Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (R) looks at U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as they walk to the meeting room at the Government Guest House in Hanoi, July 10, 2012.
Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (R) looks at U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as they walk to the meeting room at the Government Guest House in Hanoi, July 10, 2012.

It might sound odd, but observers say Vietnamese nationals are smitten by the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and that, just like their former American foes, many Vietnamese find themselves torn over whom to root for.

On one side is Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose scathing anti-China tirades have convinced many Vietnamese of the former reality TV star's ability to curb Beijing’s ambitions to dominate the disputed waters of the South China Sea. On the other, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is beloved by Southeast Asians who fondly recall her husband’s normalization of relations with Hanoi, which paved the way for the two former enemies to turn the page.

Nguyen Ngoc Truong, a former senior diplomat who heads a Hanoi-based foreign affairs think tank, said many Vietnamese are eager to secure Washington's role as a “counterbalance to China,” amid rising tension over the disputed maritime region.

Even though Trump accused Vietnam and some other Asian nations of “taking our jobs,” people like Nguyen Hoang, who listens to VOA’s Vietnamese service, hopes the real estate tycoon will “rein in Beijing and stop it from taking more islands” from its neighbor. “The world needs a decisive and determined president like Trump,” Hoang said.

But researcher Truong says the general feeling is “tilting toward Hillary Clinton.”

“[Her husband, former President Bill Clinton,] normalized relations [with Vietnam]. When she was secretary [of state], she clearly expressed her views that are compatible with the interests of Vietnam," he said. "We still consider [the Clintons] as big friends of Vietnam.”

FILE - Then-President Bill Clinton shakes hands wi
FILE - Then-President Bill Clinton shakes hands with a group of children hanging out of a window in their residence in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 17, 2000.

Memorable photo

Former President Clinton announced restoration of full diplomatic relations with Hanoi in 1995, five years before becoming the first sitting U.S. leader to visit the former enemy state, 25 years after the lengthy Vietnam War concluded. The photo of him standing on a balcony in the capital and reaching out to shake hands with a group of Vietnamese in a neighboring house remains a symbol of the thawed bilateral ties.

The former ambassador adds that it is Hillary Clinton who played a key role in the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, and she is the one who once stressed Washington’s “core interest” in the South China Sea — moves that reassured Vietnam.

Truong said communist Hanoi has to walk a fine line between Washington and Beijing, its natural ideological ally.

Meanwhile, prominent young dissident Nguyen Tien Trung said whoever becomes the new U.S. president, the American partnership with Vietnam will not shift significantly.

“Vietnamese, wherever they are, all want to have a friend and an ally like the U.S. to help defend their sovereignty and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and prevent Beijing’s encroachment,” he said.

Trung met former President George W. Bush in Texas in 2006, while he was still a student. That inspired him to keep striving for real democracy in Vietnam; too often, he says, his country's leaders seem to be out of touch with the public.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Vietnamese service.