British Consul General and UK Trade and Investment Director in Ho Chi Minh City Douglas Barnes. By Lorcan Lovett. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Veteran civil servant Douglas Barnes is fresh from a meeting with HSBC representatives, aimed at boosting business between the UK and Vietnam, as he begins to talk about his typical working day at the British Consulate.
It starts like many other people’s: he discusses the day’s plans with his wife over breakfast, talks about current political affairs stirring in his home country, and then reaches the office by 9am unless an early meeting takes priority.
The 58-year-old British Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City has been in the role for four years, during which time he’s also been the area’s UK Trade and Investment director, but that all comes to a close this month as he takes up the post of trade commissioner in Yangon, Myanmar.
After greeting his staff and checking his emails, Barnes regularly has a phone conversation with the Hanoi-based UK Ambassador, and then consults his diary with his personal assistant at around 10am.
The duality of Barnes’ job means he’s either touching base with the British Business Group Vietnam (BBGV) before amassing support for UK companies in Vietnam, or addressing workshops, conferences and the HCM City People’s Committee in his diplomatic duties. Often the two roles complement each other.
“It’s important, in order to be successful for British companies as well as for Britain in general here, to have a very good relationship with the People’s Committee,” he says, “and so I have developed a relationship where I engage with them quite frequently on issues that are of concern with them as well as issues which we’re trying to progress.”
Barnes is also dean of the consulate core: the main channel of communication between his colleagues and the People’s Committee. His team, split between Hanoi and HCMC, deals with issues such as lost UK passports, while he plays a direct part in more high profile matters.
These are notable times for UK-Vietnam relations, which were set up in 1973, two years before Vietnam’s reunification. The two countries entered into a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2010, which saw bilateral trade increase to US$4billion within two years.
Then in July 2015, David Cameron became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Vietnam.
“We played a huge role,” says Barnes, who worked with UK governmental departments to ensure Cameron’s itinerary was fit for purpose.
“When he arrived from Hanoi I actually met him at the airport,” adds Barnes. “We travelled in together and had a chat. It was him who insisted he wanted to come to HCMC.
“It obviously makes a lot of sense as it’s the commercial capital of Vietnam. He first came here as a student back in 1994 and so he was quite excited, wanting to see what the changes were. He was blown away by all of it.”
With more than 30 years of experience in the public sector, Barnes knows that clocking off times can differ everyday, especially now his current position can include evening dinners, cross-country ceremonies and the odd bout of prominent media inquiries.
“There is a core work day for staff, but for me I’m on duty at all times and any time as long as I’m around,” he says.
And another recent deal – the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement – will drive his team across the country, scouring for promising investment opportunities and relaying the information back to UK companies.
“It feels quite fulfilling seeing some of the successes in terms of businesses performing better or winning a huge contract as a result of something that my team has done,” he says.
Outside the world of business, Barnes leads a team that helps UK nationals, mainly those who have been victims of petty theft and are in need of emergency travel documents.
Barnes advises travellers to read the foreign office advice… “particularly now when petty crime seems to be on the increase, because it can leave someone quite distraught when you’ve just arrived and had your bag stolen.”
He also highlights the dangers of riding a motorbike in Vietnam, but is quick to add, “On the very positive side it’s a great place to live, to visit, to work.
“Just come here and have a good time. Vietnamese people are very warm, friendly and hospitable.”