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Obama Gets Personal in Exchange with Vietnamese Youth

  • Cindy Saine

Vietnamese rapper Suboi raps as U.S. President Barack Obama listens at a town-hall style event for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

Vietnamese rapper Suboi raps as U.S. President Barack Obama listens at a town-hall style event for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama said interacting with young people during his three-day visit to Vietnam makes him optimistic about the country's future. In some remarkably personal exchanges with young audience members at a town-hall style event in Ho Chi Minh City Wednesday, he confessed that he was not always very serious in his youth.

The president spoke to some 800 members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Network, who welcomed him enthusiastically with loud cheers, American flags and a standing ovation. YSEALI is Obama’s signature program, launched in 2013, to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia.

The president began by saying he had spent part of his own youth in the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia, and that the region has shaped him.

WATCH: President Obama Meets with Young Southeast Asian Leaders

On becoming a great leader

One questioner asked the president for advice on how to become a great leader, to which Obama said the young crowd members already appear better prepared and organized than he was their age.

“First of all, let me tell you that when I was your age I was not as well organized, and well-educated and sophisticated as all of you. When I was young, I fooled around a lot, I didn’t always take my studies very seriously, and I was more interested in basketball, and girls. And I wasn’t always that serious,” he said.

He added there are many ways be to be a leader, and advised young people to find something they are passionate about, and pour all their energy and effort into it.

“You can change the world to reflect our best values… and change the region in positive ways," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama reacts as he attends a town hall meeting with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 25, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama reacts as he attends a town hall meeting with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 25, 2016.

Talk also turned to the current U.S. presidential election.

One young woman, a Vietnamese exchange student studying in Montana, asked President Obama where he thinks he and the world will be in five years after the first term has ended for the next president: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

Obama said he would likely return to what he has always done, trying to help low-income people get ahead. “ I suspect I will be like a community organizer, but a little more famous than I used to be.”

Prompted by another questioner to comment about the outcome of the 2016 U.S. elections, the president sounded a somber note, saying “we will get through this.” He said America sometimes makes mistakes, but eventually rights its course, adding, “It will be okay, I promise.”

A prominent young rapper from Ho Chi Minh City, 26-year-old Suboi, asked the last question. She said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her, and she rapped in Vietnamese. Obama said some governments get nervous because art can be dangerous, but added “You have to let people express themselves.”

President Barack Obama stands with Thich Minh Thong, abbot of the Jade Emperor Pagoda, right, and Duong Ngoc Dung, professor at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, center, after visiting the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh Ci

President Barack Obama stands with Thich Minh Thong, abbot of the Jade Emperor Pagoda, right, and Duong Ngoc Dung, professor at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, center, after visiting the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh Ci

The intensely personal town hall capped a momentous visit, with the president first lifting a 50-year-old arms embargo, and then making pointed remarks urging the Vietnamese government to respect the basic civil rights of its citizens.

Thousands of Vietnamese citizens lined the streets to get a glimpse of President Obama, who said the United States and Vietnam are embarking on a new 100-year journey together.

The next stop for the president is Japan, where he will meet Wednesday evening with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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