In covering President Barack Obama’s first trip to Vietnam, I watched his style and demeanor evolve over three days, giving a hint at what could be a more effective foreign policy ethos toward an erstwhile enemy.
After a slate of formal meetings with Communist bigwigs, the president shifted his attention to Vietnamese citizens. He put a rapper on the spot, grinned about his weed-smoking days and blushed at a young man who said he was “so handsome.” His charm offensive aimed at the young population of this country may yield more for U.S.-Vietnamese relations than any palace visit.
A few years ago I moved from Sacramento to Ho Chi Minh City and never thought I’d be covering so much U.S. news from this corner of Asia, or how challenging it would be to report on a visit by the president of the United States. Two days before Obama’s arrival, I stopped waiting for assistance from the foreign ministry, booked a flight to Hanoi and a few hours later headed to the airport.
The next few days proved to be a game of hurry-up-and-wait. We received Obama’s schedule about 24 hours before Air Force One landed late last Sunday. I picked up my credentials an hour before his jet touched down. Details were disclosed last-minute.
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The opening ceremony Monday, as with much of the day, was stiffly choreographed. As cicadas screeched and fountains sprinkled news cameras, Obama emerged from his motorcade to meet Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. Obama walked along a red carpet, arranged in a square to guide him from brass band to soldiers to state leaders, before he disappeared into Hanoi’s mustard-colored presidential palace.
With roads blocked all around, I befriended foreign ministry officials and they drove me to the media briefing, where Obama announced he was ending the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam.
On Tuesday, I was on a plane headed back to Ho Chi Minh City to a co-working space, where the president would pop in for a chat about entrepreneurship. Before he left Hanoi, Obama complained that dissidents had been barred from meeting him.
With the formalities in Hanoi fulfilled and with limited success on human rights, Obama turned his attention to everyday Vietnamese people. When Air Force One delivered him to Ho Chi Minh City, he had discarded the stuffy air of bilateral talks.
At the co-working space, Obama talked to about 50 people from a makeshift stage in a dark room, giving the affair the feel of community theater. The star of the show trotted out jokes, calling Microsoft an “impressive startup” and saying his daughter Malia no longer listens to Dad.
For an encore Wednesday, Obama engaged about 800 guests in a cavernous hall. The highlight came near the end. I couldn’t believe my ears; did the president just beat-box?
Yep. He was setting up a female rapper, Suboi.
“Let’s see what you got,” he told her before she free-styled a few bars.
The mood for Obama’s last event was breezy. Guests came in traditional Vietnamese dress. They erupted with laughter when he name-dropped a popstar Son Tung and invited him on a trek to Son Doong, known as the world’s largest cave.
Obama generally ended events by shaking hands with the crowd; this time it was no fast feat. This day spotlighted his Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. I doubt these young leaders will forget the handshakes, even when some grow up and take political office.
Lien Hoang is a Sacramento native and journalist living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.