President Barack Obama's visit to Idaho reminds me of another president I wanted to see many years ago.
I tried to spend a night with Bill Clinton when he was in Vietnam in 2000. But it wasn’t easy.
“No tickets,” said the guard on duty at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“But someone called to say there would be tickets for me here.”
As a recipient of USAID funding, my university in Idaho had joined the ranks of organizations in Vietnam that the US Embassy notices. I got a call on Friday that there was a ticket for me at the embassy to attend the Cultural Event at the Opera House with President Clinton, who was also in town that week. I went straight away to the U.S. Embassy on Lang Ha, which must have the most elaborate security system in Hanoi. A beige box, with barbed wire and satellite dishes staged on walls going up the seven floors, it looks more like the Waco tower than an Embassy. But, it’s ours and it must work. No bombs yet.
But there were no tickets? Usually at the hint of anything unusual, the single Vietnamese guard silently hails his compatriots. Soon there were three.
Then one of them took the age-old approach to a question from a foreigner: foist the questioner onto someone else. So instead of a search and seizure at the front door, the guards sent me unexamined to the next office: no searching for my phone, my Swiss Army knife or my Snickers Bars.
The Vietnamese official at the inner desk was also baffled.
“No tickets here. Ask the Marine.” The fall back position always works – at least you keep the questioner moving, suggesting some semblance of action.
“I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” said the knowledgeable Marine, the last checkpoint for visitors entering the embassy sanctum. “Check the front desk.”
The classic circle technique. At the front desk, they were disappointed to see me again.
I was getting testy and asked to use the phone. As I reached for the phone, I noticed a stack of five square white envelopes and asked if we could look through them. Aha, there was my ticket. “No ticket,” said the guard. “In-VI-tation,” emphasizing the “VI” with a long “i.”
“Ah, right. In-vi-tation. Same as ticket,” said I, graciously trying to help his English learning.
“No no, in-vi-tation.” OK, we’ll stop there.
Twenty minutes after stepping into the front office, I left, wondering if the rest of the evening would be as challenging.
Back at the university, I showed the in-vi-tation to Mrs. Thu, the secretary. She translated for me. It said that “Uy-li-am J. Clin-ton” invited me to the Cultural Event at the Opera House. The invitation also said to be at the Opera House by 7.15p.m., with photo ID and this invitation. Wouldn’t want to keep Uy-li-am J. Clin-ton waiting.
After all, when else would Bill and I, both Arkansas natives, ever get to spend time together? Not that I thought we’d have much chance for a back porch visit. After all, he would be busy with his state dinner friends. But perhaps we could at least exchange glances across the room at the Opera House. He was nearly an ex-president but that didn’t bother the Vietnamese. He had reached into the crowds, shared meals, and said the right things. The news made it sound like he was a returning hero. Well, not quite returning, but the average Vietnamese didn’t seem to mind.
To be honest, I’m not much for “sightings.” I rarely realize I’ve seen a famous person unless my husband points them out. I’ve missed Cindy Crawford, Jerry Brown, Dan Rather, Robin Williams, and Caroline Kennedy. But I knew that he’d disown me if I missed Bill. Besides, Bill and Hillary had rented a house near my parents in Fayetteville, Arkansas, before anyone knew who they were. We were almost related.
I had not visited the Opera House since its renovation by the French in 1997. A visit before renovation was harrowing. I had to push away thoughts of fire then when I saw the palm-sized padlocks and large linked chains. The front doors of the wood structure stayed locked during performances to prevent beggars and curious onlookers from entering. But now the Opera House was exquisite in the dusk salmon light. The two domes looked like Faberge eggs, ringed with blue paint and twinkling lights around the base. The lights on the portico set off the warm beige facade. I let the moment seep in, looking forward to my evening with Bill.
I walked across the 100-yard plaza in front of the Opera House, enjoying the cool air, so rare in Hanoi, and the festive look of the Opera House. A red carpet led up the steps, a nice touch. I felt quite special.
But the front door, at the top of those special red carpeted steps, was locked. A Vietnamese man inside, holding a walky-talky, waved me to the right hand entrance. I slinked down the right side of the steps that spread across the front of the building.
OK, I thought, so they’ve not opened the front door yet. After all, I’m early.
I noticed a stylish African woman, in a flowing white caftan with gold edging, waving her invitation at the two men stationed on the right hand entrance. The men shook their heads and waved their right arms, indicating that she should go around the building to the back.
Hmmmmm. Too bad for her, I thought.
Then I got the same directions.
Here I was, all dressed up with my invitation, my passport and my earnestness, and I couldn’t get inside. I passed the Opera House’s left side wrought iron fence, the eaten corncobs thrown on the ground, the trash tossed from motorbikes that lined the back walkway. Another gate, but this one had security x-ray machines by it.
Aha. That must be the reason we have to come this way.
The African lady was inside the gate but she now was even more upset.
“But I have a badge, a passport, and my invitation says to be here now. I have to go inside.”
She had a badge, but I had everything else she did. Neither of us was making headway.
I talked with two more Vietnamese guards, one who couldn’t understand me at all. His solution was to wave his arm around to the other side of the building.
“Oh no. I just came from there. This is the third entrance. Where do I go?”
He called for help. Hysterical African and American women were not his specialty. A second man looked at my invitation.
“Too early. Come later. You at 8p.m. Now dancing.”
Hmmmmm. Not a good sign. I knew that Bill and Hillary had a state dinner to go to – perhaps they were in the Opera House now and I was supposed to be with a second shift of viewers.
I gave up and retreated to the Metropole Hotel, one of Hanoi’s few five star hotels, to have a glass of wine. At least I could have some memory of the evening, in case Bill and I didn’t manage to connect.
I went back to the Opera House at 7.30, up the red carpeted stairs and around the metal detector machine, no questions asked. No one wanted to see my invitation or my passport. I didn’t have to give away my lipstick or my camera.
I found a seat in the first balcony, left side of the auditorium. The whole Opera House seats perhaps 700 people, but the feeling is intimate. My box companions were three men (American and Australian); two provided curriculum advice and materials to primary and secondary schools in Hanoi. The third man ran DKT, a non-profit birth control organization, one of the most successful at introducing condoms and now oral contraceptives. The “OK” condoms had taken Vietnam by storm in the early 1990s and are still the mainstay of the firm’s production. He handed me an OK Condom key chain as we talked. I never quite understood the name – was it “OK, now we can go for it!” or that these condoms were “just OK,” and perhaps you’d better be really careful and go for the high priced ones, called “Trust,” next time.
The program’s cover page said the Cultural Evening was “In Honour of His Excellency The President and his wife of the United States.” Most countries have no such term for or concept of “First Lady.” Women are themselves or “the wife of...” some person. But maybe the term “wife of the United States” would start a trend.
Forty-five minutes after the program’s first half, the state dinner attendees at last filed in, looking like they had something the rest of us didn’t – dinner. In the front row, Senator (John) Kerry dwarfed Secretary of Commerce Mineta as they stood surveying the back of the auditorium. The Hanoi business glitterati dropped into seats next to politicians. GE’s representative looked quite different than he did when we crossed paths at the gym at 6am. There, he wore a Vietnamese army pith helmet, counted his sit ups in Vietnamese, traded jokes with the trainers, and told me about his experiences as a soldier and now, after several years in business. He never wanted to go home.
After another 15 minutes, US Ambassador Peterson and his glamour wife entered the second balcony. I thought a king had arrived. People stood, clapped, made dipping bows and nodded. Mrs. Peterson did an Elizabeth the Queen wave, forearm straight up, hand twisting just a bit. Then, at last, the Clintons.
And I couldn't see them.
My seat under the balcony was tucked a bit too far in, and they were smack dab in the middle of the second balcony, at the back end of the auditorium. I leaned over the railing, at right angles to my legs to snap a shot. I saw Chelsea in her pale gray shawl, bright lips and Annie-style hair. Hillary had on a yellow (the color of kings in China) shiny pantsuit, with lapels like wings over her shoulders. And then came Bill, ducking as he squeezed through the door behind his wife and daughter. He was big and tall and American. Compared to Vietnamese men, he is a giant – two heads taller, twice as wide, and two times as deep. The Vietnamese politicians near him tilted back as they clapped, like I do when I’m looking at a New York Skyscraper. He nodded his white haired head, smiled a closed mouth half smile, almost shy. His wife, on the other hand, had presence. She exuded confidence, her shoulders so far back she could hardly look down on her subjects. Perhaps she was practicing for her new Senator job.
After more Vietnamese dancing and singing, I left. It was late, I had an early morning flight, and taxis would be hard to find later. I walked out the front door through a phalanx of short haired, same height (mine) security men, with red badges and brown suits, and skipped down the red carpet. By now tourists and Vietnamese lined the cordoned off plaza, held back by waist high ropes. They snapped to as I went by, thinking I must be famous.
Sorry, folks, just Nancy from Idaho.