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Trade Minister Mary Ng embraces Vietnamese Trade Minister Nguyễn Hồng Diên during trade talks with the government of Vietnam in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 27.James Griffiths/The Globe and Mail

Towering 470 metres over the endless sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City, Landmark 81 is the tallest building in Vietnam and second tallest in all of Southeast Asia. It’s become a symbol of Vietnam’s largest city, which has nearly doubled in size to 10 million people in the past 20 years, as the country’s economy has boomed.

It’s also Canadian, in a sense. Landmark 81 was designed in 2014 by architects at AtkinsRéalis, the Montreal-based engineering giant that was one of more than a hundred Canadian companies joining a government-led trade mission to Vietnam this week.

While some companies were looking for new business in Vietnam – joining a global drive into the country as companies seek to diversify from China – others like AtkinsRéalis are well-established, drawing on Canada’s long-term relationship with Vietnam.

In 2023, Canada and Vietnam celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations. Vietnam is Canada’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, and, like Canada, a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Christine Healy, AtkinsRéalis president for Asia, the Middle East and Australia, said Canada “has a good reputation” in Vietnam thanks to this history. “We walk the path in the snow that others cut before us.”

Insurer Manulife opened its first Vietnam office 25 years ago, and now has around 1.4 million customers. Competitor Sunlife, though not as established, has more than 5,000 advisers and thousands of clients across the country. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh, the largest in the country, has been operating for 30 years.

Montreal-based CAE, which provides aviation safety training, first signed a partnership with Vietnam Airlines in 2010, and this week extended that to 2033.

Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng, who led the mission this week and held meetings with senior Vietnamese leaders, including Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, said “there’s a lot to show in this relationship, and you can see it in the trade and investment numbers.”

In an interview, Ms. Ng said Canada already has a “gold standard” trade deal with Vietnam through the CPTPP, but is counting on support from Hanoi in striking an agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Canada was elevated to strategic partner by the bloc last year and Ms. Ng said Ottawa hopes to complete negotiations on an ASEAN free trade deal by the end of 2025.

“Where Vietnam is helpful is that they have a trade agreement with us, so when we’re at the negotiating table they can speak about their experience with Canada,” she said.

Between 2002 and 2022, Vietnam’s GDP per capita grew almost 3.6 times, according to the World Bank, and average economic growth over the last two decades has been around 6 per cent.

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Towering 470-metres over the endless sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City, Landmark 81 is the tallest building in Vietnam.James Griffiths/The Globe and Mail

Vietnam is expected to be among the fastest growing economies in the world this year, bouncing back from 2023, when lower demand from developed economies in the West and a slowdown in China saw Vietnam grow at around 5 per cent, short of a 6.5 per cent target.

The country is not without its problems. Multiple Canadian business people on the trip praised Vietnam political stability and predictability, but that is derived from a tightly-controlled one-party system that can be hard to read for outsiders.

“For a newcomer entering Vietnam it can be very opaque,” said Linh Nguyen, an analyst at Control Risks. “Within the system there can be different ministries handling different issues, not really clear which department or stakeholder is in charge of what.”

At a private round table for Canadian businesses in Ho Chi Minh City, representatives of long-established companies spoke of problems with Vietnamese labour law, challenges breaking into the domestic market, and the difficulties of understanding overlapping regulatory systems, emphasizing the need for patience and flexibility.

A continuing anti-corruption campaign, which recently snared President Vo Van Thuong, has slowed down decision making and snarled approvals in some sectors, multiple analysts and business people said.

Human-rights concerns could also lead to greater scrutiny of investments in Vietnam by lawmakers back home, who are far more skeptical of the old narrative that greater economic openness will lead to political liberalization than they once were.

Other countries competing for Western investment in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are democracies, with protections for the rule of law and a free press that investigates and challenges the government.

Goldy Hyder, chief executive of the Business Council of Canada, said members take an “eyes-wide-open approach” when it comes to countries such as Vietnam.

“We stand up for Canadian values, Canadians expect you to do that and the other side expects you to do that, but the manner in which you do it is paramount,” he said. “I would advocate for constructive engagement, respectful engagement, much can be said behind closed doors.”

Ms. Ng pointed out commitments Vietnam made in joining the CPTPP on issues such as labour rights and environmental protections.

“If you look at the CPTPP, the economies that are in there, you have economies like Vietnam but also like Japan and Canada,” she said. “So it’s a mix, it’s a spectrum of countries that are in this agreement, and with a trading partner that is a developing economy like Vietnam, we have for sure made commitments to do that work on capacity building and encouraging reforms to meet their obligations.”

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