By WALTER R. MEARS
HANOI, Vietnam – Offering “a new page in our relations with Vietnam,” President Clinton today became the first U.S. president to visit Hanoi, capital of the communist country that America could not defeat 25 years ago.
Although the official welcoming ceremony would not occur until Friday morning, tens of thousands of Vietnamese gathered on the road between the airport and his downtown hotel to get a glimpse of their American guest.
People in the crowd – most seemed to be under 30 – waved and applauded as Clinton’s limousine passed just before midnight. “I’m very excited,” said Cao Tien Hung, a 22-year-old college student. He said he came to see how long the motorcade was. It was about 20 vehicles long, including some buses.
Vietnamese shook hands with anyone who looked like an American, and someone kissed an American news photographer. “This only happens once in a thousand years,” said homemaker Tran Thi Lan, 50.
At the airport, about a dozen military officials lined a fringed red carpet to greet Clinton. With his wife already in the city, Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, were each handed a bouquet by a woman in a traditional tunic and pants outfit called an ao dai. The president chatted with Pete Peterson, a former POW who is America’s ambassador to Vietnam, and his wife, Vietnam native Vi Le.
Clinton was accompanied on his three-day trip by scores of American business executives eager to open plants and sell goods to this country of 78 million. He also was welcomed by Vietnam’s foreign minister Nguyen Dy Nien and trade minister Vu Khoan.
Talk of trade would be mixed with memories of the Vietnam War.
As a young man, Clinton believed the war was wrong and he demonstrated against it, writing in 1969 that it was a conflict he “opposed and despised.” He avoided the draft, although he ultimately accepted it and drew a lottery number that spared him induction.
The war itself ended with America’s withdrawal in 1973, followed two years later by the collapse of the South Vietnamese government the United States had sought to preserve.
While Vietnam’s government welcomes Clinton’s visit and most ordinary people express only good will toward the United States, the people of this soccer-mad country showed far more interest in the Tiger Cup, a regional tournament in which the national team has been faring well. The country came to a standstill while the games were on television.
En route here, Clinton said the best way to honor the Americans and Vietnamese who died in the war “is to find a way to build a better future and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Clinton is the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam, and the first since the fall of the South and reunification under communist rule. Lyndon B. Johnson went to Vietnam twice as president and Richard M. Nixon once, in 1969.
Peterson, the former pilot sent to Hanoi by Clinton as the first postwar U.S. ambassador in 1997, said no one here ever talked to him about the president’s anti-war past.
“It probably is well known, but it’s never been mentioned to me and I doubt seriously if there will be any reference to it at all during his visit – at least, certainly, by the Vietnamese,” Peterson said.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here today afternoon from Israel, where she delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Leah Rabin, widow of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
She toured an art gallery and went shopping on Hang Gai street, famed for a string of shops offering everything from souvenirs to high-quality silk products. On Friday and Saturday, she planned to meet with women’s groups in and around Hanoi and to deliver an address in Ho Chi Minh City in the south, formerly known as Saigon.
Clinton came here from the sultanate of Brunei. He spent today in conferences with Pacific Rim leaders, who closed out the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum by calling for a new round of global trade talks. He also held separate, private meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Clinton and Jiang made progress toward curtailing Beijing’s missile exports and decided tentatively to resume severed human rights talks, Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs said.
Clinton’s long day began at the lighted Brunei Royal Golf Club with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. They got in nine holes before they quit at 2 a.m. It was raining and lightning flashed when they teed off.
Clinton’s last stop in Brunei was a courtesy call on Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in the oil state splendor of his 1,700-room palace.
Briefing reporters by telephone from Hanoi, Ambassador Peterson called Clinton’s visit “a huge victory” that will enhance the standing of elements seeking to make Vietnamese society more open.
In an interview with The Associated Press while en route to Asia, Clinton said many Americans and Vietnamese “still bear the wounds of war,” and that the way to heal them is with a strengthened relationship.
Clinton planned to discuss the Vietnamese-aided effort to recover the remains of Americans missing in action, the improvement of human rights in Vietnam, and U.S. investment projects, of which here are 118 now, according to Peterson.
“We don’t need rose colored glasses here,” Clinton said. “We still have differences with the Vietnamese about the form of government they have. … But I think it’s time to write a new chapter here.”
Still, the old chapter, the war that cost 58,000 American and about 3 million Vietnamese lives, is not entirely closed.
“I don’t think there’s very much postwar animosity,” Peterson said. “There are certainly pockets of it.”
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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