KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. President Barack Obama has just wound up a visit to Vietnam that saw two former antagonists, who for two decades have been growing trade partners, draw even closer, with the dropping of a U.S. arms embargo against the communist-ruled country. “He himself said the welcome of Vietnamese people has touched his heart. [He was] very moved and very thankful,” said Vietnam’s new prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in an interview with foreign media given on Wednesday. Obama was greeted by thousands of well-wishers on the streets of Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city and economic hub of the country, which was previously known as Saigon. However, the visit was marred by signals that Vietnam, a one-party state, remains unwilling to cede ground on freedom of speech, with several noted advocates of democratic reforms prevented from meeting with Obama as scheduled and with the government staging a sham election to the country’s communist-run parliament on the day of Obama’s arrival. One positive note prefaced Obama’s arrival in Vietnam last Sunday, with the release from jail of one of the country’s most determined dissidents, Father Nguyen Van Ly. The Catholic priest was first imprisoned by the communist regime in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War, and had spent much of the intervening 38 years in jail or under house arrest.
DANANG – Nguyen Nguc Phuong is 33 years of age and a confident, articulate public speaker – comfortable on a podium in front of an audience. He is resourceful and self-motivated, as seen in his decision to leave school at 16 and relocate to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, to learn to be a mechanic and an electrician. Nguyen later returned to his hometown of Danang, one of Vietnam’s more touristy cities, and opened his own repair shop. However, after seeing the impact of Agent Orange – a defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to destroy the crops and jungle upon which the Viet Cong relied for food and cover – he decided he wanted to volunteer his time to help the children born mentally or physically handicapped due to the herbicide’s tragic and grotesque effects. “I wanted to become a teacher to do something for them,” he says, pointing out to over 40 children and teenagers at the Danang Peace Village – a center run by the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin to care for children and teenagers affected by Agent Orange.