With the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, Brazil showcased itself on the world stage, as have past hosts from China to Russia. Many nations competed for medals in Rio de Janeiro, and Vietnam brought home the gold.
With their first ever gold medal, Vietnamese began to think, at last, maybe their country could start being known for something other than the Vietnam War. For a moment in Rio, they were recognized for the accomplishment of one competitive shooter in the 10-meter air pistol event, rather than for winning a shooting war 40 years ago.
Hoang Xuan Vinh responded humbly to the triumph, calling himself “lucky.” But his compatriots were exuberant and spent days cheering about the victory in coffee shops and online comments.
To me the Rio Games were one of the latest signs that Vietnam has been trying to make a name for itself on the world stage. The Southeast Asian country wants its identity to be more than that of a small communist nation that seized victory against the U.S.; Vietnam hopes to show the global community that it has arrived.
As a journalist from Sacramento who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for more than four years, I have been struck by all the manifestations of Vietnam’s soul searching, which for some reason have occurred in the past month.
For example, Vietnam wants to be America’s bridge to North Korea. For a Vietnamese American, it was both surprising to hear about Vietnam’s diplomacy with Pyongyang, but also perfectly sensible that two of the planet’s last remaining communist nations could be linked. When you think about it, Vietnam is in a special place to mitigate North Korea’s isolation, as one of the hermit kingdom’s few allies that also enjoys an improving relationship with the U.S.
Vietnam’s diplomatic relations with North Korea even include rare restaurants where North Koreans wear shiny hanbok dresses and dance along to catchy domestic tunes. At the same time, Hanoi and Washington seem to get closer by the day.
The increases in trade, educational exchanges and military cooperation with the U.S. are signs of Vietnam’s interest in having a counterbalance to China. In this context it would not surprise me if Vietnam elects to stop deporting North Korean defectors, in order to get closer to the U.S. So, if Pyongyang decides to get chummy with the rest of the world, it would make sense to take the road through Southeast Asia.
While diplomacy represents an area where Vietnam could avert conflict, the country of 92 million is also venturing into other potential conflict zones abroad. Not too long ago, a diplomat here told me that Vietnam was training to join peacekeeping missions with the United Nations. The soldiers were cheerful, and they wished to convey to the foreign guests that they were ready to make a contribution. The message: War is behind us; let us help others who are not lucky enough to say that.
In another conversation, a friend talked about helping Vietnam nominate someone for a leadership position at a U.N. agency. It would be another first for Vietnam. Again, it would demonstrate that Vietnam has come such a long way from the battlefield, and it is now ready to take the helm of a global organization.
With all these steps, Vietnam wants to be defined not by the enemies in its past, but by the friends it makes today.
Lien Hoang is a Sacramento native and journalist living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia. Contact her at twitter.com/lienh.