HANOI – “I’m from Nebraska, I’m not a big city boy / Then three years ago, I moved to Hanoi.”
When the United States normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, approximately nobody would have anticipated a sitting U.S. ambassador earnestly rapping these lines – in an officially approved video – to an unsuspecting Vietnamese audience.
Yet that’s what happened on Monday when Daniel Kritenbrink, the soon-to-depart ambassador to Vietnam, dropped a surprise rap song sending well wishes to families across the nation as they prepare for Lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnam.
The endearing clip, produced by Ho Chi Minh City-based culture magazine Vietcetera, sees Kritenbrink eager to take part in the second series of Rap Viet, a popular TV talent show for Vietnamese rappers.
After a quick call, he collaborates with Vietnamese rapper Wowy, who rose to prominence in 2006 with pioneering rap group SouthGanz. Together, the duo stroll before cultural landmarks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, sketching out lyrics and working on rhymes.
Kritenbrink then leaps out of a public bus and starts spitting bars about the upcoming festival.
“Check the calendar, Tet is coming soon / Can Tho and Da Nang are in the mood.”
Tet, Vietnam’s most important festival, marks the beginning of the new year according to the lunar calendar. Families come together across the nation to feast, drink and share li xi, or lucky money, with children.
In the clip, Kritenbrink goes on to mention Vietnamese Tet traditions such as cleaning the house and buying sprigs of peach blossoms or cherry blossoms, yet closes with a reference to improved diplomatic ties between the two former foes:
“U.S. and Vietnam, from now to forever / We’re trusted partners, prospering together.”
The video, released on the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page, has been shared over 2,000 times and received over 700 comments.
One commenter, Phuong Nguyen, said: “What is this? The State Department is now turning into the Ministry for Rapping, huh? Ever since Biden was elected, the ambassador has had nothing to do, so he’s preparing to switch to making professional dance songs?”
Kritenbrink’s video isn’t the first time rapping has featured in America’s diplomacy efforts with Vietnam. During a 2016 visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Suboi, one of Vietnam’s most popular artists, rapped to President Barack Obama during an 800-person town hall meeting.
While lighthearted comments on social media may reveal Vietnam’s gradual embrace of the United States, Thu Le Huong, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the fact that Kritenbrink felt confident and comfortable enough to break out of conventional diplomacy focusing on trade or the legacy of war speaks volumes.
Kamal Malhotra, the head of the United Nations in Vietnam, said in an email that like many of his predecessors, “Dan realizes that people-to-people cultural diplomacy to engage young people is as important in Vietnam as formal diplomacy, particularly for the U.S. given its history here.”
The significance of releasing the video shortly before Tet is surely not lost on Kritenbrink. Before Lunar New Year in 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack on of targets across South Vietnam – a military maneuver known as the Tet Offensive – that played a major role in weakening U.S. public support for the war in Vietnam.
Now, 53 years later, the U.S. ambassador has released a charm offensive with his viral rap video.
The song’s lyrics, Malhotra added, shows a sensitivity to many Tet traditions from north to south, which “must have brought much-needed smiles and warmth to many Vietnamese faces,” especially at a time of new anxieties as the nation rushes to contain a recent outbreak of the coronavirus.
At the clip’s conclusion, Kritenbrink sends the video to Binz, a Ho Chi Minh City-based Vietnamese rapper who featured as a coach for contestants in Rap Viet, and who’s known in particular for his hit single ‘Bigcityboi’ that Kritenbrink alludes to in his lyrics. In a phone call, Binz replies tersely yet enthusiastically to Kritenbrink’s rap: “Amazing. Good job, man.”
Yet Kritenbrink’s carefree closing sentiment, delivered before a hair-stroking homie handshake with rapper Wowy, reveals how far relations have come:
“Chuc mung nam moi[happy new year] from your boy in Hanoi!”
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Link to video: