Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's trip to strengthen ties in the Asia-Pacific region began Wednesday in Vietnam, a fast-growing country with a deep cultural connection for many Canadians.
Trudeau landed in the busy capital of Hanoi for an official visit to a country that offers significant business opportunities. However, the pursuit of a more-open trading relationship with Vietnam comes with pressure to have frank discussions about the serious concerns over the communist government's human-rights record.
Trudeau will hold meetings Wednesday with civil society leaders, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Communist Party secretary general Nguyen Phu Trong, before joining President Tran Dai Quang in the evening for a state banquet. On Thursday, he's scheduled to travel to Ho Chi Minh City to visit the stock exchange, hold a roundtable with business leaders and appear at a university event.
He will head to Danang on Saturday for the two-day leaders' summit for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation bloc, which includes the United States, China and Russia, before moving on to the Philippines to attend the annual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
At both events, Canada is expected to push its trade agenda forward. It's already engaged in exploratory trade talks with the ASEAN countries as well as negotiations to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord, which many believed would fall apart following the U.S. withdrawal earlier this year.
When it comes to the members of the 11-country TPP, much of the focus remains on Japan, the world's third-largest economy.
But Vietnam is also at the TPP table and it's an ASEAN member. This means it could become a key partner for Canada, which is trying to increase its presence in the region.
Vietnam, projected to see economic growth this year of 6.3 per cent, features a sturdy consumer base, an emerging business class and an expanding footprint in supply chains.
Dominic Barton, the global managing partner of consulting giant McKinsey & Co., said in an interview that the rapid changes in Vietnam's key cities remind him, in some respects, of what Shanghai went through less than two decades ago.
Barton, who also chairs the Trudeau government's economic growth council, said Vietnam is an example of why Canada must be "motoring ahead" into Asia, particularly with so much uncertainty around the renegotiation of the North American Trade Agreement.
"We've got to go hard on those Asian relationships," said Barton, who headed McKinsey operations in Asia and South Korea for nearly a decade.
"I think we just have to have irons in many fires."
Dan Ciuriak, a former deputy chief economist for what is now known as Global Affairs Canada, believes an updated TPP pact is closer to fruition than Canada's potential deals with ASEAN or China.
"Vietnam and Japan would be the two biggies for Canada in terms of diversifying trade," said Ciuriak, who is now the director of Ciuriak Consulting Inc.
"So, that's probably the No. 1 priority for Canada and that's where I think you'll see the effort being put in."
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who is honorary chair of the ASEAN-Canada Business Council, said Vietnam not only shows real economic potential, it also has strong people-to-people links to Canada.
Both countries have French heritages and both are members of La Francophonie, he said in an interview.
But Charest said it's the story of the Vietnamese refugees, or boat people, who came to Canada in the late 1970s that really forged the bond.
By 1980, around 60,000 people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos arrived in Canada after fleeing violence in their homelands. Today, about 240,000 people in Canada have Vietnamese roots.
"Certainly, the story of the boat people in Quebec, I can tell you without hesitation that it resonates positively in the minds of Quebecers as being a good example of integration into the broader Quebec society," said Charest, who added the community is thriving in Quebec.
However, when looking at today's Vietnam, Charest said the promising economy is accompanied by negatives, such as the fact "it is a communist regime and everything that comes with it."
Human Rights Watch calls the Vietnam's record "dire in all areas" because of the Communist Party's firm grip on political power. The group also said the government has harassed, intimidated, physically harmed and jailed its opponents.
Earlier this week, Conservative Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo urged Trudeau to use his face time with Vietnamese leaders to raise Canada's "serious concerns" about human-rights abuses in the country.
"Vietnam's record of international human rights violations, its crackdown on rights advocates and its suppression of a growing democratic movement have significantly worsened leading up to APEC 2017," Ngo said in a statement.
"Prime Minister Trudeau must demand greater respect for international human rights standards in tandem with the progressive trade agenda he wishes to promote with Vietnam and other APEC economies."
The Prime Minister's Office said Canada and Vietnam have a "constructive dialogue" on human rights. Canada has also advocated for the rights of women, freedom of expression, association and religion in Vietnam, it said.