Norway’s New Ambassador to Vietnam

On the 7th of September Mr. Ståle Torstein Risa took over as the Norwegian ambassador to Vietnam, replacing former ambassador Mr. Kjell Storløkken. A week after formally being received by the Vietnamese president, Mr. Nguyen Minh Triet, the new ambassador meets ScandAsia in his Hanoi-office, looking optimistic and already quite well adjusted. Besides Vietnam, he will also serve as the Norwegian ambassador to Laos.
Behind Mr. Risa’s office desk is a map of Vietnam, a country he is eager to learn more about, not that this is his first time in Vietnam.
Mr. Risa is a well travelled man, and for the last 25 years he hasn’t stayed in the same country for more than five years at a time. A short time ago he was driving down the streets of Manila, where he has worked since 2005 as Norway’s ambassador to the Philippines. Now he is in Vietnam about to embark upon yet another journey.
The reason why Mr. Risa applied for the position as ambassador to Vietnam is that the country holds a great fascination for him. “The area was known to me as a tourist and was intriguing. And, of course, it is a country of great change. The changes are many and the growth rate here is impressive. Having seen Hanoi some years ago, my wife and I wanted to experience it professionally also,” says Mr. Risa. Also, Vietnam is interesting due to the fact that the country is so different from the Philippines, especially in terms of the political environment, he adds.
Still, leaving Manila was not easy, as it meant saying goodbye to friends and the warm-hearted and hospitable Filipinos. A downside though is that there is too much violence and crime there, Mr. Risa says. “But the Filipino people are like grass, they bent but they don’t break, despite the many challenges they face,” he adds with a smile.
The Norwegian Embassy in Vietnam is located in the centre of Hanoi in the big Vincom City Towers. Not far from there, in the old quarter, Mr. Risa has moved in to a beautiful old classical French villa with his wife Mrs. Yuen Kwan Risa. The villa is from the late 1920s – a striking piece of architecture renovated completely by the Norwegian government. It was falling apart in the late 1990s, so the Norwegian government decided to bring it back to its original state and today it stands as it did 80 years ago, but fully equipped with modern amenities and Norwegian furniture. Before the Norwegians took over, several Vietnamese families lived in the villa. You can still see evidence of this, as family names have been carved into the ground floor ceiling woodwork.

From Sortland to Suharto dictatorship
As a young man, Mr. Risa studied law at the University of Oslo, majoring in public international law and human rights. Later he got accepted at the prestigious University of Virginia School of Law, where he received his Masters Degree in law.
Mr. Risa joined the Norwegian Foreign Service at a young age but took a leave of absence in 1983 to work as a deputy district court judge in a small town called Sortland in the northern part of Norway. For approximately a year he served as a judge, sending people to jail, deciding disputes between couples and neighbours, and handling traffic violations. But The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had other plans for him, and in 1984 he was off to Hong Kong to work as Norway’s vice consul at the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in Hong Kong.
“It was a big transition from small town life in Norway to a pulsating East Asian metropolis. But a tremendous place to be in at that time, really exiting,” Mr. Risa says. Of course, back then the British were still in charge of Hong Kong, and very visible everywhere. Not like Hong Kong today. Hong Kong was also the place where he met his wife, who is originally from the East Asian metropolis.
Then in 1987 Mr. Risa moved with his wife to Jakarta as he got a job as first secretary at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta. At this time the Indonesian society was widely controlled by the Suharto family’s dictatorship.
In his job he dealt with everything from people disappearing in the night never to be heard from again to house arrests. “Hong Kong was a vibrating metropolis, while Indonesia was struggling with everything from governance and corruption issues to serious human rights violations. There was much to do there,” Mr. Risa explains.
After Jakarta, Mr. Risa served as counsellor at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington and as minister-counsellor at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo. Until 2005 he served as deputy legal counsel at the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Goals for the future
Norwegian-Vietnamese bilateral relations were a subject Mr. Risa discussed with the Vietnamese president when the two met at the accreditation ceremony the 4th of September. According to Mr. Risa, more and more Norwegian companies are becoming interested in Vietnam, particularly in areas such as shipping and maritime industries, energy, and fisheries and aqua culture.
With many years of experience in areas such as law, shipping, commercial relations, and development one cannot deny that Mr. Risa is fully prepared for the challenges in Vietnam. At the same time living in Asia for so many years has given him a great insight into the region.
Besides strengthening the Norwegian-Vietnamese bilateral ties, Mr. Risa is very focused on issues relating to climate change and pollution, which has become a big problem in Vietnamese cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Mr. Risa mentions in particular the proliferation of motor bicycles which has caused considerable pollution in both cities, not only air pollution but also noise pollution. The pollution has become much worse in only a few years, a problem which is only going to get worse, he says.
In order to address the many climate challenges we face today, the Norwegian government has integrated climate and environmental issues into its aid programs, including the one in Vietnam. “It is no longer a separate issue as you cannot have development without proper attention to climate issues,” Mr Risa explains.
In addition more motor bicycles on the roads have meant a lot more chaos. “I have never seen such total disrespect for traffic rules. There does not seem to be any clear rules, with strange vehicles coming at you from all directions. To be a pedestrian in Hanoi is without doubt a very risky business,” Mr. Risa says.

The life of a diplomat
A life filled with travelling and constantly moving around has meant certain sacrifices for Mr. Risa and his wife. “My wife and I sometimes think about having a place of our own, a place we can really call home. It is difficult to settle when you move all the time, and you certainly have to have the ability to say goodbye to friends,” Mr Risa says. Even though it was difficult leaving Manila and saying goodbye to friends and staff, they had been geared towards it from the beginning, which made them mentally prepared. “Many acquaintances, a few friends, that’s the life of diplomacy,” he says.
After Hanoi Mr. Risa and his wife will go back to Oslo, where they are planning to retire in about 10 years. But even though plans are being made for retirement in Oslo, they will not rule out having a second home in East Asia.

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