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1. Can you briefly introduce yourself?

I’m Ryan from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I have joined Tunbridge Wells Borough Council as a Graduate Planner from September 2023.

2. How does the planning system/practices in the UK differ from Vietnam? Any lessons learnt for the UK? 

The UK has a well-established planning system built upon national, regional and local policy frameworks.

I have not worked in the planning industry in Vietnam. However, I am aware that a new Planning Law was enacted in 2017, but changes in planning practices are still underway. Unlike the UK where a Local Planning Authority has official Core Strategies or Local Plans with detailed policies, development management in Vietnam is still based on Land Use Masterplans, which are often out of date. A decision is guided mainly by masterplans and certain regulations from the Construction Law.

Due to the lack of integrated policy framework and collaboration among government agencies, plans are often produced for a single purpose. For example, transportation masterplans are produced by Transportation Authorities and only focus on transportation issues without regard to the emerging economic hubs or new residential neighbourhoods. Most of the developments also show limited consideration of social or environmental aspects. The demand for green spaces is huge. Although we love nature, especially in big cities where green space is extremely scarce, the provision of green space is always neglected. Affordable housing has just gained more attention recently due to the rocketing housing prices.

Spatial planning in Vietnam is a long way behind the UK so unfortunately little could be learnt from it directly.

3. How does your Southeast Asian heritage influence your understanding/approach/practice in planning?

Southeast Asia has a long history of agriculture with abundant fruits and vegetables which not only enriches our cuisines but also our way of life. Even in urban areas, people tend to grow their own food from rooftops to pavements if they can. However, with increased development pressure, urban green space has become more constrained in many cities in Southeast Asia, with a few exceptions such as Singapore. 

Our strong tie with agriculture has influenced my thought processes. Witnessing the growing loss of urban green space in Vietnam, I tend to think green - how to apply more nature-based solutions to real life, how to make blue and green features become the city's signature and create more distinctive sustainable neighbourhoods, and how to protect our precious countryside and rural areas.

4.  Can you name one of your favourite places/developments in the UK that reflects Southeast Asian heritage? And why?

I would say the Barbican in London is one of my favourite places. It provides lots of communal spaces which are important to our own cultures as people would prefer to gather and interact with each other. Some cultures are more reserved, but our Vietnamese are more sociable and friendly.

There are also plenty of green spaces blending with water features and rhythming with the sounds of water, which is highly desirable in my culture but has become only available in the luxurious development for the wealthier. They say the Barbican is only for the rich, but personally I do not feel unwelcomed when I enter it even though I am from another social class background.

5. Why do you think it is beneficial for the planning profession in the UK to embrace  Southeast Asian heritage and planners with Southeast Asian heritage? 

South East Asia is one of the regions that have already been severely affected by climate change. Many cities will even potentially be inundated given the rise in sea level and more unprecedented and stronger storms every year. Planners with South East Asian heritage could help foster an understanding of how these forefront regions are tackling climate change and a sense of global citizenship in the UK. 

Also, most countries in Southeast Asia are developing rapidly. The regulatory regime has not kept pace with the growth.  As a result, we tend to be more flexible in our approaches. Whilst the flexible approach could help meet the needs quickly, it also brings shortcomings. So coming from a background where the planning system is not mature, we are more aware of some urban issues and are able to offer some unique perspectives. It makes us more adaptable and more creative in problem-solving. This would be helpful in driving innovation in the UK as in a mature system, where everything is in place, it is harder to go against the flow and find new interventions.

6. What challenges did you encounter to secure your current/previous planning roles? How did you overcome them?

I found the interview processes, especially those with one-way pre-recorded video interviews, very intimidating for candidates who have just moved to the UK. While only certain bigger companies use pre-recorded video interviews, they really destroyed my confidence. Graduate roles are very competitive since I do not have any advantages in languages compared to native English speakers. Recording my answers in front of a machine made answering the interview even more challenging. 

I am not discouraging young graduates from applying for jobs at bigger companies as the interviews could enhance our knowledge and experiences.  These interviewees would help us realise what is wrong with our speech or body language. Indeed, I also researched ways to improve my video interviews. Although I did not manage to pass this stage of the recruitment process,  the pre-recorded interview helped me recognise my odd facial expression while speaking and or my slanting eyes while thinking of the answers. The experiences made me become self-aware and avoid these pitfalls in a real face-to-face interview later.

I also diversified my applications to smaller companies and local councils as well. These smaller employers tend to use more traditional interview methods, which level the playing field for non-native English speakers and give us more chances to make a good impression with interviewees.

For any non-native English-speaking graduates, if pre-recorded video interviews are not something you master, I think spending time on job applications to other companies to secure a job first could be a better option. We can always move on to the bigger companies after getting more working experience. The roles will also be less competitive than the graduate role as students all compete against each other at the same period.

7. What advice would you give to prospective and current planners from Southeast Asian backgrounds?

As a minor community in the UK, we might feel small at times and it is absolutely normal.

Embrace it. It’s the cultural difference that makes us stand out. People love us for the unique

outlook and perspectives that we could bring to the table.

And be positive, especially when looking for a job. It might get stressful, sometimes disappointing, sometimes frustrating. Just reflect on what could be done better and change strategies accordingly. They can be from applying to a wider range of company profiles (big or small, public or private), to having a mentor or connecting to senior planners on Linkedin whom you may ask for work experiences or their second opinions on CV, etc. It would also be helpful to keep applying for jobs on a regular basis even just 1 or 2 openings a week. There are no setbacks, only lessons - I believe we can always learn something from each experience no matter how it turns out. Just keep pressing on. Although you might not know when you get there, you’ll be closer than you were yesterday. Slowly but surely.


Celebrating East and South East Asian Heritage Month

Ryan Nguyen

Graduate Planner

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