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Alliance of the Heart

Two Diplomats Who Fell in Love Call Their Involvement a 'Very Nice Accident,' While Others Say It Also Symbolizes the New Age Detente Between America and Vietnam

September 23, 1998|TINI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANOI — Theirs is a romance that would have happened no matter what the circumstances, they say.

But when U.S. Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson fell in love with Vietnamese Australian trade diplomat Vi Le in Hanoi, the symbolism was too much for others to ignore.

The fact remains that who they are--an American former prisoner of war and a Saigon-born trade diplomat--lent a metaphoric quality to their yearlong courtship and recent nuptials. From the moment he arrived here last year, Peterson was seen as the personification of America's recent detente with Vietnam. But his marriage to Le clinched it, earning him the title of "Vietnam's son-in-law" in the media.

Their May 23 wedding in a Roman Catholic church a few blocks from the jail where Peterson was imprisoned for 6 1/2 years during the Vietnam War was touted by some as the symbol of ultimate reconciliation between Washington and Hanoi.

"Whether they intended it or not, their relationship is a flawless enhancement to Peterson's very clear mission here to close the past and open the future," said Chuck Searcy, director of Vietnam programs for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and a friend of the ambassador.

By now, Le and Peterson have become accustomed to hearing their relationship described in such sweeping terms, but during an interview at their home, they laughingly called it nothing more than "a very nice accident."

"Maybe we were a little naive, but we really didn't ever think about it that way," Peterson said. "We were just very involved with each other."

Although the relationship is "very much a private thing," Le said diplomatically that if others choose to see it as a symbolic renewal of U.S.-Vietnam relations, that's a plus.

"If it helps make reconciliation faster or more effective," she said, "then we're happy to help."

Daunting Task Still Lies Ahead

Polished and articulate, Le is thoroughly Westernized. But her Vietnamese heritage caught the imagination of the public.

She became something of a minor sensation in the Hanoi media. Coverage of their wedding in magazines like Gioi Phu Nu, or Woman's World, was star-struck.

"The ambassador could have married anyone. But he chose to marry her, a Vietnamese woman," editor in chief Nguyen Phuong Minh said. "We feel that makes him closer to the Vietnamese people."

The public goodwill surrounding their marriage belies the difficulties Peterson faces in pushing for true U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation. A bilateral trade agreement has yet to be reached.

The 63-year-old ambassador has long-standing ties to Vietnam. A fighter pilot during the war, he was shot down and imprisoned at the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" from 1966 to 1973. He went on to become a Democratic congressman from Florida before being tapped to become the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in the postwar era.

For her part, Le, 42, understands the complexities of his task, with a background and position that are every bit as well-traveled and high-powered as Peterson's.

As head of the Australian Trade Commission, she is the ranking trade official at the Australian Embassy in Vietnam. Le, a corporate banker by training, spends her days promoting her country's exports and smoothing the way for Australian companies caught in the frustrating maze of doing business in a country with little legal infrastructure.

Somewhat bemused by the flurry of media interest, Le said she considers herself more a world citizen than anything else.

Her parents originally came from Hanoi but migrated south in 1954. Le was born in Saigon in August 1956, and a year later her family left the country for good, hopscotching across Laos, Thailand and Hong Kong before settling in Australia in 1977.

"I grew up in a very international, expatriate community," she said. "I spoke four or five languages by the time I was 8 or 10."

Businesswoman Makes a Homecoming

Along with her four siblings, Le was educated in American, French and Australian schools. She graduated from the University of Melbourne with an economics degree, got her master's in corporate finance and joined ANZ, a prominent Australian bank, in 1981.

"I have a totally Western frame of mind, certainly on the professional side. Yet I had Vietnamese parents who always made sure we understood Vietnamese culture and at least spoke the language," she said. "It's hard to say whether I'm Western or Asian--I think a combination of both."

That bicultural education stood Le in good stead when she was sent to Vietnam in 1993 to open ANZ's corporate offices in Hanoi. It was the first time back since her family left.

For Le, it was both a personal chance to reconnect with a birthplace she didn't remember and a professional opportunity to break ground in an emerging market.

"Culturally, rediscovering the roots has been really interesting. I was quite charmed by Hanoi, and I've found an affinity for Vietnam I never had before," she said.

On the career side, it was a chance to showcase her ability to bridge cultural gaps.

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