HANOI, Vietnam – It’s his first official visit here but it feels like coming home for President Rodrigo Duterte.
Nearly an hour before the President was scheduled to arrive, organizers and Embassy officials waiting for him here were sweating profusely. Officers and marshals of the Pinoy Sa Hanoi (PSH) have to cram more than 600 people inside the 300-seating capacity Grand Ballroom of the Intercontinental Hanoi West Lake.
PSH president Feliciano Felix Jr. said they were expecting about 500 people but sources from the Philippine Embassy in Hanoi already listed more than 640.
“Those who are not in the list, we are sorry but we are not sure if you could be accommodated,” an officer announced over the din inside the hotel lobby.
That was way before the participants started falling in line outside the venue.
The early birds did not mind the heat, gamely exchanging pleasantries with each other, some clapping when somebody they recognized arrived.
An English teacher who hails from Subic said he took a two-hour bus ride to Hanoi from where he is based.
Another one who came in later said he took three hours longer.
Ho Chi Minh Filipino community president Rolando Ramos flew all they way just to attend the event along with Rey Martial Rodriguez.
As the line grew longer, organizers grew more worried.
A bus load of students from a district two hours away from Hanoi stretched the line even longer.
When asked if they were forced to come, they swiftly retorted in Pilipino: “hindi naman!”
“Gusto talaga namin sya makita (We really want to see him),” a female student said, as heads around her nodded in approval.
A long-time Vietnam resident does not recall anything close to this in past presidential visits.
“We were not invited, and we were not interested,” he explained.
A couple of Cebuano-speaking women were overheard saying no amount of bad publicity can make them change their opinion of the President.
“Pareho ra na sila tanan. Mas hawod pa kang Digong (All of them are the same. They think they know better than Digong),” one of them said referring to Duterte’s nickname.
Going by the inconveniences and even sacrifices Filipinos in Vietnam had to put up with just to welcome Duterte, it means his critics still has a lot of work to do just to dent his popularity here.