What It’s Like To Cover The Biggest Diplomatic Event Of The Year: The Hanoi Summit
The buzz of motorbikes fills the mild mid-day air, while locals lounge on low chairs at outdoor cafés or grab ‘pho’ (beef noodle soup) from street-food carts. This is quintessential Vietnam. I’m sitting on the roof of a double decker tour bus, one of three filled with dozens of journalists from across the world, being led by a police escort through the wide, clean streets of the capital city of Hanoi. But we’re not on a city tour.
The police car’s sirens blare as a voice on a loud speaker tells motorists in Vietnamese to stop and make way for our convoy. We pass curious onlookers and poles adorned with Vietnamese, Korean, and American flags en route to the JW Marriott Hotel from the the Vietnam-Soviet Cultural Friendship Palace, where an International Media Center is set up as a base for more than 3,000 journalists covering the second summit of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The White House scheduled a press conference at the Marriott for 3:50p.m.
During the 20-minute ride from the popular Hoàn Ki?m downtown district, a camera crew from Vietnam’s government news agency interviews journalists about their assessment so far of the summit host. My first instinct is to compare Hanoi to Singapore, the site of the first historic Trump-Kim summit last June. Known for its efficiency, meticulous planning, and adept salesmanship of its nation, Singapore delivered, from live coverage and in-depth analysis of every move the leaders made, to free notebooks and fans with a custom Trump-Kim logo. The Singapore Summit set the gold standard for how to promote a host country to a captive global audience so it becomes just as big of a story as the news event itself.
In contrast, Vietnam had none of the bells and whistles. It simply didn’t have the time for much self-promotion. But with less than two weeks, Hanoi did a respectable job of pulling off a massive international event with many moving parts. At the very least, Vietnam challenged third-world stereotypes to showcase an affordable, culturally rich country worth visiting. Could Manila have mobilized the resources and security protocols in that time frame? I don’t know.
Today, President Donald J. Trump and Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, joined by moderator Ms. Ho Huong Giang, participate in the Commercial Trade Signing Ceremony in the Mirror Room of the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam.
I had visited several parts of Vietnam over the years and was curious to see what all the buzz was about. Analysts often pit Vietnam against the Philippines in a race of Asia’s fastest growing economies, noting the Communist state edges out ASEAN’s oldest democracy in terms of foreign investment and economic development. Even in tourism, Vietnam has the Philippines beat. More than twice as many foreign tourists visited Vietnam over the Philippines in 2018: 15.6 million compared to 7.1 million (which happened to be a record for the Philippines).
“This summit is a big opportunity for you,” I tell the Vietnamese reporter, noting that Hanoi is smartly building a reputation as a player in global affairs beyond its economic growth story, fueled by a reform model that opened its market to foreign investors and tourists. Hanoi hosted a World Economic Forum meeting last year, and the coastal city of Da Nang hosted the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. During the Hanoi summit, Vietnam leveraged the presence of a broader international media focused on peace talks rather than money matters, with the understanding that engaging journalists can do more for its global image than any tourism campaign. Organizers offered free cultural tours to heritage sites and unlimited traditional Vietnamese food and coffee.
But welcoming international attention also means subjecting yourself to the critical eye of an independent press, something unwelcome in Vietnam, where media is state-owned and controlled and dissent or criticism is silenced. So while host cities like Vietnam and Singapore will try to control media coverage as per usual, they should brace for criticism as well. Like when reports surfaced on the handling of the unceremonious eviction of the White House press corps from the Meliá Hanoi Hotel, where Kim and his entourage were staying.
What could potentially be the biggest barrier to economic growth is the lack of English proficiency. Many locals I met spoke little to no English, even those who worked in the tourism, hospitality and service industries. Doing business here without a local partner would be frustrating to say the least. I was told the Vietnamese government is working on that barrier by investing in language schools, hiring foreign teachers and encouraging its citizens to learn English.
Our caravan arrives at the Marriott and we have our bags checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, go through security checks, and wait in a holding area. We get word from colleagues at the Metropole Hotel, where Trump and Kim and their delegations are meeting, that their lunch and deal signing ceremony had been cancelled, the summit was being cut short and the press conference was being moved up to 2p.m. “That doesn’t sound good,” a reporter next to me says.
We are ushered into the press conference venue, where cameramen are jockeying for position on a riser in the back. I grab a seat between reporters from Argentina and Russia. More waiting. No deal? What happened, we all wonder. Finally, the American president enters the room with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that,” explained Trump. “They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that. So we continue to work, and we'll see. But we had to walk away from that particular suggestion. We had to walk away from that.”
And just like that hopes for progress on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are dashed, for now. Essentially, both sides could not come to terms on a peace agreement and Trump chose to walk away from negotiations than force a deal that wouldn’t work. Trump goes on to address other questions, including ones about American student Otto Warmbier and his former lawyer Michael Cohen. No word on a third summit but Secretary Pompeo says he’s optimistic: “I hope our teams will get together in the days and weeks ahead and work out, it’s a very complex problem. We have said since the beginning this would take time.”
Later that evening, North Korean officials held their own press conference, disputing Trump’s claim that talks collapsed due to their requests for full sanctions relief. And so begins the pontificating for the 24-hour news cycle.
While the summit failed to yield any significant deal or policy breakthrough, Vietnam emerged a diplomatic winner, as did Singapore after hosting the first summit. The world saw images of the normalized relationship between America and Vietnam and heard the narrative of a country once closed off to the world now enjoying the benefits of market reforms and international engagement.
In an era where economic success has become less contingent on democratic reform and values, Singapore and Vietnam are proving state-controlled countries can have their cake and eat it too. The question is how will Manila compete with these Southeast Asian neighbors?
Photos from @realdonaldtrump and courtesy of Annalisa Burgos