Visitors Spark New Interest in United States

By JOHN SPRAGENS Jr.

HANOI, Vietnam -- There may be no diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, but in the past year:

They are part of a growing stream of Vietnamese visitors to the United States, and they are helping change perceptions in both countries.

The economist is Nguyen Xuan Oanh. He brought home a souvenir photograph that shows him shaking hands with a smiling Robert McNamara during a visit with old friends and former colleagues at Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D.

Oanh has visited several countries -- including South Korea -- to encourage foreign investment in Vietnam.

Editor Hoang Thinh fielded questions from Mayor Koch on Americans missing in action in Vietnam and Vietnamese boat people who have fled their homeland in search of a better life abroad.

"He had an image of Vietnam as a very harsh regime that forced people to flee for political reasons," Thinh says.

The editor may not have convinced the mayor that, as he argued, most of the boat people are leaving for economic rather than political reasons. But he describes with some relish scoring at least one debating point at Koch's expense.

"I challenged Mr. Koch to establish a sister city relationship with some Vietnamese city," Thinh recalls. "But he said, 'I'm an anticommunist, I couldn't do that.' So I asked him, 'What about Beijing (one of New York's sister cities)? Isn't China communist, too?'"

When he returned to Vietnam, Thinh gave readers of Tuan Tin Tuc -- News Week -- a report on the closing days of the U.S. presidential race.

Though he found the end of the campaign rather like "an athletic competition where the spectators have gone home before the game is over," Thinh's report was essentially straight, free of anti-American rhetoric.

He described for his Vietnamese audience some of the most pointed questions of the second presidential debate, which he watched on television. He also threw in a generous sampling of opinion poll results and even explained the intricacies of the Electoral College.

Le Luu

Ex-soldier and novelist Le Luu told readers of Nguoi Hanoi -- the Hanoian -- about a symposium at the University of Massachusetts in Boston where he fielded questions from more than 40 American veterans who have written about the war.

He included what may have been meant as a brief lecture to Vietnamese officials about the proper way of dealing with American audiences.

"They hate answers written out in advance," he said, "because they think that isn't free, that every sentence you speak has to be censored. So it's best to answer directly and answer all their questions so they will understand you and trust you.

"They watch very carefully to see if you are speaking sincerely, if you're speaking your own words or words someone else has put in your mouth."

Luu lives with his wife and two children in a narrow, two-room home down a small side street in a residential quarter on the outskirts of Hanoi.

He has personally experienced problems his country faces, and he analyzes them with pointed good humor. The habits needed for war are the exact opposites of those needed for peace, he says.

During 30 years of war, Luu says, "if you could destroy a lot, you were a hero. There's a building. Destroy it and you're a hero. People didn't have the habit of constructing."

But he is optimistic about his country's future.

"They have a saying in Boston," he says. "If you don't like the weather, just wait 10 minutes. Well, if you don't like the Vietnamese economy, just wait 10 years."

His view of the United States includes the same elements of optimism and realism.

"Americans are good-hearted," he told Nguoi Hanoi. "If you ask them the way, they will point it out carefully. When I couldn't find the person who was supposed to meet me, they telephoned for me, even paid for the call, and then insisted on waiting with me until my contact came to meet me."

He also described for readers here in the Vietnamese capital scenes where "there are as many private cars as we have bicycles" and "roads 20 lanes wide where traffic can't move."

It may be years before visits like Luu's are common. But there is clearly an interest in firsthand contacts with Americans and information about the United States.

A Ho Chi Minh City high school student listens to her English teacher.

High school sophomores in an advanced English class in Ho Chi Minh City pepper a visitor with questions about everything from the cost of living and Michael Jackson to American attitudes toward U.S. and Vietnamese leaders. They seem disappointed to hear that most Americans have no opinion about their prime minister, Do Muoi, because they don't know who he is.

Two Hanoi fourth graders stop in a downtown park on their way home from school.

Even grade school students walking through a Hanoi park on their way home from class show a frank, open curiosity -- and pounce on the opportunity to test textbook phrases like "What is your name?" and "How old are you?" on a real, live American.


Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 12, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.


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