Denver Bar Association
March 2004
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Diary from Vietnam: Senior Administrative Law Judge Gives a Little History

by Judge Ed Felter
Colo. Division, Admin. Hearings

Eight hundred years ago, as legend has it, Emperor Le Loi was
sailing on the lake as Vietnam was about to experience one of many invasions by the Chinese. A giant tortoise emerged from the lake, handed the emperor a sword to repel the Chinese, and told the emperor to return the sword. Le Loi repelled the Chinese. He sailed again on the lake, and the tortoise emerged and took back the sword. Later, Vietnam consistently repelled all Chinese invasions.

Felter at Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.

On my trip to Vietnam late last winter, my mythical dreams translated to a life-changing and professionally groundbreaking experience for me.

I was honored to be selected as Star Vietnam’s international expert on best practices in administrative law. Star is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s project that helps implement the Bilateral Trade Agreement between the United States and Vietnam.

Apparently, Star and the Vietnamese like Colorado judges. Vietnam is still primarily an agrarian country so I infer that they like country boys better than big city boys.

Leaving Denver and Arriving in Hanoi

I left Denver on Thanksgiving morning, and arrived in Hanoi around 11 p.m. on Friday. It was 14 hours later than Denver in Hanoi.

The following week in Hanoi was filled with day-long general workshops, and business forums, including one with the VCCI (Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry). I presented international best practices of administrative law hearings, with a biased focus on the Colorado central panel model.

One workshop was for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (it guides the National People’s Assembly). The chair of the Central Committee liked the proposed idea of a central administrative tribunal.

I met many foreign and Vietnamese lawyers, who had concerns about the present
status of administrative law adjudications in Vietnam. One notable lawyer was Duong
(pronounced "Zoong"), reportedly the best intellectual property lawyer in Vietnam.

Duong gave me the critical piece for my recommendation—beginning with independent administrative tribunals in the agencies. He told me about the Intellectual Property Office’s Board of Appeals, how it operated without any standards or procedures, yet a solitary board member decided 50 percent in favor of the challenger and 50 percent in favor of the defender.

Duong told me that while the board member chose to be "judicially independent," it would be nice if he had some standards to back him up. Thereafter, at each workshop, I suggested building on this model, and the Drafting Team of the State Inspectorate liked the idea.

Soon after, I visited with the President of the Hanoi Bar at one lunch, and the President of the Danang Bar at a dinner in Danang. Everyone shared delicious Vietnamese egg rolls (no lettuce—that’s an American add-on), steamed fish, pork, green tea, and outstanding Vietnamese hot coffee.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

One night, we ate at a "Louisiana-Vietnamese" restaurant in Saigon. The only Louisiana dish on the menu was gumbo, but it was very good. On the way back from dinner, I had a foot
massage and a cup of Vietnamese coffee for 100,000 Dong ($6.50). We decided it was a collegial, management exercise.

In conversation, everyone calls Ho Chi Minh City "Saigon." On the way in from the airport, while passing the old Presidential Palace, I thought of the last President of South Vietnam, Big Minh, and his surrender to the northern general. Big Minh told the general that he had been waiting for him in order to surrender. The general replied "you have nothing to surrender."

We had general and technical workshops in Saigon all week. The vice chair of the Saigon People’s Committee (deputy mayor) indicated that Vietnam was ready for a central administrative tribunal "now."

Our travels continued in Hoi An, and we took a break from workshops to tour the city. Hoi An was the main port of central Vietnam 100 years ago, until the river silted over. In Hoi An, 12 of us engaged 12 cyclos (bicycle-driven rickshaws) and proceeded in convoy through the narrow streets of Hoi An, stopping at different pagodas, craft shops and other landmarks, including the famed Japanese bridge. In some ways, Hoi An reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans

At the conclusion of our last workshop, the drafting team had a going-away lunch for me. They said they had experienced a change of mindset as a result of the workshops. I realized my trip had been a success.

I left Tokyo at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and arrived in Denver at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. I left part of my soul in Vietnam—so I’ll have to go back.

Editor’s Note: For those interested in the ALJ process in Vietnam, Judge Felter has a more detailed description. Write him at

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