Waiting for Obama

I've been a freelance writer and journalist living in Ho Chi Minh City for six years, totally without license or permission.

Prior to the visit this week of President Barack Obama, the folks at the US Consulate urged me to notify the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of this fact and I did. But I never received any invitations to anything.

Yesterday, I got wind that Obama would address some entrepreneurs at Dream Plex, a co-working space I'd never heard of. A befuddled young man answered the Dream Plex telephone and apologized – an “event" was underway.

When? Where?

"No one knows anything," he said. "Please come tomorrow."

I arrived to find a sizable crowd forming around a pair of barricades mounted on Nguyen Trung Ngan street. A friend who told me she wouldn't write about the event showed up and breezed past the security by flashing a cardboard invitation bearing the White House seal.

I almost went straight home until a group of Catholic students from the university across the street asked me where I was from and if I'd ever seen Obama before.

It was then I remembered I'd seen him give a whistle-stop address in front of the old train station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. No one blocked our view of the man, who was then battling a vicious Hilary Clinton for the 2008 nomination. Amish folk wandered up and gawked at him from the margins. The whole thing felt like a company picnic only somehow inspiring. So I decided to stand in the sticky drizzle under the doomed mahogany trees on Dien Tinh Hoang Street with the thousands awaiting a mere glimpse of the man's Cadillac.

When the clock struck two, a pair of leggy Techombank workers told me they'd waited about an hour and planned to wait the whole afternoon, if necessary.

"Because he's the most powerful man in the world," the leggiest pouted before spinning on her heel to watch a bunch of assorted soldiers, traffic cops and militiamen sweat in their uniforms.

The Catholic university students living in the dorms across the street giggled uncontrollably and only managed to spit out the word "idol."

A young lawyer named Nguyen Thi Huyen told me she worked in the Green Power EVN building. Her boss had given the whole office the morning and the following afternoon off.

"All the streets are closed," she said. "Besides we're all too excited."

I should add that all of these conversations took place in English--everyone awaiting Obama spoke or understood it--even if they answered in Vietnamese.

The police grew increasingly uncomfortable as Japanese, Indian and Chinese office workers filled into the Vietnamese masses, filming the inexplicable enthusiasm for an American president.

Eventually, they began pushing the crowd farther from the crowd of suits surrounding the white tent presumably erected to keep the rain off the president as he disembarked. Using plastic tape, whistles and stern faces, they pushed us back onto the opposite street, but were kind enough to allow a lunatic in purple pajamas to direct motorbike traffic.

She kept spinning her arm in a helicopter motion and shouting "follow, follow" in a hilarious pantomime of their actual job.

The Techombank girls ended up corralled near the entrance of Lush Bar.

Rain threatened to come but never quite poured. Two FPT engineers in their denim uniforms held the plastic line and told me they'd come out because they had nothing else to do.

The crowd (now numbering 3,000 at 4 pm on a Tuesday) spasmed into cheers and shouting.

And then a Cadillac arrived. A group of secret service agents headed by Secretary of State John Kerry exploded into cheers until everyone realized it was Secretary Kerry.

It was exactly 5:15 pm when I realized I didn't actually need to see Obama or his car. I'd done so, back in 2008, when he ran on Hope alone. Funny to find it still alive and well in Vietnam.

The following morning, I woke up at 6 am to catch Obama's town-hall style meeting with the city's young people.

At 8 am I joined an organized, line of primped, well-dressed young people clutching official invitations beneath a double-row of Vietnamese and American flags outside the GEM Center. The futuristic event space sits next to a military base and feels terribly out of place in Ho Chi Minh City—a sleek brick and wood block where you can buy a $5 cappuccino and sit on a leather couch.

I filed into line ahead of Nguyen Thao Linh, a 28 year-old newlywed in a silver dress with red highlights in her curly hair. Linh served as the Deputy Manager at Ptimize, a digital marketing agency with just three employees—Thao, her husband and a Hungarian investor based in London named Victor who also sits on the board of Coc Coc, a successful Russian-funded start-up.

Ptimize represents large local firms like the printer manufacturer Brother and runs most of its business through Google and Facebook, the latter of which had been shut down in the city the previous Sunday to prevent protests demanding greater transparency and environmental reform.

Two days into his visit, Obama hadn't made any mention of the online petition 158,000 people signed demanding he raise the mysterious fish kill that began in Ha Tinh Province and stretched all the way down to Hue.

All of that curiosity seemed to have disappeared into Obama-mania.

“He's my idol,” said Linh, who hadn't read any of Obama's books and didn't seem to know anything about his politics. She just thought him an incredibly balanced human being.

“I see he takes care of his wife, holds an umbrella out for Michelle,” she said. “I see he takes time to spend with his children. He's a president, social activist and a good person.”

Linh's husband was meeting with a client, but had supposedly met Obama during a one-year information technology course he took in the states in 2008. Linh's better half also managed to greatly enjoy Donald Trump's show The Apprentice, which he could watch “all day” and hoped to bring to Vietnam.

“I don't like Trump,” she said. “He's so aggressive—not like Obama who's assertive.”

Still, Linh appreciated the format of The Apprentice, which she thought could provide a valuable format for imparting leadership skills to the youth.

I pretty much lost interest in talking to Linh at this point and instead directed my attention to Billy Cung, a rail-thin real estate consultant who'd listened to our entire conversation standing on the pointy tips of his black leather shoes. Cung claimed to have read all of Obama's books. Cung also claimed to have been a part of the bizarre South East Asian Leadership Program hosting Obama's appearance.

The program dropped him in DC back in 2009.

“Obama was on every page of the newspaper,” he said gleefully. “I was charmed by his speech.”

Cung literally bounced as he spoke in a smooth Mid-Atlantic accent offset by the occasional broken word.

“You see,” he cried gesturing to the thousands of onlookers who'd filled out the sidwalks. “The Vietnamese people love your president.”

There was only problem for Billy and me —neither of us had a ticket or credentials of any kind.

Billy pulled out his company badge and hung it around his neck hoping to slip in. Then he put an arm around me. “How we getting in here?”

At some point, Linh and Cung convinced me that my passport alone entitled me to sit quietly in the corner and listen to my president. So I slid away from Cung and headed toward a circle of journalists who had been herded together to have their personal effects rifled by members of the Secret Service.

The man in charge of the job reminded me, vaguely, of Christopher Loyd's Uncle Fester. Perhaps for this reason, he kept telling the journalists to stop filming him, to no avail.

“I'm not part of the show,” he cried, as his colleagues ran a giant German Shepherd over their personal effects—but he certainly was.

In the end, I fell in with a pair of European reporters whose agencies had paid $400 each to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—allegedly for the company of media liaisons who never materialized. All of the stories, they pointed out, sounded the same. The weapons embargo had been lifted. The Peace Corps was returning. And human rights....

The Vietnamese press corps seemed to thoroughly enjoy the airline-style security search—except for the Hanoi woman who loudly insisted that someone had made off with her brown leather backpack.

Inside, everyone gathered around a small table waiting for a lady named Anna to give them a stop-sign shaped sticker that would allow them upstairs. After a few minutes of dithering, I made way directly for the elevator and passed effortlessly toward a giant conference room where a stern Secret Service Agent stopped me and pointed out my lack of a sticker.

I glumly returned to the sticker table, where Anna gave me a quick head-to-toe. “Did you bypass this table?” she asked quickly.


Anna told me to sit with a group of VTV reporters who lacked the proper credentials as well. Eventually, everyone had been waved through but me.

Anna encouraged me to call “my contact at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” and seemed incredulous to hear I didn't have one.

Couldn't Anna just give me a sticker that would allow me to sit and watch my president talk for an hour? No, she said. That would undermine the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“It's a joint event,” she said, at which point I realized I hadn't seen anyone from the ministry all morning.

On my slow walk toward the barbed wire barricades on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, I watched a consular employee inform a group of about a hundred sweaty young Asian leaders that they'd have to go home. I spent about 20 minutes hanging around a group of uniformed soldiers waiting to see the president's car until one of them asked me for my “invitation” and politely escorted me to an intersection coated in humanity.

Security guards passed me to the edge of a metal barricade astride a barricaded “Mobile World” where the employees had glued themselves to the windows.

More people pressed up to the barricade to watch an errant motorbike or stray police motorbike whiz through the intersection. Some leaned gingerly on the barbed wire. A fat militiaman in aviator glasses drove up with a truck full of police drinking bottled water.

He stepped out and suggested I lift the short woman to my right up onto my shoulders. I looked at my watch and realized it was 10:30 am. Once again, I'd waited three hours to see a car drive by.

I turned around and walked down a street thronged with people—most of whom stood well away from Obama's planned route so they were literally waiting for nothing.

A taxi driver Ma Thuy Vinh picked me up on Dinh Tien Hoang Street and began driving me home, cursing into his cell phone about the planned closure of half the city for Obama's impending departure.

“I've never met Obama,” he said. “I've only seen the traffic and the news. Surely, he's a great guy, don't you think?”

I told him I didn't know. I'd never met him either.