Vietnam was in the international spotlight last week due to a three-day visit by US President Barack Obama. It was exciting to see the country I’ve lived in for over four years garner so much attention.
Predictably much of the American reporting focused on the war the two countries fought over 40 years ago, but this was a good chance for people around the world to see the modern Vietnam.
Excitement was running high ahead of Obama’s visit and this showed upon the president’s arrival in Hanoi on Sunday night as tens of thousands lined the streets to greet his motorcade. Local media tracked every presidential move, and Facebook was flooded with Obama-related memes and pictures.
While the Vietnamese government laid out the red carpet for Obama and presented a strong front, the visit came at a tense time in terms of domestic politics.
The last month has been one of Vietnam’s more tumultuous periods in recent years with an indifferent official response to a massive environmental catastrophe on the central coast setting off several weeks of public demonstrations (See: Dead Fish Present Challenges For New Vietnam Leadership). Arrests and beatings were reported, while Facebook and Instagram have been blocked from time to time; including during the US President’s visit.
Agreement on Weapons, At Odds On Human Rights
On Sunday the five-year National Assembly elections were held in which the vast majority of candidates were hand-picked by the ‘Party’ leadership in advance, and nearly every independent candidate was disqualified.
Activists hoped that this would spur Obama to press the government on its poor human rights record, but the initial returns were disappointing.
The biggest news from Monday, President Obama’s first full day in the country, was the announcement that the US would fully end the arms embargo it had placed on Vietnam since 1975.
In 2014 the embargo was modified in order to allow Vietnam to purchase defensive maritime weapons in response to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, but deadly weapons systems were still off the table. The Vietnamese government had been hoping for this for years, as they look to counter China’s growing military might. Vietnam won’t necessarily be placing orders for F-15s just yet, as they currently buy most of their advanced systems from Russia, but the option is now there.
Human rights advocates within Vietnam and abroad, lambasted the President for removing one major source of leverage the US had in pushing the authoritarian government to improve its restrictive means of control. Everyone knew this decision was likely, but it was disheartening nonetheless, especially given how the government responded to perfectly legitimate calls for greater transparency and environmental protection in the weeks before Obama’s arrival over the Ha Tinh fish kill.
Rewarding heavy-handed suppression of free speech with access to high-tech military technology will not give Party officials any reason to re-consider their decisions.
Despite the dubious policy start to Obama’s time in Vietnam it was impossible to overlook the charming politician’s’ immense appeal to the Vietnamese public. It has become cliche to report on the popularity of American culture in Vietnam, but it is true: Vietnamese, especially the young, love the USA; and Obama is the most visible representative of the place.
The President was set to arrive in Saigon on Tuesday afternoon and my office was just off the motorcade’s route into the city centre. A crowd began to gather on the road well over an hour before Obama was expected to arrive, and only grew as time passed. I missed the motorcade, but it was clear people were excited.
|US President Barack Obama holds a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) ‘Town Hall’ meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on May 25, 2016 . Video uploaded to YouTube by The White House|
The following morning, President Obama hosted a town hall meeting with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). By all accounts he completely won over the adoring crowd.
One young man prefaced a question by noting how handsome the president is, while another cheekily inquired whether reports of Obama smoking marijuana as a young man were true. He even laid down a beat for Suboi, the most popular female rapper in Vietnam, and stressed the importance of allowing creativity to roam free.
Such a display by a Vietnamese politician is beyond unimaginable. Leaders here are infamously staid and out-of-touch, and I have a hard time even imagining them smiling. At a joint press conference in Hanoi President Obama made eye contact with every reporter who asked a question, while Tran Dai Quang, the Vietnamese president, stared over their heads and exhibited no charisma whatsoever.
Obama also dined with American TV personality Anthony Bourdain at a typical plastic-chair-and-stainless-steel-table restaurant in the capital. In a widely shared picture taken by White House photographer Pete Souza he is shown enjoying a Hanoi Beer along with a bowl of bun cha, a northern Vietnamese specialty. Such actions wowed young Vietnamese, who are obsessed with social media and well attuned to global trends.
|Obama sitting on plastic chairs, drinking beer, and eating bun cha in an everyday restaurant had Vietnamese agog when compared to their own country’s rigid, unsmiling leaders. Video uploaded to YouTube by Noa TheBest|
As an American, I was just as amazed by the local reaction to Obama’s presence as locals were by his personality, especially given the vitriolic political environment in my home country.
On Wednesday I happened upon the presidential motorcade’s route from downtown Saigon to the airport and found a space among the crowd. Employees poured out of businesses along the street and a wave of excitement rippled through the masses anytime it seemed that vehicles were moving down the street.
After an hour of standing under threatening skies, the crowd roared as the motorcade finally appeared, pressing against the police tape along the sidewalk with smartphones at the ready. Everyone waved at ‘The Beast’, as the president’s limo is called, as it rolled by. Ten seconds of waving after over an hour waiting, but everyone was smiling.
One can’t help but wonder what people here will think once their attention returns to their rigid, charmless leaders.
The cause behind the eco-disaster along the central coast remains undisclosed and at this point I wonder if the government will ever actually announce what happened. The young generations here are smart, tech-savvy and have high aspirations.
The Vietnamese economy is doing very well at the moment, but anyone who watches an American TV show or movie knows they are missing out on things like free speech and content that isn’t censored.
Obama may be gone, but the rapturous greeting he received from the Vietnamese public means his impact is likely to linger for a while.
- How Obama’s Vietnam Visit Became About China (ABC News)
- Vietnam blocked access to Facebook during Obama visit (TechCrunch)
- U.S. lifts arms ban on old foe Vietnam as China tensions simmer (Reuters)
- Obama calls for greater freedoms in Vietnam after lifting arms embargo (Fox News)
He is a former contributing editor for AsiaLIFE Magazine and a former English-language editor for Tuoi Tre News Online
He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @miketatarski.
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