Vietnam was visited by President Barack Obama just three weeks ago. This visit was special for a variety of reasons- it demonstrated to China that they should think twice before creating islands in the South China Sea to claim as their own, it lifted the U.S. arms ban on the nation, and of course, it showed that Obama, too, can sit in a small plastic stool that in the US would only be used for elementary school children.
Indeed, the US Commander-in-Beef spent his very first night in Vietnam out eating a delicious noodle dish known as Bun Cha in the capital city of Hanoi. His dinner guest was celebrity traveler-stoner-chef Anthony Bourdain. Together, they, along with a large entourage of security folk, squeezed into the tightly packed second-story floor of the restaurant and became one with the locals…sort of.
Prior to this visit, Vietnamese attitudes surrounding the US president weren’t particularly spoken of much. As a world traveler who has been to over 15 countries in the past eight years, I can say personally that of all those countries, Vietnam has expressed the least amount of excitement in response to Obama’s name. While I am accustomed to responding to the question of “where are you from?” with the response of “Washington DC! Obama! (high five)” in other countries, that response has only led to strange looks and the incredulity that it probably does in fact deserve in Vietnam. People here seem to be much more comfortable with yelling “HELLO!!!” and keeping it at that. No need to bring political leaders into the mix.
Yet this noodle visit has changed everything. Once word spread throughout the country that Obama had eaten this dish (which was as long as it takes to say “Obama’s eating noodles” in Vietnamese), seemingly unanimously, natives started to overtly love him. In the past few weeks, every time I have told someone that I am from America, they are the ones to reply with “Obama! (high five)”. This is often promptly followed by “He eats noodles!”
Do they love his charisma? Maybe. Do they love his foreign policy? Could be. Do they love that he has eaten noodles in a public, average restaurant in the country? Absolutely.
The restaurant that was lucky enough to have been selected to be the place of this meal has also been greatly impacted by this historic noodle consumption. It now has a large picture of Obama eating on all three of its floors, has the new Twitter handle of @bunchahuonglienobama, and when I visited the location last week at 2pm (several hours after the typical Vietnam lunch rush) it had a line out the front door, along with a misleading sign on the front door saying “sorry, bun cha is sold out” (it wasn’t).
What’s to learn from all of this? Perhaps that we should take a step back from debating over foreign policy and how to best manage our relationships overseas, and get more famous US politicians abroad ordering noodles at local haunts.
In other news, the current President of Vietnam, Mr. Trần Đại Quang, visited an In-N-Out Burger in Long Beach, California last year, was ignored by everyone, and given a ticket for parking in a handicapped parking space (picture not available).
Chris Blackwood is a stand-up comic based in Washington, D.C. He is currently on assignment in Vietnam, scouting out new talent.