Obama brings surprise about his Vietnamese food and cultural savvy

By Pham Van, Kim ThuyMay 24, 2016 | 04:08 am PT
It seems that U.S. President Obama did his homework before landing in Hanoi, having selected some of the capital's signature dishes that are hard to find anywhere else and referencing historic Vietnamese figures, music and literature in his speeches.   

Eat local food the local way

On his way the to airport en route to Saigon this afternoon, the U.S. president made a surprise stop at a village famous for producing food that Hanoians take great pride in - young green rice. He even bought a pack.

The president also spent some time chatting with chef Anthony Bourdain under the eaves of a local house while heavy rain hammered down – a scene familiar all over Vietnam.

‘Com’, freshly harvested sticky rice that's toasted to bring out its delicate flavor, is considered a symbol of the capital.


The president stopped by Me Tri Village to buy some 'com'. Photo by Reuters/Carlos Barria

The green, soft, fragrant 'com' is usually packed in lotus leaves and tied with straw or bamboo, and the fact the president was willing to try it has made Hanoians proud of this local snack.


Vietnamese 'com'. Photo by comvong.vn

As the president heads for Saigon, the choices he made seem to make more sense, because what he’s done is unique to Hanoi and will not overlap with whatever he chooses to try in Saigon.

“Last night I visited the Old Quarter here in Hanoi, and enjoyed some outstanding Vietnamese food; tried some bun cha, drank some Beer Hanoi. But I have to say the busy streets of this city, I have never seen so many motorbikes in my life. So I haven’t had to try to cross the street so far, but maybe when I come back and visit, you can tell me how," said the president.

The president enjoyed ‘bun cha’ just like an ordinary local last night. He seemed perfectly at home mixing with the other diners sitting around him on plastic stools, and enjoyed two helpings of the dish along with ‘nem’, all washed down with a Hanoi Beer in true Hanoi style.

If it wasn't for the sea of security staff and snipers standing guard in front of the cheering crowd outside, the scene would have been no different than your average expat enjoying a meal. He bought four portions of 'bun cha' to take home after thanking the owner for treating him to a real Hanoi experience.


The president dined with  Anthony Bourdain in a local restaurant. Photo by Anthony Bourdain

Today, after delivering a speech to some 2,000 young Vietnamese people, the president left for Saigon but the traditional com held him back in Hanoi for a little while.

When in Vietnam, talk like a Vietnamese

It’s not unheard of for a politician to break out into another country’s language to impress her people, and Obama was not the first to use poems and songs to win the hearts of locals. However, he showed that he is on a different level.

'Ca phe sua da', 'bun cha', 'xin chao', 'cam on': to the public’s surprise the president pronounced several Vietnamese words in a clear accent that sounded as if he was a seasoned resident. On stage, the president also pleased the crowd with references to Vietnamese culture, famous characters, idioms and history.


In Obama's speech at the National Convention Center today, there were many Vietnamese cultural and historical references (the First Spring by Van Cao, Trinh Cong Son, The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du, Ly Thuong Kiet, Phan Chau Trinh, Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, Ha Long Bay, the Old Quarter, Hanoi Beer, Hoi An and Hue). What he said about gender equality with reference to the Trung Sisters earned him deep respect among the Vietnamese youth.

“I also come here with a deep respect for Vietnam’s ancient heritage. For millennia, farmers have tended these lands. History revealed in the Dong Son drums. At this bend in the river Hanoi has endured for more than a 1000 years [...] But like bamboo, the unbroken spirit of the Vietnamese people was captured by Ly Thuong Kiet, the southern emperor rules the southern land, our destiny is writ in heaven’s book,” the president said.

It seems that traditional Vietnamese food and hospitality touched the U.S. president, and in turn images of him dining at a simple restaurant and chatting as he sheltered from the rain have endeared him to the Vietnamese people.

“On this visit, my heart has been touched by the kindness for which the Vietnamese people are known for, and the many who have been lining the streets, smiling and waving, I feel the friendship between our peoples.

Since the president’s arrival to Vietnam, his activities have drawn huge public interest and have flooded the internet.


The president shakes hands with the cheering crowd after having some 'bun cha' last night. Phôt by VnExpress/Ba Do

Locals were happy to see the president enjoy local food on the street, and it has become the talk of the town.

A VnExpress reader commented: “The president comes from a very far away land, but I feel like he was really close to Vietnam, to our culture.”

“I've been refreshing the website every minute to check for updates about the president’s activities,” a reader said.

There is only one day left for the president to have his share of Saigon before heading to Japan for the G7 Summit on May 25, and the public is eager to find out what Vietnamese food will be listed on the president's next menu.


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