American married Vietnam when he married Vietnamese wife

By Xanh Le   November 4, 2023 | 03:23 pm PT
Times were very different when in 1995 Michael Abadie became one of the first Americans to move permanently to Vietnam after the former enemies established diplomatic relations.

Abadie’s Vietnam odyssey had in fact begun two decades earlier when in 1976 he fell in love with a Vietnamese woman who had migrated to his hometown in the U.S.

"I was immediately impressed with her long black hair," Abadie, 69, said.

After he got the courage to ask her out, the two dated for a year before getting married.

Having grown up during the Vietnam War, back then all he knew about his wife’s homeland had come via news reports of casualties and destruction.

Abadie offered to complete the paperwork for her family to reunite in the U.S., and he fulfilled the promise. His wife’s whole family reunited with one another in the U.S. a couple of years later.

But Abadie soon realized there was something wrong.

He found his in-laws crying only a week after their arrival. When he asked them what was behind the tears, they all said they missed Vietnam.

"I thought life was hard in Vietnam," he said, explaining his surprise.

Until then, he had only heard about wartime Vietnam and he still thought it was "most dangerous place" in the world.

"But then my sisters-in-law and wife explained to me how life was actually in Vietnam at the time."

Michael Abadie, 69. Photo courtesy of Abadie

Michael Abadie, 69. Photo courtesy of Abadie

Among his in-laws’ anecdotes, one of the things about Vietnam that made Abadie curious the most was how female students all wore white traditional Vietnamese dresses called ao dai, a scene he had never seen in his home country. Stories told by his wife and her family about their home sparked his interest in visiting Vietnam.

"Nobody was promoting traveling to Vietnam, nobody was selling tickets to Vietnam, nobody was recommending Vietnam as a destination, and nobody was giving instructions on how to go to Vietnam," he recalled.

"I had to research on my own, only to get disappointed when everyone I met said traveling to Vietnam was impossible."

But those hardships were not enough to make Abadie give up. In 1987, knowing that Vietnam had an ambassador at the United Nations headquarters in New York, he decided to knock on the ambassador’s door without a scheduled appointment, hoping just to talk.

"I think I was fortunate, as the ambassador seemed not to have any appointments on the day I came," he said. "I was allowed to meet him after explaining my wishes."

Abadie said the ambassador was happy to see an American man showing enthusiastic interest in Vietnam, since the majority of local people visiting him in those days were there to lodge complaints. The ambassador eventually suggested that there was a solution for Abadie: he would need to fly to Thailand, and get his visa to Vietnam from the Embassy of Vietnam there. The ambassador said he would talk to the embassy first to ensure that Abadie would get his visa.

People around him doubted the plan at first and warned him about potential risks he might encounter if he followed through. Some said he could not enter Vietnam from Thailand. Others warned that if he brought his wife to Vietnam on the trip, she wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. again.

But despite the naysayers, Abadie decided to trust the ambassador.

"I thought about what the ambassador told me rationally, and I concluded that there was a low probability of bad scenarios," he said. "I accepted the risks and I decided to go."

A couple of months after his talk with the ambassador, Abadie found himself on a plane heading to Bangkok. Everything then went as the ambassador promised him, and he first set foot in Ho Chi Minh City in Feb. 1988.

He instantly fell for Vietnam. He was impressed with the streets full of people riding their bicycles. He appreciated how people treated him normally instead of as a stranger. And he loved talking with the street vendors he came across.

"It was like how I fell for my wife at first sight," Abadie said. "I also fell for Vietnam at first glance."

Returning to the U.S. after spending two weeks in Vietnam, the American man told his wife that he wanted to visit the country again. So, the couple began paying Vietnam a visit every year. The paperwork they had to go through got easier each time as the diplomatic relationship between Vietnam and other countries, including the U.S., gradually eased.

Abadie couldn’t help but begin to nurture daydreams of moving to Vietnam permanently.

He got the chance to turn his idea into reality in 1994, after the U.S. lifted its 30-year trade embargo on Vietnam, which paved the way for a better relationship between the two countries, followed by Vietnam issuing its first post-war work permits to American nationality holders.

Recalling his relocation to Vietnam now, Abadie called it "an arrangement of fate."

One of his business partners at the time was looking to establish a representative office in Vietnam, and they were looking for someone of Abadie’s professional background to send to Vietnam. He got the job and accepted, even though it meant more professional responsibilities and a pay cut.

He finally arrived in Vietnam again, this time as a permanent resident, in 1995.

Appreciating the warmth and friendliness of Vietnamese people, Abadie started learning Vietnamese. He began by purchasing a Vietnamese-language textbook and practicing his listening and speaking skills with his wife and in-laws. He also began listening to traditional Vietnamese folk music like cai luong (reformed theater).

Abadie gradually became fluent in Vietnamese. He now speaks Vietnamese to his wife, his in-laws, and every Vietnamese person he meets.

Reflecting on his time in Vietnam, the 69-year-old called it a "blessing." He said he feels comfortable living in Vietnam and he even believes he was a Vietnamese in his previous life. And he thanked God for giving him a chance to meet his wife, who introduced him to her home country and has been with him for 46 years.

"Honestly speaking, living and working in a country is different from having a recreational trip there," Abadie said. "I had a lot of concerns during the first few years after my arrival, and was even prepared for the possibility of returning to the U.S. if I realized that I did not like living in Vietnam that much."

But that moment never came.

"I never really considered leaving ever since my first day in Vietnam."

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