VAN Thanh Nguyen had never been out of Vietnam until he was asked to deliver a paper at an entrepreneurship research conference in Paris. He swallowed his nerves, and captured the audience, becoming the first success story of an MBA programme set up in Vietnam by Hong Kong University. On Friday, Mr Van and 28 other Vietnamese students were awarded their Master of Business Administration degrees at a ceremony at Hanoi's National Economics University. This was the first MBA graduation in Vietnam and marked another stage in its evolution from a Marxist outpost to a thriving market economy. It also highlighted the assistance given by Hong Kong, the second largest foreign direct investor in Vietnam after Taiwan. The MBA programme began after Vietnam's leadership realised the country's economic reform process might falter unless additional management capability was provided. In 1992 they proposed an MBA programme at the country's National Economics University. They invited the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to help establish the programme, because Sweden had been a longtime ally. SIDA invited tenders and, from 12 bidders, the contract was won by Hong Kong University's Poon Kam Kai Institute of Management. The institute wanted the programme to meet the highest international standard and sought to have it accredited with a major American university. After difficulties caused by the US State Department, which was enforcing a US embargo on ties with Vietnam, Poon Kam Kai formed a partnership with Boise State University in Idaho. The programme began in mid 1993 with teachers drawn from many countries, including Australia, England, Sweden, Hong Kong and the US. Each teacher delivers a session of lectures lasting 1-3 months. Professor Gordon Redding, director of the Poon Kam Kai Institute, said the level of the students was impressive. 'The standard is really very high,' he said. 'This was not unexpected but is very gratifying.' He said the first group of students was selected on academic rather than purely business credentials because it was hoped most would join the faculty of the school. However, preventing the new graduates from being lured away by multinational corporations might prove a problem because salaries in Vietnam are low by international standards and the skills they have acquired make them a valuable commodity in the marketplace. Poon Kam Kai wants Vietnam's State Education Department to provide the students with a reasonable pay packet. A few years ago, establishment of an MBA course in communist Vietnam would have been heresy. The Vietnamese elite were taught Marxist economics in Russian, East German or Hungarian universities. The dean of the school of business, Professor Ngo Dinh Giao, for example, studied in Moscow. However, Professor Redding stressed the programme did not seek to enforce Western values on the students. 'We do not try to preach Western management at them, or how wonderful the Western world is,' he said. 'We understand there is a need for evolutionary development rather than revolution in a country as complex as Vietnam.' Two years ago the students began the course with a lesson in how to play the board game Monopoly. 'I like to hope I can play better now,' said 25-year-old Phan Thi Thuc Anh at the graduation. 'Of course I am very happy today. It's been two years of quite hard work, because this is very new for us,' she said. Poon Kam Kai's contract has just been extended for another 21/2 years. Professor Redding said it always had taken a long-term view. 'The vision is that this will become the premier business school in Vietnam,' he said. 'We hope it will become an example for other universities in Vietnam to learn from.'