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Meet bicycle diplomat Ted Osius, America’s modern ambassador to Vietnam

May 20, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Ted Osius’ path to becoming U.S. ambassador to Vietnam began with bicycle diplomacy, soon after relations with Hanoi were restored in 1995. As a consular officer, he pedaled the countryside and endeared himself to the Vietnamese. Osius is gay and married, and represents a modern America: “I'm white, my husband's black and our kids are brown,” he says. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: President Obama departs for a trip to Asia tomorrow, his first stop, Vietnam.

Mr. Obama will be the third consecutive president to visit the nation after America’s war there ended in 1975. Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam are warming as mutual interests become clearer.

In a move apparently timed to the president’s trip, Vietnam this week released a long-held political prisoner.

The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam has pressed the government there on human rights and other matters since he took his post.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre sent us this profile of the U.S.’ man in Hanoi.

MIKE CERRE: Breakfast at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Hanoi, with a side order of Vietnamese language lessons.

TED OSIUS, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam: I can speak what is a pretty difficult language, and I speak it pretty well.

I think, more often than not, people like to get out and mix it up, really learn what’s going on in the countries where they serve and make a difference.

MIKE CERRE: The closest most locals will ever come to a U.S. ambassador abroad is a passing motorcade or a heavily staged official event.

But given the tortured relations between the United States and Vietnam over the years, U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius is dispensing with traditional protocols to help create a new reference point on U.S.-Vietnam relations.

His mission in Vietnam started with a 1,200-mile bike ride, the length of the country, as a U.S. consular officer in 1995, soon after official relations between the two countries were restored. His bike diplomacy continues to be his signature style for interacting with the Vietnamese people, as well as local government officials.

While crossing the former demilitarized zone, once separating North from South Vietnam, a local woman offered a rare, but indelible Vietnamese perspective on what they call here the American war.

TED OSIUS: And I asked her, “So, why are there so many ponds right here?”

And she said, “Well, that’s where the Americans dropped bombs.”

And she said — she went on to say: “They dropped bombs on my village. They dropped bombs, and I lost family members.”

And I said: “Well, I need you to know I’m American and I work for the U.S. Embassy.”

And she said well, “Today — today, you and I are brother and sister.”

MIKE CERRE: Save for the war museum, mostly for tourists, it’s almost impossible to find any traces or mention of the war, let alone get anyone wanting to talk about it, especially the younger Vietnamese, who have little knowledge of the war.

TED OSIUS: So, they have known a lot of war. Ours was one.

In some ways, it more seared into our consciousness than into theirs. Yes, it was very painful for both sides. Yes, they lost a huge number of people, but they in many ways have been quicker to move on and look toward the future than we have.

MIKE CERRE: He relies on his Facebook page to circumvent official channels and the government-controlled media to communicate as directly as he can with the Vietnamese people on significant issues, like TPP, the new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

TED OSIUS: But you’re not doing this alone.

More than half of our exports to Vietnam are agricultural. And there will be many more opportunities for our exporters to get into this market when the Vietnamese lower their tariffs. The idea that jobs will be sucked out of the United States and will go to Vietnam, I don’t think is correct.

MIKE CERRE: So those jobs have already left the United States?

TED OSIUS: We’re talking about industries like making shoes or apparel that involve a lot of people, and those jobs will shift within this region, for the most part.

MIKE CERRE: Also on the agenda for the first presidential state visit, a broadening of defense agreements

TED OSIUS: The Chinese have been very aggressive, and in some ways, they have been pushing the Southeast Asian countries towards us, because they have been so aggressive in building islands, in challenging the status quo in the South China Sea. And the United States stands for respect for international law.

MIKE CERRE: As much as the Vietnam tries to put the war behind it, a new generation of Vietnamese are still dealing with some its dangerous legacies, unexploded ordnance, and environmental contamination from the Agent Orange defoliant, suspected of causing crippling health issues for successive generations of Vietnamese.

TED OSIUS: If you’re honest about the past, you can have a very different kind of future than if you try to whitewash the past.

One is in the cleanup of dioxin, popularly known as Agent Orange. And we have had some real success in Da Nang, in cleaning up the dioxin that was left.

MIKE CERRE: He and the administration are also hoping to leverage the TPP negotiations to make progress on one of the more sensitive issues between the two countries, human rights.

TED OSIUS: This is really important. Yes, I have it. I always — I carry this card. It’s examples of demonstrable progress on human rights.

I have given this card to members of the politburo. I point out, these are the things that we’re asking you to do. We couldn’t be more clear. It fits on a card. The Vietnamese could still choose — rather than have economic growth, rather than have trade with us in Europe, they can choose to throw bloggers in jail.

MIKE CERRE: For Ambassador Osius, human rights begins at home.

TED OSIUS: I’m white. My husband’s black. And our kids are brown.

So, we represent, I think, one of the things that’s really great about America.

MIKE CERRE: Ambassador Osius isn’t the first gay U.S. ambassador, but he and his spouse, Clayton Bond, have become very visible leaders of the LGBT movement in the Diplomatic Corps and now sweeping across Southeast Asia, especially here in Vietnam, where a ban on same-sex marriages was lifted shortly after they arrived less than two years ago.

Is this more of a personal agenda or an official agenda?

TED OSIUS: Well, it’s about representing equality. And it’s about representing human rights.

And it’s very much an official agenda. The agenda of this administration is to keep pressing the envelope on human rights. And that includes the rights of LGBTI persons. Because my family and I are visible, we do more by example than through just talking. We show that you can be a same-sex couple and raise children, and do it successfully.

NGUYEN QUI DUC, Cafe Owner: So, anyone who thinks that the ambassador’s sexuality is a distraction, I think they should come here and see how it’s been embraced by people.

MIKE CERRE: Nguyen Qui Duc, a former NPR and BBC correspondent, owns a cafe on the same block as the ambassador’s residence, and is a close observer of the Vietnamese reaction to the ambassador’s diplomatic and personal style.

NGUYEN QUI DUC: It’s a nonissue, as long as he does his work and carries himself with dignity.

TED OSIUS: The fact that I show respect for Vietnamese language and culture and history, the Vietnamese people, the fact that I show that respect, that I clearly enjoy being here, I think that has helped my mission.

I really love being here. I feel like I won the lottery, because I really care about this country. To be able to come here and do this job at this time in history is a really rare privilege. I feel lucky every day.

MIKE CERRE: For the “PBS NewsHour,” Mike Cerre reporting in Hanoi, Vietnam.