HO CHI MINH CITY — President Trump arrived in Vietnam on Friday for an economic summit where he can indulge one of his greatest passions: boasting of his commanding lead in the polls.
The president is far more popular here than at home.
"He’s quite different from the past presidents," said Tran Vuong, 38, a software engineer in Vietnam's largest city. "It’s difficult to guess what he will do and that may be an effective strategy with countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria and China. And I think from the economic point of view he is also trying to do some different things."
While that might seem like faint praise, many Vietnamese view Trump's unorthodox political style and business experience as a positive. He was well-known as a celebrity before taking office. Many of his books have been translated into Vietnamese. There is also the perception he will be tougher on Vietnam’s giant neighbor, China. The two nations have been locked in a dispute over contested islands in the South China Sea.
In fact, according to a Pew Research Center poll released ahead of Trump’s 12-day, five-country trip to Asia, 58% of Vietnamese expressed confidence in Trump to "do the right thing in world affairs." It's a response second in Asia only to the Philippines, where he has a 69% confidence rating.
In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal published at the end of October, Trump's domestic approval rating dropped to a new low of 38%.
Trump's popularity reflects warm sentiment toward the United States despite Vietnam's legacy as a battlefield for U.S. troops some 40 years ago that left 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese dead.
However, admiration for Trump has its limits in Vietnam.
Vuong, the software engineer, said he is concerned about Trump’s protectionist rhetoric when it comes to foreign trade. The president reinforced this position at a speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the central Vietnam city of Da Nang on Friday. "I am always going to put America first," he said.
The United States has one of its largest trade deficits with Vietnam, a $32 billion imbalance in 2016.
Bui Van, program director at FBNC, a Vietnamese financial news network, said that while the business community in Vietnam looks favorably on Trump, it is also worried by his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal involving a dozen countries. The U.S. withdrawal effectively kills off the deal, although the 11 remaining partners are discussing forming a new trading bloc.
“It is not only taxes or imports — TPP would have had a major impact on Vietnam’s business environment, rule of law, competitiveness,” he said.
Van said the business community is holding out hope that Vietnam and the U.S. can still come to terms on a bilateral free trade agreement.
"We hope Trump may still see Vietnam as a special case, that he won’t want to see Vietnam fall fully into China’s arms," he added.
Vietnam is seen by Washington as a key ally to check China’s growth in the region. The world’s second-largest economy is increasingly assertive as a global power on a range of issues from climate change to its position as a pivotal broker with North Korea. Beijing has also been pushing its ambitious "Belt and Road Initiative," a $1 trillion infrastructure project to redraw trade routes across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
In an August visit, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pledged a greater defense commitment to Vietnam and also promised a port visit from a U.S. aircraft carrier, the first one since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Carl Thayer, a professor at Australia's University of New South Wales and a Vietnam expert, said Trump’s "America First" rhetoric threatens to weaken the stature of the U.S. in Southeast Asia, where countries are trying to build regional trade partnerships.
“Trump showed disdain for multilateral approaches,” he said. “(Southeast Asian states) cannot count on U.S. support."
Still, while Trump’s popularity remains high in Vietnam, among the younger generation he doesn’t seem to have inspired as much enthusiasm as his predecessor.
When President Obama visited Vietnam in May 2016, he met with youth leaders in Ho Chi Minh City and drew large crowds in Hanoi, where he ate at a local noodle shop with celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain.
And in Hanoi, where Trump will visit on Saturday, 26-year-old Do Minh Anh, an immigration specialist, said that among young people there is less buzz for a presidential visit this time around. "The feeling is totally different," said Minh Anh.
"No one I know seems very excited."