“Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure; maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.” – Anthony Bourdain
This week in Hanoi, Vietnam, President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un are set to meet for their second summit on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the lead-up has looked a little like this.
In a piece for The Wall Street Journal, Michael Gordon writes, “While US officials have been guarded about preparations for the coming summit, a senior administration official identified three priorities. They include obtaining ‘a freeze on all weapons of mass destruction and missile programs,’ agreeing on a common definition of denuclearization, and making progress on a road map for future negotiations.”
But, as Dr. Vipin Narang points out on Twitter, these goals are anything but comforting. The first goal, he claims, “is so broad that North Korea may tell us to take a hike, [and the second goal] suggests we aren’t even talking about the same thing.”
We all want the summit to go well, but should recognize up front that it is very unlikely Kim Jong Un will unilaterally disarm, and it is foolish to set our hopes too high.
Taking all of this into account, it is clear that the negotiations in Hanoi will be anything but simple. So, as a nuke nerd that has spent a good amount of time in Northern Vietnam, I thought I would try and help The Donald wrap his head around things. While I cannot directly speak to the President — much like the brilliant John Oliver attempts to through his commercials on Fox News — I can offer some travel tips (sprinkled with just a little bit of diplomacy advice).
Vietnam is hot. Like really hot. The air sticks to you with a sweet mugginess that doesn’t dissipate until you’re on the plane back home. So, you need to dress accordingly. By my second week in Vietnam, I was gleefully zipping around town on my “motorbike” (read: scooter) in $1 flip flops with my long dress hiked up over my knees, a five cent cigarette hanging out of my mouth, and a two-sizes-too-small Hello Kitty helmet lazily bouncing around on the back of my head. While this look worked for me, it’s probably not the most presidential. But then, the tan atrocity you wore on your last vacation to the omelet bar also isn’t doing you any favors. Perhaps, instead, you can do a menswear version of the lovely Miss Universe Singapore’s dress from 2018. This option could be light and breezy enough to accommodate the Vietnamese heat, while also helping to remind you that Singapore was largely a symbolic meeting, and Hanoi needs to be anything but.
Hanoi has a ton of great things to do — from cruising around West Lake, to perusing the quaint shops that litter Old Town. However, because you only have a few days, you need to prioritize your sightseeing. First on your list should be the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest national university, built in 1070. Originally dedicated to Confucius, today the Temple of Literature is a place of study rather than a place of religion. Within the temple complex, you’ll find multiple beautiful abaci, perfect for teaching you the value of quantifying things (like North Korean nuclear limits).
Next on your list should be the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh, or “Uncle Ho” as the Vietnamese like to colloquially refer to him, was a revolutionary leader who played a key role in the Viet Minh independence movement that led to the establishment of the Communist-Ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. Minh played an important role at the 1954 Geneva Conference, which, coincidentally, was also a conference initially intended to settle outstanding issues from the Korean War (as well as the First Indochina War). Perhaps, while you stroll outside the grandiose mausoleum, you can choose to set yourself apart from Uncle Ho by demonstrating that you are open to the option of formally declaring an end to the Korean War. It’d be to your advantage to show that the United States (and South Korea) aren’t pursuing a hostile policy toward North Korea, but rather, want to reopen diplomatic relations between the countries (something Ho Chi Minh wasn’t necessarily able to do).
Finally, as a relaxing end to your Hanoi adventures, I recommend catching a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Puppetry is an old Vietnamese tradition, and this show highlights the beauties of traditional Vietnamese culture. Let the show also remind you not to dance like Kim Jong Un’s puppet as you work your way through tricky denuclearization diplomacy.
Hands down, one of the best things about Vietnam is the food. Pho and spring rolls galore; you truly can’t go wrong at any of the tiny nameless shops around town. However, if you really want to impress the locals, take a note from your predecessor, who simultaneously pivoted his diplomacy to Southeast Asia and went for the Bun Cha. Bun Cha, like Pho, is a noodle soup dish. You take a sweet broth, dump in a little bit of Fish Sauce and some chiles, and then dip skinny rice noodles into the concoction alongside savory meatballs and fresh herbs — it’s even better than waking up to overcooked eggs and bacon. However, I’m well aware that you aren’t the most adventurous eater, so perhaps a simple Bahn Mi, a sandwich with a more colonial history, would better suit your tastes. Unfortunately, Mr. President, there are no McDonalds in Hanoi. However, if you are craving french fries and other American foods, I highly recommend you check out “Obama’s Restaurant” downtown.
It really is a pity you don’t drink. The best way to spend Hanoi nights is to post up at a good old Bia Hoi. Bia Hois are Vietnam’s equivalent to pubs, and for around $2 you can get a seemingly never-ending supply of “fresh beer” (their version of draft beer). There’s nothing better in the world than sitting barefoot in a tiny blue plastic chair for hours on end, drinking watery beer, snacking on dried squid, and playing cards with older Vietnamese gentlemen that seem to have an endless plume of sweet tobacco smoke coming out of their mouths. I had some of the best political conversations of my life at Bia Hois (despite getting yelled at a few times for making fun of you). Perhaps a night out in Hanoi could teach you a thing or two about attentively listening to someone other than yourself.
All in all, Mr. President, much like this upcoming summit, Hanoi has a lot to offer. It would do you good to concretely know all of your options, have a set plan of action, and ensure that this is part of a longer journey, rather than just a day-long trip.