LYNNWOOD — A generation ago, it would have been foolish to think of Americans traveling freely and willingly to Vietnam.
But much has happened in the half-century since the United States was at war in Southeast Asia. With the passing years, peace has come to Vietnam.
And something else has come, too. The most American of pastimes, baseball.
The Vietnamese, it seems, are catching baseball fever. The country is still a long ways from international prominence, but in the meantime American baseball ambassadors are helping Vietnamese youngsters to learn and love the game.
One of those ambassadors is 18-year-old Chris Tanner of Edmonds, a senior at Meadowdale High School. In February, Tanner made his second trip to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, where he joined others from the Puget Sound area in coaching kids ages 6 to 14.
During his weeklong stay, it became very clear to Tanner that Vietnamese youngsters “love baseball. They’re really passionate about it. It’s grown on them and become kind of their way of life.”
The trip was organized by Phil Rognier of Medina, the executive director of the FirstSwing Foundation, which conducts baseball camps and clinics for youngsters in and around Seattle (Tanner was a FirstSwing participant as a younger boy, and later got into coaching). One of Rognier’s acquaintances — an American who lives in Vietnam with his native wife and their children — had asked if he would bring coaches there to help develop the game.
The first trip was three years ago, when Tanner was a Meadowdale freshman, and he found it so successful and meaningful that he jumped at the chance to go again this year. It helped that all expenses were covered by corporate contributions.
“It was an awesome experience to go over there,” Tanner said. “The first time it was like, ‘Wow, we’re in Vietnam and I get to meet all these cool people.’ But this time it was more like, ‘I’m here to coach baseball, but I’m also here to enrich their lives and teach them there are life lessons to be taken away from baseball and applied (to daily living).”
Though the Vietnamese are still fairly new at baseball, “I think they could compete with a lot of (youth) teams here,” he added. “They’re dedicated and they’ve been practicing for the past three or four years.
“They’re pretty good at fielding. Pitching, they’re pretty good at that, and they have some (good hitters), too. So all around, they’re decent.”
You might wonder what the Vietnamese think of Americans, given the war between the two countries in the 1960s. But Tanner discovered that “people were very open to us, even on the streets. The war was never really an issue. … We were definitely told not to bring up in touchy subjects just to avoid any conflicts, but they never really asked us anything (about the war).”
Still, there were reminders. The hotel used by Tanner and his companions abutted the Maison Centrale, a former prison more commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton, where American POWs were held captive during the war. Much of the prison has been demolished, but the gatehouse remains as a museum, and Tanner and the others in his party took a tour.
The visit, Tanner said, “was kind of surreal. We were walking around in a place where Americans had been held captive, so that was kind of a weird thing. It was interesting, but you also knew that people had died there.”
Vietnamese children are much too young to remember the war, of course. Their understanding of the United States comes mostly from American movies and music, which they enjoy. Tanner, in fact, was surprised by the extent of their knowledge.
“American music and pop culture is pretty big in Vietnam,” he said. As is Kentucky Fried Chicken, the fast food of choice.
But what the young Vietnamese baseball players seemed to appreciate most of all was the chance to learn an American game from American coaches.
“I think they definitely felt like they were getting special treatment,” Tanner said. “The first time there we kind of felt like rock stars. … They knew that our visit was something special, that it wasn’t going to happen (often), and I think they were trying to soak in as much information as they could.”
For Tanner, visiting Vietnam “was just an amazing opportunity that not a lot of people get to do even once, and I got to do it twice,” he said. “I had the chance to have an impact on these kids’ lives through the game of baseball.”