by Christopher Runckel, the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War
and President of Runckel & Associates (www.Business-in-Asia.com)

My life has often been linked to Vietnam.  In 1969-70, I served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam.  It is not something I sought but I found my 19 months there stimulating and found Vietnam to be a beautiful country
.  I enjoyed the people, the scenery and the food but felt it would be better to see it next time without the military.  In 1975 after completing law school and passing the bar exam in Washington State, I again was linked to Vietnam when I served in President Ford's Presidential Clemency Board as Deputy General Counsel.  Later in 1975, I returned to other issues concerning Vietnam in my initial work at the U.S. State Department.  In the late 70s and early 80s, I was involved in supporting the organizations helping to process and arrange resettlement for Vietnamese boat people during my service at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

In August, 1992 my wife and I were selected to start Vietnamese language training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.  Again, I didn't seek this but it came to me as life has a way of doing.  The idea was that ultimately I would be sent as the initial staff to Hanoi to open up the first U.S. diplomatic office in Vietnam since the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975.  I had also negotiated agreement that my wife also receive language training.  For six hours in class and two hours of mandatory study each evening we studied Vietnamese for the next nine months.  It was hard work as Vietnamese is not an easy language but it also was a challenge and my wife and I both enjoyed working and learning with our teachers, especially Tran Dai Do who had a long education background in Vietnam and who imbued in us a love of Vietnamese culture and history.

APEC 1993 in Seattle

Picture: President Clinton and world leaders at the APEC 1993 in Seattle. The negotiations with Vietnam took longer than expected, so during the waiting period, I worked as overall project officer to coordinate U.S. involvement in the first APEC in the U.S.  This picture was taken by me at Blake Island at the conclusion of the meetings.

Initial negotiations with Vietnam were taking longer than expected and so in July 1993 I was selected as the overall project officer to coordinate U.S. involvement in the first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Seattle.  This was in the early years of the Clinton administration and the decision by the White House to invite all the leaders of the member nations made this a very big meeting - probably the biggest in the U.S. outside of the annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York to this point.  It was a tremendous experience and Seattle was a joy to live and work in.  The meeting took place in November and it was a tremendous success.

In January, 1994, I was named U.S. Special Negotiator for Vietnam and started to travel to Vietnam regularly to meet with the Vietnamese government about return of U.S. government land, buildings and houses owned prior to 1975; return of U.S. company and individual property seized in Vietnam in 1975 at the fall of the Vietnamese government in the South; diplomatic, consular and other matters.    I also started planning for the opening of the new Embassy on these visits.

Picture top: The initial property negotiation team (I am the second from right in the picture).
Pictures above left: At 31 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, one of many U.S.-owned property before the war, that we sought to have returned.

Picture above right: The team at one of the properties that used to belong to the U.S. government.  This one is in fact the old U.S. Consulate in Hanoi.  Building was later demolished and the American Club is temporarily occupying this U.S. government property.

On February, 3, 1994, President Clinton lifted the U.S. Trade Embargo with Vietnam.  I was already staying in Vietnam for major periods of time at this point.  In June, 1994 I was named Deputy Chief of the US Liaison Office and moved to Hanoi full time with my family.  Although my official title was Deputy Chief, as President Clinton had yet to lift the trade embargo nor had Vietnam or the U.S. signed the other agreements necessary to be settled prior to establishment of diplomatic relations, I was the head of the U.S. Department of State office in Hanoi and remained in this capacity until January 28, 1995 when an agreement was finally signed opening Liaison Offices.  Additionally at this time agreements were signed settling real government property claims and also settlement of private claims between the two sides.  From this time, I then formally became the Deputy Chief of the Liaison Office.

Hanoi, Vietnam 1993
Hanoi, Vietnam, 1993
Pictures above: Hanoi in 1993.

Hanoi, Vietnam 1993

Picture: Morning market near the hotel my family and I occupied for many months before the U.S. reached agreement with Vietnam and we were allowed to move to a house.

This was a tremendous relief to me both professionally and personally as I had spent hours and hours on these negotiations, something that eventually led to me receiving the highest award for diplomatic service in the U.S. - the U.S. Distinguished Honor Award.  I was one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the nearly 200 year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.  Further personally, my wife, my young son and I had lived in hotel rooms for well over seven months (for me much longer) as to this point  neither the U.S. nor Vietnam had been willing to allow us to live in houses or apartments as both sides wanted to keep pressure on the other and give the impression that negotiations were still unsettled. At the signing, we were given keys to a small house rented from the foreign ministry Diplomatic Services Bureau on Ton That Tiep Street near the Citadel in Central Hanoi.  Despite the fact we at that point we had no furniture we moved in that night and slept on the floor as we were so tired of hotel living and wanted space for our young son to play.

The next day, I flew down to Ho Chi Minh City and in a ceremony at the gates of the former U.S. Embassy compound prior to 1975, received symbolic keys to the pre-1975 U.S. Embassy which I had visited many times over the last year.  From that time, the property retruned to U.S. government control.  We also received keys to a small property at Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, a larger property at Le Quy Don which consisted of a large dilapidated house and warehouses that had belong to the public affairs section of the Embassy prior to 1975, all in Ho Chi Minh City.

We also received two properties in Hanoi - one our former Consulate which consisted of a colonial house in rather poor condition and another house that was built later and that had a bunker below it as the Fatherland Front had occupied this property in the time since we left Hanoi in 1954.  The other and final property was a large villa that we had never owned but was offered to us as a residence for a future Ambassador.  This property had belonged to the Foreign Press Center and was very close to the Central Bank and the Metropole Hotel.

U.S. Embassy in Saigon

Picture above: The former U.S. Embassy property in Ho Chi Minh City was in very poor condition and was later demolished.  The Vietnam-Soviet petroleum company occupied the building for many years.  Over 20 years later, sandbags and rusting c ration cans littered the roof of the building.

U.S. Embassy in Saigon

Picture above: The team and I on the roof of the former U.S. Embassy building in HCMC, where the last helicopter took off in 1975. It was a challenge going up the cracking staircases.  I don't believe in ghosts but I never liked to enter the building after dark.

Picture above: Many of the properies, by the time the U.S. government obtained them back, were in poor condition and had to be demolished.  Shown above, workers demolishing a dilapidated structure next to the U.S. Liaison Office in Hanoi.

Picture above: In Asia, negotiations often continue over food.  The original State Department Officers, including Scott Maciel (far left), and myself (right) at a snake restaurant share a laugh.  The food we ate on behalf of our government was oftentimes a challenge.

Both of the properties on the former Hanoi Consulate property were in poor condition and were subsequently demolished as were all the buildings at Le Quy Don.  The number of properties owned by the U.S. government prior to 1975, primarily in the Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon) area, but also one in Hue, was quite large.  The U.S. government agreed to forego receiving these back as we realized that vacating them would be very politically explosive to both the Vietnamese government and to us.  The Vietnamese government ultimately agreed to value these properties by independent assessment which was done and the cash value of the old properties was considered against the fair market value of the new properties and the U.S. government was paid the difference to compensate it for these assets which could not be returned.  Although this sounds simple, getting to this agreement took a long time and much discussion and convincing.  Although this settlement cost the Vietnamese government considerably, one only has to look at the fact that in 2009 the U.S. is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and that this trade has led to outstanding GDP growth and prosperity to conclude that the deal was equitable on both sides.

Picture above: I signed official paper for the return of U.S. government properties.

Picture above: Jim Hall, sitting at left, later head of the U.S. Liason office, and Dennis Harter, standing at left, during signing of official agreements with Mr. Nguyen Xuan Phong, Chief of the Americas Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, SRV.  Mr. Phong was later the first Vietnamese Consul General in San Francisco.
the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi

Picture above: In August, 1995, Secretary of State Warren Christopher opened the U.S. Embassy which was in the same building as the former U.S. Liaison Office, a building that the U.S. Embassy still occupies.

the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam

Picture above: At the ceremony, the flag was raised at the Embassy in Hanoi for the first time after Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced the opening of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam.

U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, 1994

Picture above: Vietnamese officials attended the event.

Picture left:
The U.S. Embassy in 1993 at number 7 Lang Ha Street, Hanoi.  This property was the best available option in 1993-4. 

On July 11, 1995, President Clinton announced agreement on opening diplomatic relations and on August 5, 1995 Secretary of State Warren Christopher opened the U.S. Embassy which was in the same building as the former U.S. Liaison Office, a building that the U.S. Embassy still occupies.  This brings up a question that I am often asked which is why the U.S. built such an ugly and unrepresentative building for what became the Embassy.  The answer is we didn’t.  In 1994 when we were trying to settle all the claims on both sides as to properties owned by both sides, our biggest challenge was that prior to 1954 when the U.S. left Hanoi, we had owned only the U.S. Consulate located in the center of the city.  This was and is a large property in relative terms in Hanoi but not suitable in size for what we knew even then would be a large and growing mission given the importance of Vietnam and our mutual interests.  This assessment has proven correct as the staffing at the U.S. Embassy is currently well over 200 and continues to grow.  Further, Hanoi in 1994 was a very different place than it is today.  There had been little building in the years preceding and most buildings in Hanoi were old, dilapidated and overcrowded.  Finding a suitable building to locate even a business office was a tremendous challenge.  Finding a building that could accommodate up to a 100 people was a near impossibility.

In 1994, we had no large vacant site suitable for a building to be constructed nor at that time was there much choice in vacant and even occupied buildings as Vietnam was just starting to seriously open its economy.  Further many of us felt that it would take the U.S. government so long to build a new Embassy because of security and other reasons and that since neither side would be allowed to finally open diplomatic relations until the U.S. side had a suitable facility (please note that the former Vietnamese Embassy in the U.S. was already judged to be satisfactory and in fact desirable by the government of Vietnam at this point) that this situation required we find some building in Hanoi to allow the U.S. to start operations.  This left the U.S. side and especially those who argued for early opening of diplomatic relations with a problem - wait for an adequate U.S. Embassy to be built(which would take 4-5 years, possibly longer) or agree to occupy something we knew was not really satisfact
ory and would inconvenience the new Embassy and inhibit growth but do it now so that diplomatic relations could be established immediately.  This would allow the U.S. and Vietnam to start repairing their relationship now instead of waiting.

Picture above:
The return of the remains of POW-MIA at the airport in Vietnam.  An always moving experience.
I was firmly on the side that felt that the relationship with Vietnam was too important to wait and that we needed to start working with Vietnam more closely on all issues including POW-MIA accounting, economic relations, consular protection, etc.   I argued with others that we should not hold out for the ultimate but settle for something now in terms of a building putting the establishment of diplomatic relations as the highest priority.  In retrospect this may look reasonable but there were many high ranking individuals in the State Department and in the government that were not in favor of a quick opening of diplomatic relations and they tried to use this to slow down progress.  I in fact was required to fly to Bangkok at one point by a senior officer in the Department and told on the phone where it could not be intercepted to not be so forthcoming and to realize that policy was made higher up in the government.
In any case, ultimately we settled on the building at 7 Lang Ha which our contract driver had found and after much evaluation and negotiation it was turned over to us by the Vietnamese side as part of the property settlement.  Over the months ahead we renovated the building which was fairly new and tried to make it more suitable but I fully agree that it was always a second class building.  In fact, however, my choice of the building was ultimately proven correct as a good interim choice as when we accepted the building the Department agreed that if we did so that they would expedite the approval and construction of a new Embassy.  Here 15 years later this has yet to start construction which further proves my skepticism of Department promises for a rapid construction of a new Embassy were well placed.

Chris Runckel - award for Vietnam

Picture above: Jim Hall, Chief of U.S. Liaison Office, holds a Superior Honor Award presented to me for my work in starting U.S. government ooperations in Hanoi.  I'm at far right.

Soon after we  had settled in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and Secretary of State Warren Christopher had presided at the opening of the Embassy, planning started for a U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) which had always been planned as our next step.  Washington first agreed to allow me to have demolished some of the outbuildings on the compound at the corner of Mac Dinh Chi and Le Duan which we did in 1995.  The main Embassy building which had housed our large U.S. Embassy prior to 1975 was in bad shape.  Wiring was a shambles as was much of the plumbing system.  The roof leaked and the building although built to the highest bomb standards during the war was really a relic of the 60s and 70s.  Further, the building would always be a reminder of the War with all its negative baggage.  We therefore argued for its destruction and for construction of a new building on the site, a decision I totally supported.  Ultimately this decision won out and the building was ultimately demolished.

I flew recently into Ho Chi Minh City in September 2009.  As I flew in on a Delta/Northwest flight I marveled that in 1969 when I served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam I had never thought that Delta nor Northwest would be flying regularly scheduled service into Vietnam nor would it become such a site for U.S. companies to invest and work.  In fact, a Northwest/Delta pilot recently remarked the same thing to me.  As I looked out on the lights of the city and the surrounding provinces which even at 11 o’clock at night lit up the countryside far outside the city center, I had to compare that to 1969 and even to 1994 when I returned when the countryside and often much of the city was dark and unlit oftentimes from sunset.

U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC

Picture above:
The Department of State in Washington DC.

Chris Runckel received Hunt Award

Picture above:
In 1999, at the Department of State in Washington DC, I was honored to receive the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award. Award was for my contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations.  The award was presented by Undersecretary of State for Management, Ms. Bonnie Cohen, and the ceremony was attended by family, friends and colleages.

Vietnam is a very different place today.  Engagement with Vietnam has been good for the U.S. and it has been good for Vietnam.  Vietnam today is a vastly more prosperous country.  Tens of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty.  As I spoke at an Investment and Trade Conference jointly hosted by the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong province (the hottest place for investment in the whole country) to many U.S. and other businesses, I had to reflect that Vietnam and the U.S. have much to join them and that my small part in making that happen has been something that gives me pride and a sense of accomplishment. 

About the Author:  

Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is currently the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (www.business-in-asia.com)

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.

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