President Trump is more popular in Vietnam than in most other countries in the world, with an approval rating close to 60 percent, according to a Pew poll. America also rates higher here than just about anywhere else on the planet.
People lined the streets, waved red flags, and generally, greeted the U.S. President here like a king during his two-day visit, the penultimate stop on his Asia tour.
As an American visiting Vietnam, you wonder what lies behind the smiles that greet you, the politeness and the calm. After all, a few million died here during the Vietnam War, which wasn’t all that long ago.
Vietnam expert Michael DeGregorio, the Asia Foundation’s representative in Hanoi, said the country likes to look ahead rather than dwell on the past.
“We like to joke the Vietnamese don’t have any rear view mirrors (a propos of the traffic).
They don’t look very much into the terrible things that happened in the past,” DeGregorio said. “They are very forward-looking. That is in large part due to the young population.”
As I watched the motorbikes zip past in a blur, and took in all the vibrancy of this country experiencing among the highest growth rates out there, I followed up with a question about why these people are so keen on Trump, who has been a lightning rod for criticism in more than a few countries.
“Vietnamese tend to think very highly of business people and that has a lot to do with the history of economic reform which was largely led by small business people,” he said. “Trump is kind of aspirational. Most Vietnamese grew up poor and they want to be rich and they look at Donald Trump and they say this is what I want.”
In Danang, we met a man who is trying to shape the legacy of the Vietnam War. Himself a veteran of that war, David Clark recently moved here. He does outreach programs—raising money and offering aid to families affected by Agent Orange and helping to educate rural children to recognize the bits of unexploded ordnance that remain partially buried in the ground, so they don’t pick any of it up. There are still hazards here, and polluted areas that have not been completely cleared of dioxins.
For Clark, working with the Vietnamese is a sort of therapy.
“When I am in the United States, the Vietnam War does haunt me every day and every night but when I am in Vietnam I don’t see no flares, no helicopters no tracers no bombs,” he said. “The American war has been over 50 years so I myself find peace in Vietnam.”
He says there are possibly a couple dozen U.S. veterans like himself in the Danang area. He is not sure. His friend and fellow veteran, Mark O’Connor, comes over quite regularly to distribute bicycles to children whose schools are too far for them to reach on foot. Part of the deal for keeping the bike is that they attend class.
Our conversations swings back and forth, between past and present. Clark remembers his experience as a Marine in the war.
“Every man, woman and child I came to, I put that M16 in their face because I wanted them to fear me, because the more they feared me, the better my chances were of going home. And I remember that look of fear,” Clark said. “Today, as a Westerner, I walk around, I try to wear a nice shirt, nice pants, I smile.”
Vietnam is still officially a Communist country but, in many ways, it does not feel like one. There is a lightness and an aspirational edge to the place that is evolving as it keeps its eyes focused firmly forward, on the road ahead.