnam, accompanied by government officials, visited Budapest. During the meetings, the Minister of Education of Vietnam, Nguyen Kim Son, thanked Hungary for having hosted 200 university scholars from Vietnam annually since 2018, compared to only five in 2012.

Vietnam likewise honours this long-standing friendship. A Vietnamese-Hungarian Friendship Day was held in Hanoi on 18 September, with the involvement of approximately 600 participants. Vo Van Mai, co-chairman of the Vietnamese - Hungarian Business Council in Hanoi, wrote to our paper in Hungarian, of course, ‘Many of us have studied in Hungary, and we are still actively helping to maintain and strengthen the relationship and friendship between Vietnam and Hungary.’

Together even on the film screen

Trade requires balanced social relations. Even those who do not follow the fate of the Vietnamese community in Hungary notice the expanding network of shops and business centres they have built, as well as the instant soups and other Vietnamese foodstuffs sold in the supermarkets. Many people may also recall names such as Anasztázia Nguyen, track and field sprinter, singers, Benji and Hien, model Charlotte Clavier, chess player, Hoang Thanh Trang, and beauty queen and actress, Nari Nguyen.

Nari Nguyen, who has lived in Budapest since birth, has a fairly recent film project to her credit: she is the female lead in the feature film The Flower of the Apple Tree (working title: Budapest, Where Love Begins), directed by Dóra Szűcs, produced by Lea György and Anna Sípos, supported by the National Film Institute, and due to be released on 16 February 2023. The first Hungarian-Vietnamese co-production is a love story set on two timelines, the 1970s and the present.

Along with Szilvia Garami, Lea György is one of the producers of the documentary film about Vietnamese who studied in Hungary, Danube – Mekong – kindred spirits, which was filmed five years ago. ‘I was able to gain insight into the relationship between the two peoples and learn about our cultural similarities and differences. I was really impressed by the gorgeous landscapes, the warm and welcoming people, their respect for tradition, and the expression of gratitude to Hungary for the opportunity to study in our country,’ said Lea György.

No language barriers were encountered in the making of the documentary. Among others, she invites Mr Vo Van Mai to speak, whose statement exemplifies the great opportunities that Vietnamese trained in Budapest have opened up and are preserving: after returning home three decades ago, he founded his company, HIPT, which has become Vietnam’s largest IT company and even aims for regional fame.

Special thanks for their assistance in writing this article to Mr Róbert Forintos, Mr László Botz, President of the Vietnamese-Hungarian Friendship Society, and the members of the Hungarian-Vietnamese Friendship Society Facebook group, including those who were not invited to give spoken contributions for inclusion in this article.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

We use cookies on our website. If you consent to their use, we use them to measure and analyze the use of the website.
Information and Settings