An interview with Consul General of Italy in Ho Chi Minh City Dante Brandi
When a younger Dante Brandi left a month-long internship in 2001 with the Italian embassy in Hanoi, he walked away with the impression of a country fueled by powerful aspirations.“I couldn’t predict at the time what would eventually become Vietnam,” he said. “The big impression I had was about the dynamism and optimism.”
Brandi arrived in Vietnam long before his country and Vietnam formally started strengthening ties, an international courting led in part by Italian-educated former ambassador Nguyen Hoang Long. The two nations’ increasing closeness led to the signing of a strategic partnership in 2013. The language of the accord is fairly general—lots of unspecific agreements to enhance both parties and loosely worded promises to promote economic and political activity—but it was followed with formal visits by state heads and, in 2014, the establishment of the Italian embassy Brandi leads today as Consul General.
Brandi returned to Vietnam in early 2018 and became the second Consul General to lead the consulate. After serving at a post in London, Brandi said the idea of working inside of a relatively new diplomatic office that still had room to grow and the possibility of shaping that growth were both enormously exciting to him. “When I found out there was a possibility [of returning], I immediately said ‘yes,’” he said.
Since then, Brandi has worked to grow the consulate’s presence with Vietnamese—particularly the country’s young population—while developing it as a resource for the Italian foreign nationals inside of the country. There are about 800 Italians who have notified their government’s foreign services of their residence inside of Vietnam. Brandi estimates the actual number of Italians living inside of Vietnam is probably about double that number.
While the average foreigner inside of Vietnam may generally profile as a young guy or girl, 20-something, teaching English and doing a gap year finding themselves or that something similar, Brandi said the population his office serves are usually more established career professionals. They may be working as managers or highranking figures inside of multinational enterprises, Brandi said citing Nestlé Waters CEO Fausto Tazzi. The Italian businessman oversees a business division based in Ho Chi Minh City that produces La Vie drinking water.
Brandi added that the Italians living in Vietnam are generally individuals with the resources and professional opportunities needed to settle almost anywhere in the world, “… they’re not in Vietnam because they are forced to,” Brandi said.
Opening the consulate in 2014 was a key part of reframing how Italy understood Vietnam economically, Brandi argued. “Vietnam is no longer seen as just a platform for manufacturing.” The emerging consumer class inside of Vietnam is seen as a coterie of potential clients for Italian made goods, foods and pharmaceuticals.
There’a also some reframing to do with the Vietnamese understanding of Italy as a trade partner, Brandi said adding Italy is mainly the three Fs: “Ferrari, fashion and food.” As the second largest source of manufacturing power in the European Union, Italy has unexplored potential for all of its southeast Asia partners.
Trade between the two countries topped USD5 billion in 2018. A forthcoming trade agreement between the European Union and countries in the Southeast Asia region including Vietnam is expected to grow that number.
Brandi emphasized that trade and relations have strengthened because of, and not in spite of, the Vietnamese government, which he described as “open, much more than one could imagine.”
“I was pretty surprised at the degree of openness,” he added. He said that this willingness to listen and interest in different ways of doing things is something that has set the country apart from nations with stronger and more inflexible leadership regimes like China and Russia. As an example, Brandi said member states of the European Union have always had a strongly affirming stance toward the LGBT community, and that Vietnamese leadership has shown similar interest in strengthening its protections and rights for this community.
One of the first issues Brandi undertook as a new Consul General was to enhance Italian support in Ho Chi Minh City’s efforts to reinvent itself as a smart city. Brandi recalls that there were high-ranking members of the city’s political leadership involved in the effort who he thought were staking an enormous amount of political capital on a project that wasn’t guaranteed to succeed.
“That’s a challenging ambition,” Brandi reflected. Watching the city leadership work to connect the government services with the requisite private partners needed to realize the smart city project created a model he saw that he could replicate in his office’s operations. “It was a teaching lesson to me to see how they developed this process,” he said.