HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Obama's Visit

The past few days have been exciting ones for Vietnam, with President Obama landing in Hanoi on Sunday night to begin a three-day visit to the country. The local press reported his every move, and crowds lined the streets of the capital to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade. The big news from Monday, when Obama met with Vietnamese leadership, was the removal of the decades-long arms embargo the U.S. placed on Vietnam after the war. I'm not going to debate the merits of that decision in this post though - instead I'm just going to focus on what it was like to have the president in town.

Obama was set to arrive in Saigon around 3 pm on Tuesday. The previous night he had had dinner with Anthony Bourdain (who I have a strong man crush on) in Hanoi, causing a social media explosion.
I hadn't seen anything on Twitter about Air Force One landing, but a little before 3 I wandered from my office to Dien Bien Phu Street, which appeared to be the route the motorcade would be taking into District 1. Security and police officers lined the street, and most traffic was blocked. A crowd was already forming along several blocks; in fact, tens of thousands lined the president's entire route into town. (Some even waved American flags, surely a jarring sight for outsiders who haven't been following the country.)
The only time you'll see such a major street this empty.

The crowd was orderly, and people were obviously excited to have something to distract them from work. As the minutes passed by with no sign of any motorcade, we took to jokingly cheering at every motorbike that drove by, much to the confusion of the drivers.

After waiting around for a while a small group of cars came by, but it clearly wasn't the main motorcade. I had to get back to work and figured Obama may have taken a different route, so I returned to my desk. Shortly afterwards I saw a tweet from a photographer showing him deplaning from Air Force One. I hurried back outside, where the small crowd has transformed into a massive one, but the motorcade was just passing by. I could just see the tops of the cars over the heads of 15 rows of people. Oops.

That evening Obama visited a co-working space downtown and spoke with three prominent Vietnamese entrepreneurs. Photos and videos of crowds waving and cheering at The Beast, as the presidential limo is called, flooded Facebook.

After a meeting this morning I headed over to the area near the Gem Center, where Obama was hosting a town hall with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. I parked at McDonald's and walked across the huge roundabout where Dien Bien Phu heads into Binh Thanh District.

Police were taping off the sidewalk right as I arrived, and Nguyen Binh Khiem Street was closed to everything but cross traffic. I could see the Gem Center a couple of blocks away, and judging by the security presence it appeared the motorcade would be heading our way once the meeting ended. Security guards ordered people off of the roofs of nearby buildings, and eventually police closed the roundabout - one of the most heavily trafficked parts of the city - to vehicles. The atmosphere was convivial, as offices and banks emptied out, clusters of employees huddling together under the threatening sky. There was no work being done on Nguyen Binh Khiem, that's for sure. Locals of all ages pressed against the tape with smartphones at the ready.


Eventually a van pulled up and several Americans got out with a bomb-sniffing dog: a sign on the windshield said "Sweeper 1". The dog sniffed around the corner before getting back in the van and moving on. Finally, after standing around for almost 40 minutes, we could see the motorcade assembling down the street. A wave of excitement rippled through the crowd, and everyone pushed as close as they could to the street. One woman even shouted at a police officer to move since he was blocking her camera angle. Police motorcycles streamed by before the big American vehicles cruised past - SUVs with blacked-out windows, and two copies of The Beast, an armored Cadillac limo. I'm not sure which one Obama was in, but the crowd roared and waved, with whichever hand wasn't holding an iPhone to film the whole thing.


The Beast
The whole thing lasted about 10 seconds, but everyone seemed pleased to have been so close to the President, even if we couldn't actually see him. Chaos ensued as the streets were re-opened and almost an hour of backed up traffic poured forth, but it was pretty cool to have seen the motorcade.

Whatever your opinion of Obama may be, his charisma is undeniable, and he appeared to let his hair down a bit after leaving behind the Party leadership in Hanoi. Vietnamese, especially younger members of the population, adore him, and in his talks in Saigon he emphasized the importance of unrestricted creativity and speech. Government authorities here are notoriously distant and staid, and imagining them even saying "hello" to a member of the public is almost impossible. Meanwhile, at the town hall, Obama was reportedly greeted with rapturous applause before being asked about smoking weed as a youngster and treated to a quick rap by Suboi, the most famous female rapper in Vietnam. One wonders what his appearance will make Vietnamese think when they look back towards their leaders, who still haven't announced what caused the environmental catastrophe in central Vietnam nearly two months after it began. I'll end with this quote from a young Vietnamese man from an AFP story: "I like his behavior, being the most powerful man in the world, but very close to people, not like leaders here," said 22-year-old Tran Huu Duy. "They only wear suits and talk cliches...(they) cannot inspire young people."

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