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April, 2019:

Reason #428 why I love my job

It’s been a stressful couple of weeks. We hosted the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, who visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My team organized a press conference for the Admiral. I’ve been working with many of the journalists for nearly a year now. I encourage them to be more assertive and ask follow-up questions. To my delight, many of them did so.

The next day we hosted a CODEL (Congressional Delegation). Nine senior senators came to Vietnam for several days. They were mainly discussion “war legacy” issues like dioxin (“agent orange”) remediation. Again I was the press officer. There was a big ceremony to mark a cleanup project at a nearby air base.

For security reasons, everyone at the airbase had to have a badge. The Defense Ministry didn’t know what to do with me, so I was a “reporter” for the day.
April is the hottest month in Vietnam, and the airbase is a huge area of concrete runways. Tents could shield the CODEL from the sun, but we couldn’t keep them out of the heat.

The Bien Hoa airbase is the biggest remaining “hotspot” of dioxin contamination. It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time for us to clean up our mess. But I’m proud that our country is fulfilling our moral responsibility.

You don’t need to read Vietnamese to know that this sign is a warning that the entire area is contaminated. If this were in the U.S., we would be wearing hazmat suits.

This isn’t my first trip to the airbase, but I hope it’s my last. I later heard that just being there is dangerous exposure to Agent Orange.

You’d look angry, too, if your job was guarding a field of poisonous dirt.
A symbolic ribbon-cutting ceremony. That’s Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow second from the right!

When we were planning the events, I pushed for as much press access as possible. The local reporters really stepped during the interviews. The lead question was about the next generation of U.S. advocates for Vietnam war legacies. After the death of John McCain, we don’t have any more Vietnam vets in Congress. However, there is a Vietnamese-American congreswoman. Could that be the new direction in U.S.-Vietnam relations? From war legacies to people-to-people? The Ambassador and Senator Leahy were great on camera, and had a good rapport with the reporters. During the interviews, I had a nice chat with Mrs. Leahy, she is sharp-minded, strong, and pleasant.

How funny is it that I felt proud of the reporters for asking good questions? I guess I’ll always have the teacher mentality.

There was a short unstructured time period when reporters could do pull-aside interviews. I advised reporters about which Senators are on which committees, and told them to go hunting. Many of them got good one-on-one interviews, and they were thrilled. Vietnamese politicians don’t like to talk to reporters, whereas American politicians love it. So the reporters had a nice cultural experience as well as getting good stories.

I orchestrated a pull-aside interview with Debbie Stabenow for a local reporter. Stabenow is on the Agriculture Committee in the Senate, so she is influential in policies that directly affect Vietnam. But mainly because, you know, Debbie Stabenow. She made a great impression on several female reporters.

We were out in the heat all morning, and my the time I got home, I was beat. I wanted to take a shower and go to bed. But that wasn’t the end of my day. I decontaminated my clothes as best as I could, then I had to go on a field trip. But this field trip was not just work, it was a pleasure, too.

I’m on the program and entertainment committee for this year’s July 4 event. The theme is “Jazz in the Park.” My job is to find suitable jazz entertainment. Lucky for us, we have a connection with the best jazz musician in Vietnam. I went to his club to meet with him, and ask him to perform for us.

Yes, he’s playing two saxophones at the same time, and yes, that’s his daughter playing next to him. They put on a great show.

As luck would have it, I recently helped his daughter with some student visa advice, so we already had a good relationship. We came up with a great idea to have an interactive jazz performance. I was so excited that I got goosebumps. It’s going to be a really great event.

This job is never the same two days in a row. It’s usually exhausting, sometimes exasperating, occasionally baffling, but never, ever, boring. I can’t believe that I have to leave this country in only a few months. Just when I’m starting to feel like I’m not completely incompetent, that I understand more about the culture and society, I have to prepare to pack up and say good-bye.

Hanoi Old Quarter

Vietnam has a long weekend to celebrate the Hung Kings. All I really know about the holiday is that celebrates in ancient dynasty in Vietnam. The dynasty supposedly created the first nation-state in Vietnam 3,000 years ago. So I guess this holiday celebrates Vietnam’s creation myth.

I took advantage of a calm before the storm next week at work, to get away and see a part of Vietnam that has become the newest hot tourist destination: Ninh Binh. It became famous a few years ago because it was one of the filming locations for a King Kong movie.

Ninh Binh really is this pretty, and it isn’t overly touristy (yet).

I flew to Hanoi then connected with a tour service to drive two hours to Ninh Binh. While in Hanoi, I stayed in an Airbnb in Hanoi’s famous “Old Quarter.”

That’s where I stayed

Old wooden staircase dating from the French colonial period. Please don’t say the phrase “fire trap.”

The apartment is tiny. It felt like a trip back in time.

Unfortunately I did not go back in time. I was in a small old apartment made out of wood, in the middle of 21st-century Vietnam. The ground floor is a nightclub that booms music until 1:00 am. The building is on the pedestrian street. At 6:00 am, the middle-aged ladies start their line dancing, playing their music on a big speaker on the street.

I like the Old Quarter. It’s lively and interesting. But now I know that although it’s a nice place to visit, until I can turn off my sense of hearing, I wouldn’t want to live there.