Beneath thick Saturday morning clouds, a law-enforcement helicopter flew low, endless circles over a posh Orange County ocean-view resort. The gentle waves lapping nearby belied the chopper's deadly serious mission: Look for potential assassins. U.S. Secret Service agents—as dapper, athletic and composed as you'd expect—directed security on the ground. Dressed for combat and roaming on testy alert were dozens of California state police and SWAT team sharpshooters. Sheriff's deputies lined up on horseback and motorcycles. Bomb-sniffing dogs checked cars, luggage, shrubbery, passages and people.
Many of the reasons for concern stood less than a football field away from the St. Regis Resort at Monarch Beach. An estimated 2,000 protesters demanded democracy for Vietnam, cursed that country's president, stomped on his flag and defaced his portrait. One person held an effigy of Ho Chi Minh's head in a noose. Enough old red-and-yellow-striped South Vietnamese flags waved that, with a bit of magic, they might have resuscitated the defeated regime.
"Go home, communist!" protesters shouted through bullhorns. "You should be ashamed. . . . You are not welcome in the United States!"
But President Nguyen Minh Triet neither saw nor heard his critics during his 16-hour overnight stay in Dana Point. Their impact on Triet—a compact, affable man who fought in the early 1970s as a Viet Cong soldier in My Tho—was minimal, if not zero. After all, he'd been invited to visit the U.S. by President George W. Bush, who toured Vietnam last November.
During stops at the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan, at the White House in Washington, D.C., and in Southern California, Triet helped broker deals for a new university, a hospital, AIDS care and treatment for the effects of dioxin, better known as Agent Orange. The toxic chemical sprayed on Vietnam by the Pentagon during the war continues to cause grotesque birth defects.
At a June 22 reception hours after Triet's Vietnam Airlines 777 presidential jet (with its massive red Communist star on the tail) landed at Los Angeles International Airport, the president received a standing ovation inside the St. Regis. Dr. Tran Tuan Anh, Vietnam's consul general in San Francisco, arranged for a relaxed and festive atmosphere. A classical piano-and-violin team provided a soft backdrop to conversations.
"I am very happy," Triet said in English. "I can assure you that our visit has been a success."
In his native language, he declared, "Tram phan tram," which translates to "100 percent." The phrase is used in celebrations as a preface to the consumption of your entire liquor beverage in one gulp. The president and the crowd raised their glasses and drank.
Hundreds of people—predominantly Viet Kieu, or Vietnamese living abroad—who'd come to honor Triet dined on salad (watercress, endive, poached pears in port wine, buttermilk bleu cheese, caramelized walnuts and a port vinaigrette) and an entrée (grilled fillet of beef, spinach mashed potatoes and a seasonal vegetable medley) followed by desserts (hazelnut praline mousse, almond crunchy cake, praline lemon sauce, creamy milk chocolate and lemon cake).
The American media focused on the protesters, but the angry crowd was only a curiosity to the few members of the Vietnamese delegation who ventured outside and heard the commotion. In the distance, on the other side of steel barricades guarded by deputies, protesters attempted to get reactions. But the men smoked cigarettes, chatted on cell phones, or took pictures or video of the crowd.
"Nguyen Minh Triet not welcome!" the protesters shouted over and over.
One middle-aged man and his wife, part of the delegation, said they felt like they were watching hungry, caged animals at a zoo.
"Liar! Liar! Liar!" the crowd chanted.
The couple seemed genuinely puzzled by the hostility and returned inside the hotel.
"What do they think is happening in my country?" a Ho Chi Minh City businessman asked without a hint of anger. "I think maybe they are living in the past. Things have gotten much better for everyone in Vietnam. We are not repeating the mistakes of the past."
The president's staff advised him about the protesters, many of whom are alarmed by reports that Vietnam renewed crackdowns on political and religious dissidents after winning entry into the World Trade Organization in 2006. Orange County Republican Congressman Ed Royce didn't attend the protests in Dana Point, but he's a leading critic of Vietnam. People still go missing there after demanding pro-democracy reforms, he said.
Triet's reaction to the protests? "They do not have accurate information about Vietnam," he said through a translator. "I invite everyone to Vietnam to see how open and integrated we are now."
If protesters sought confrontation, Triet spoke of cooperation. "There are some problems between our two countries, but we can work them out together," he said in reference to human-rights issues. "There is a spirit of friendship."
He also talked about "healing old wounds." Beginning in September, Vietnam will make it easier for Viet Kieu to visit and do business in the Southeast Asian nation of 80 million people. "No visa will be needed," he said.
Sitting at a nearby table, former South Vietnamese General Nguyen Cao Ky applauded the change. In recent years, Ky has annoyed Little Saigon political forces and attempted to forge business and social relationships with his old enemies. Triet was visibly delighted by the general's presence and acknowledged him.
"In relationships, you have difficulties, but we are still family," the president said as Ky stood and waved to flashing cameras. "The government of Vietnam is doing everything possible to create a good business environment. We will always greet you with big smiles."
Triet won another standing ovation and continued: "I had an open and effective meeting with President Bush. We were very frank with each other. My second impression is that the American people greeted me with warmth and hospitality. It is so clear to me that we Vietnamese and Americans want to live in peace, friendship and solidarity. Don't you agree this is very encouraging?"
If the president of Vietnam had professional speech writers, he might have milked the applause. However, he spoke without notes. Despite his rank and power over the second-fastest-growing economy in the world, Triet is a man who appears to have few pretensions. At the end of his speech, he merely stepped away from the podium and bowed politely to the audience.
To Royce, Triet is "window dressing" for a repressive police state. But several American businessmen at the forum said part of Vietnam's current appeal is Triet's character. He is a man who is proud of his country yet shows no arrogance and wants progress, they told the Weekly. "If you listen to the protesters, you'd think he is a monster," said one businessman. "He's really a likable man."
At the end of the forum, the protesters knew nothing of what had taken place inside the St. Regis, and based on interviews at the scene, they didn't care. They searched for evidence of a moral victory and noted that the president's departing motorcade hadn't displayed Vietnam's flag. Triet had been "scared," they speculated.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Back in reality, it had been the Secret Service—not Triet—that advised against using flags. They were particularly concerned about the motorcade's passage through heavy traffic on the San Diego Freeway back to LAX. Near Little Saigon, home to more than 130,000 Vietnamese Americans, there are many highway overpass perches for a sniper who hasn't escaped the mental anguish of defeat nearly three decades ago.
But Triet likely felt no fear when he jumped in the back of a black, bulletproof stretch limousine that had been flown in from Washington, D.C., courtesy of the White House. If the 64-year-old president from humble rural origins felt anything other than exhaustion from the weeklong trip around the globe, it must have been joy. He was flying home with $11 billion in new business and humanitarian contracts for his country.
To see a slideshow of Triet's visit, go here.