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US president talks with young Vietnamese leaders in Ho Chi Minh City

Thursday, May 26, 2016, 10:36 GMT+7

United States President Barack Obama held a meeting with over 800 local members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) on Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City, the final activity of his three-day visit to Vietnam.

Attending the event were members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), including many well-known young names in Vietnam’s business start-up community, many of whom have been granted U.S. scholarships.

Speaking with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, many of the young people in attendance expressed their excitement at the invitation to speak with the U.S. head of state.

The Vietnamese youths gathered early in the morning at the GEM Center in District 1 to undergo security procedures before entering the meeting hall. By 10:00 am, all seats in the conference hall had been filled and several prominent academics could be spotted amongst the crowd, including Professor Thomas Vallely, former director of Harvard University’s Vietnam Program, Nguyen Xuan Thanh, director of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and others.

Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ha Kim Ngoc, Ambassador to the U.S. Bui Quang Vinh, and Director of the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Vu Tu were all present at the event.

U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, Consul General Rena Bitter, and Secretary of State John Kerry were also in attendance.

President Obama made his appearance at the town hall at 11:05 am after being introduced by Ngo Thuy Ngoc Tu, the event’s host and a young Vietnamese who co-founded the award winning English pronunciation app ELSA.

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After an opening speech addressing his ties with young people in the Asia-Pacific region and listing some examples of young Vietnamese with outstanding achievements, the president opened the floor for questions from the audience.

After being asked on what it takes to become a great leader, President Obama stressed the importance of focusing on finding one’s passion and committing to it.

“My most important advice is to find something that you care deeply about, find something that excites you and put all your energy and effort into it,” the president said.

After being asked by a young Vietnamese about efforts to preserve the Son Doong Cave, a world heritage site in the north-central province of Quang Binh, the U.S. head of state focused his response on climate change and environmental protection both in Vietnam and throughout the world.

The U.S. is willing to support the Vietnamese government and other organizations in the preservation of natural heritage and help the nation “leapfrog” its way towards the development of clean energy and industry.

Following a similar inquiry on environmental issues, Obama spoke about the effect of the construction of hydroelectric dams in the upstream Mekong River on countries in the downstream area.

“We are going to continue working with the effected countries to provide them with technical assistance and evaluation on what needs to be done and what needs to be watched out for,” he stated.

Vietnam joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement will pose an issue for the government on how to retain talent, according to an attendant.

“The best way to retain talent in any country is to make sure the talent is rewarded. A way to reward talent is to have strong rule of law, a good education system, and the ability to start a business easily,” Obama responded.

Government policies relating to taxation and the building of infrastructure should also make the people feel that they are in the best environment, he added.           

Addressing the final two questions, one from a Vietnamese filmmaker and another from a female rapper, President Obama highlighted the importance of the arts in society.

Artistic expressions, namely music, poetry, and others, are important because they inspire people, according to President Obama. 

“If you try to suppress the arts, you are suppressing the deepest dreams and aspirations of the people,” he remarked.

At around 12:10 at noon, the U.S. head of state concluded his talk with the young Vietnamese.  

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The YSEALI community consists of bright young leaders, 18-35 years old, from Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam who are making a difference in their communities, countries, and the region.

Launched in 2013, the YSEALI is President Obama’s signature program to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia.

Through a variety of programs and engagements, including U.S. educational and cultural exchanges, regional exchanges, and seed funding, YSEALI seeks to build the leadership capabilities of youth in the region, strengthen ties between the United States and Southeast Asia, and nurture an ASEAN community.

Upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday afternoon, President Obama paid a visit to the ancient Jade Emperor Pagoda in District 1, before attending an event focusing on commercial ties between the two countries and entrepreneurship that evening.

The president ended his Vietnam visit, which started on Monday in Hanoi, and left the southern metropolis for Japan for a G7 summit on Wednesday afternoon.

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