Stage actress Lan Phuong sketched President Obama's face onto a traditional Vietnamese hat to greet

Stage actress Lan Phuong sketched President Obama's face onto a traditional Vietnamese hat to greet him when he visited Ho Chi Minh City. (Lien Hoang)

Vietnam has been waiting years for US President Barack Obama to come for a visit. 

The president is almost on his way out of office, but he finally squeezed in a trip this week.

He told Vietnamese that he saved the best for last. Lien Hoang reports from Ho Chi Minh City.

This week, while I was zipping around Ho Chi Minh City, I kept seeing US President Barack Obama’s face, on street after street. 

There was the banner, hanging from a building to greet him as he drove in from the airport, and the “I heart Obama” sign that fans waved outside one of his events.

Then things got really creative on Wednesday, which was the last of three days he spent visiting Vietnam. 

I joined hundreds of people, waiting in line for his town hall with young leaders. 

They wore Obama T-shirts, they dressed up as the president, with cheap masks.

But one of the best ideas came from stage actress Lan Phuong, who sketched a pretty decent version of Obama onto her conical hat.

“Everybody can give a Vietnamese hat as a present, so it’s not special anymore,” she says, “So we tried to put his picture on, so it’s like a connection with America and Vietnamese, so it’s kind of like a symbol.”

Phuong didn’t get the chance to give Obama the hat. But he did share the same message she had, about connecting Vietnam and the United States.

On his first presidential visit here, Obama wanted to show the world how close these two countries could be, even though they’d fought a bitter war 40 years ago. 

He said the relationship has improved in just about every area: trade, military, cultural, social.

“First of all, I think highlighting the changes that have taken place between our two countries, how just a generation ago we were adversaries and now we are friends,” he says, “Should give us hope, should be a reminder of the ability for us to transform relationships when we have a dialogue that's based on mutual interests and mutual respect and people-to-people exchanges.”

When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Vietnam occupies an interesting position, not just because of the war. It’s a one-party state, which means Hanoi and Washington sometimes clash over politics and principles. 

But, the United States also has wide room for influence here, because most ordinary Vietnamese really like the country. 

Hanoi also shares Washington’s concerns about the increasing strength of China. 

And out of all the Asian neighbors, Vietnam has one of the fastest-growing defense budgets. So, the biggest news this week was that Obama removed the weapons embargo on Vietnam.

“I can also announce that the United States is fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam that has been in place for some 50 years.  As with all our defense partners, sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those related to human rights,” he says.

“But this change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War.  It also underscores the commitment of the United States to a fully normalized relationship with Vietnam, including strong defense ties with Vietnam and this region for the long term.”  

Vietnam is ramping up its military, especially because of a dispute over who controls the waters connecting it to China. 

Phuong told me that’s why she really cares about the US relationship.

“About the - you know Bien dong, Bien dong, how is it called? South China Sea. South China Sea problem, yes, so not only Vietnam but some other countries next to us, we are dealing with problems with that sea,” says Phuong, “So we really hope the Americans can support us and help us when something wrong happens.”

Phuong attended the town hall, where Obama tried to inspire young Vietnamese to improve the country.

His trip was really about reaching out and motivating normal people. Obama’s first day was mostly formal, filled with state meetings and banquets and a military band.

But over the course of the three days, he started to have more fun -- he met a female rapper and put her on the spot for some unexpected verses.

He joked about driving a Vietnamese motorbike, and about getting old and gray. 

He toured a co-working space, where he checked out some virtual games and laser cutters.

By that point Obama appeared tired and was sipping coffee around dinnertime. But he was relaxed and the government meetings were over, so he could have more casual talks with Vietnamese.

He took the chance to tell them all the good they could do with technology.

“Thanks to technology and social media, you’re the most connected generation in history. More than 30 million people in Vietnam, one-third of the population, are on Facebook. You’re posting selfies,” he says with a laugh.

Some people have been devoting themselves to innovation already. People like Duc Nghiem.

“I’m a director of SHIELD. SHIELD stands for Startup Hub for Investment, Education, and Leadership Development,” he says, “And we mission to enable more entrepreneurship and hopefully we can bring more startups out of Vietnam and bring more capital into Vietnam.”

Nghiem was at the co-working space for Obama’s visit.

“I think entrepreneurship is the American spirit, from my time spent there,” he says, “So I think this is the right timing for entrepreneurship in Vietnam and I think that’s something Vietnam and the United States share in common.”

 

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