Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang and Thuy Vu at Thursday's luncheon. (Thuy Vu/KQED)
Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang and KQED’s Thuy Vu at Wednesday’s luncheon. (Courtesy of Thuy Vu/KQED)

By Thuy Vu

KQED News is launching a new multiplatform service in October called KQED Newsroom on television, radio and online, with three–time Emmy Award–winning journalist and anchor Thuy Vu as host. This is her first blog post for News Fix.

In a rare trip, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang is meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House today.  The Obama administration is seeking to strengthen security and trade ties with Vietnam as part of its effort to deepen relations with Southeast Asia.  Truong’s trip to the United States is only the second visit by a Vietnamese president since the two countries resumed relations in 1995.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a luncheon in Washington, D.C., hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry in honor of President Truong.  In 1975, I fled Vietnam with my family as Saigon was falling to the communists, so I came not only as a journalist but as someone intimately affected by the war.

As the two men stood on stage, the symbolism was undeniable.  Kerry is a Vietnam veteran.  Truong is a former Communist Party chief who was jailed by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government in the early 1970’s.  On Wednesday, the former foes stood side by side as political allies in the campaign to rebalance power in Asia amid China’s growing dominance.  It was a portrait of reconciliation as Kerry thanked Vietnam for its help in finding the remains of U.S. servicemen and praised its pledge to assist U.N. peacekeeping efforts in 2014.   The two countries have gone “from conflict to friendship,” Kerry said.

President Truong did not look back at the war in his remarks, choosing instead to focus on the future.  He spoke of the U.S. as a valuable military and economic partner.  Trade between the two countries has grown to $26 billion since a trade deal was signed in 2001.  Truong barely touched on the thorny issue of human rights, saying simply “Vietnam has been continually making progress on human rights.”

That certainly will not satisfy critics on Capitol Hill, who charge Vietnam is holding more than 120 political prisoners.  It won’t quiet Human Rights Watch, which says Vietnam is jailing a growing number of dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders for crimes such as “conducting propaganda” and “disrupting the unity of the state.”  And it definitely will not soothe the bitterness many Vietnamese Americans still feel about losing their homeland to a regime that they view as corrupt and abusive.

Even as the two countries look to the future, the war’s legacy continues to loom.  Dioxin from the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed by U.S. forces to defoliate jungles that provided cover to communist forces still needs to be cleaned up.  Many health experts believe the toxic chemical has caused birth deformities, cancers and other disabilities among Vietnamese as well as Americans who are Vietnam War veterans.  The problems were extensively documented in 2010 by the Vietnam Reporting Project, a joint program of the Ford Foundation and San Francisco State University’s Renaissance Journalism Center.  I was one of 15 journalists from across the U.S. who traveled to Vietnam to provide reports from the ground.

As an immigrant, it’s sometimes a challenge for me to report on Vietnamese issues.  I face expectations that aren’t necessarily leveled at other journalists.  It’s my obligation to be fair, yet many Vietnamese Americans view me as part of the community and therefore want me to be more of an advocate.  They’re often disappointed when I don’t give their arguments more weight in my reporting.  They’ve even accused me of succumbing to Vietnam’s propaganda machine, deepening their wounds.

I know their pain.  My grandfather was taken away by the communists for being a landowner.  He disappeared and my family never knew what happened to him.  My uncle was a high-ranking South Vietnamese military official.  My brother was jailed by the communists, who also eventually seized our home.

So when I’m criticized by my own community, I get where they’re coming from.  I understand their concerns; however, I’m a journalist, not an advocate.

When I stood for a picture with Truong at the state luncheon, I worried whether I should put more distance between the two of us.  Unlike the shots of Kerry and Truong standing side by side, my picture is not about reconciliation.  It’s simply about recording a moment in time, coupled with reporting that I hope is fair, insightful and of value to the public…and especially to my fellow Vietnamese Americans.

For an examination of the ongoing human rights concerns in Vietnam, see Andrew Lam’s report on New America Media.

  • David

    Excellent point of view Thuy. It must be difficult for you balancing your reporting with that of the expectations of you from the Vietnamese community.

  • Lanney

    As a journalist as you claimed, are you reporting the truth of what’s happening to the people of Vietnam at the current state? As a Vietnamese American raised by Vietnamese immigrants, who sacrificed their lives for your freedom of education, are you a bit a shame of standing next to the man whose hand are filled with blood of the innocent people in his own country? How generous of you for saying that you
    understand the people’s feelings when they criticized you, those people were
    and are victims of the man who you’re so keen to have your picture taken with
    and showing off to the world that “I have my picture taken with the president of Vietnam.” Don’t tell me that’s not what you were thinking. How could you smile and be a proud journalist when this piece of article says nothing of the truth, except
    the greedy for fame impression that was intensified, you’re going to get with
    the communist praises to follow. I am young American, who doesn’t know
    much about Vietnam War or the people suffering, yet I am proud to say I am not
    standing next to that man. You want to be a good damn proud journalist,
    then write the truth about this man and his doing to his own people in the
    country. The old saying doesn’t get old, “everyone has their choices
    to make, make one that your child can one day look back and not be ashamed when
    they learn the truth.

    “Người đời hữu tử hữu sinh. Sống lo xứng phận, thác dành tiếng thơm.”

    If you don’t know what to write, then I recommend doing some research. A good journalist is the one who goes the extra mile for her own findings and investigations to form adequate perception.

    Here are some good places for you to start, from Pen-international to Reporters without Borders, places of the world well-known reporters.,44965.html

    Good luck

    • Hung Pham

      For someone who “doesn’t know much about Vietnam War or the people suffering”, you surely have a lot to say about a war you knew nothing about. FYI, that war ENDED 38 years ago. In my opinion, your words are filled with more hatred than any “blood stain” (sic) on Mr. Sang’s hand. Be real!

      • Artis Sideley

        Dear Mr.Hung,

        The Second World War ended 68 years ago, do Israel (with support from the US) and nazi victims stop hunting the war criminals ?! Do the International penal Court stop putting on trial Khmer Rouges for crimes they perpetrated some 35 – 40 years ago ? !

        No, Mr Hung, crimes must be punished especially when the criminals keep perpetrating their crimes under other forms (jailing peaceful dissents, aggressing their families, threatening anti corruption journalists, harassing free thinkers, limiting religious freedom…), backed by a false legitimacy they attained through bloodshed and brainwashing propaganda.
        I know what I’m talking about because I am living in Vietnam and quite well placed to talk about the evolution of Vietnam.
        However, I support Vu Thuy for her endeavour to remain neutral as a journalist and to stick to true facts.

  • CaliGuyNguyen

    too naivy ! What did you say when you meet TruongTanSang ? Thanks for coming to the U.S. ?

    • Hung Pham

      Why not?!

  • David

    Fair, insightful reporting? Why don’t you go back and try to report on the plights of political prisoners and peasants who lost their lands to corrupt officials and see how the Viet goverment will treat you. Until you do that, you are nothing but a shortsighted uninformed “reporter” !

  • Nelson Nguyen

    Wait a minute, I thought the job of a news reporter is to report the news, and take photos of other people. When does a reporter get paid to put herself in the news?

  • Henry Do

    Thanks, Thuy, for the clarification. But I wish you could talk a bit more about the delicate situation that we the Vietnamese American community is facing. On the one hand is the agressive China wanting to invade and bully Vietnam. On the other hand is a dictatorial regime (the Vietnamese communists) that inflicts untold suffering to its people. And now the regime is seeking help from the US to stand against China.
    Some of us want to put more human rights as a condition for the US to back Vietnam. But that is precisely pushing VN back into the orbit of Communist China. We did that when Vietnam asked US (Ho Chi Minh wrote to Truman) to help kick the French out of Vietnam. Truman refused and VN fell into war and the orbit of Soviet and China in the three subsequent decades. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary that we push for more freedom and less human rights abuse in Vietnam. So what to do?
    In my view, we should keep human rights as our focus in the medium and long run. In the short term, we have to help VN get in a level playing field with China by providing support in all forms. The idea is to bring VN completely on the side of the free world (as opposed to the Communist world) by helping it fight the Chinese. This in and of itself would lead VN on a path to democracy, for the people of Vietnam will certainly choose freedom and will rise to everyone’s expectation as far as democracy is concerned.

    • Artis Sideley

      That makes sense, that is a harsh reality that we should all accept, freedom and democracy cannot be attained under CHina’s umbrella. And the Pro china swing in Vietnam is still too strong, and the only way is to counter balance it by seeking support from the Americans…and forget our basic human rights for a while.

      I am dreaming of a day when Vietnameses decide through a referendum to kick out all the China’s Lackeys.

  • Good

    Good choice, Thuy. One day when you look back, you will say to yourself that you’ve a right choice. Don’t mind about the negative comments by others. They would do the same if they were in your shoe. I know I would too.

  • Hung Pham

    What’s so wrong with “reconciliation”? The war ended 38 years ago and for those who cannot or won’t forget, that’s their problem and not yours. No doubt they will end up taking the baggage of war to their graves and so be it.
    Vietnam is now a different country than the one everyone knew right after the war. Corrupt? Yes, but progresses? Not too few, either. What Vietnam facing now is the expansion of China which is already threatening the independence it fought for so many years throughout its history. And the U.S. may be able to help by aligning with Vietnam as its ally this time.
    That war that so many Vietnamese-Americans are still very bitter about could have been avoided altogether if the U.S. had done the right thing by not intervening Vietnam’s struggle for independence against France. So many lives wasted on all sides.. But we have a chance to undo the past this time and this visit by the president of Vietnam is no doubt an invitation for that opportunity.

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