Clinton tells Vietnamese: 'We see you as a country, no longer a foe'

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For president Bill Clinton, it was a routine start to an official visit: an opening ceremony, an inspection of troops and a patient wait while the respective national anthems played. But yesterday's welcoming of the first United States president to set foot in the presidential palace in Vietnam was a truly remarkable sight.

For president Bill Clinton, it was a routine start to an official visit: an opening ceremony, an inspection of troops and a patient wait while the respective national anthems played. But yesterday's welcoming of the first United States president to set foot in the presidential palace in Vietnam was a truly remarkable sight.

As the "Star Spangled Banner" echoed around the sunny forecourt of the grand, mustard-yellow colonial palace, even some of the hardened American press corps had to swallow a lump in their throat. Mr Clinton and Vietnam's President, Tran Duc Luong, then went inside, posing for photographers in front of a huge bust of Ho Chi Minh, founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The visit is the first to Vietnam for an American president since 1969 when Richard Nixon stopped briefly in the US-backed southern city of Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, known here as the "American War". The bitter conflict, which ended 25 years ago, left 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans dead and still haunts relations between the two countries.

It was a subject that Mr Clinton could not avoid and nor did he, telling the Vietnamese in a live television broadcast that their country had made a "staggering sacrifice". The history of the two nations was "deeply intertwined" he said. "Finally America is coming to see Vietnam as your people have asked for years, as a country not a war."

The Clintons have been greeted by enthusiastic crowds who have shown no sign of bitterness, not even in a city where hundreds were killed by US bombs. Outside the Temple of Literature, the site of Vietnam's first university, Mr Clinton was besieged and stopped to shake outstretched hands. One government interpreter was bowled over by the famous charm. "He shook my hand," she said ecstatically. "He is so handsome, he has a lovely smile."

Students at the National University began lining the streets hours before Mr Clinton was due to arrive. Minh Ly, a 24-year-old sociology student sporting a Nike baseball cap, said: "I love him. He's the first American president to lift the [trade] embargo on Vietnam. I like Nike and Adidas because they are high quality."

Few foreign goods are available in the country, which has frustrated US investors with its slow pace of economic liberalisation since the embargo was lifted in 1994. But the eleganttree-lined streets of Hanoi beloved by tourists may soon be punctuated by the likes of McDonald's, and Pizza Hut if trade relations take off.

Much of Mr Clinton's visit is about highlighting a comprehensive trade agreement signed in July, paving the way for the US to become Vietnam's largest trading partner. His speech to students dwelt on their glowing prospects in an era of globalisation. "You are the engine of Vietnam's future economy," he said.

In a veiled hint that the next generation could try to change the one-party system he told students: "Only you can decide if you will continue to open Vietnam so that you can enrich it with the insights of others. Only you can decide if you will continue to open your markets, open your society and strengthen the rule of law. Only you can decide how to weave individual liberties and human rights into the rich and strong fabric of Vietnamese national identity. Your future should be in your hands."

In the area of human rights, America was not perfect either, he said tactfully, adding that the US had no intention of "imposing" its own ideals on Vietnam.

It was a cleverly crafted speech which dwelt on the war without apologising and skirted the issue of reparation. It was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the students, listening to a simultaneous translation on headphones.

Afterwards, they reiterated one phrase again and again: the past is in the past, we must look forward. Nygen Thi Thanh Tuyen said the speech "turned a new page" in the two countries' histories. "It was wonderful," the 20-year-old French student said. "It's not important to apologise. Every country has its disadvantages and his speech said a lot about Vietnam's good points."

An American Vietnamese, who returned five years ago to teach at the university, was more measured. "It was just what I expected," he said. "It wasn't the right time for an apology. A lot of mistakes have been made by both sides but now is the time to understand each other a little better. The speech was just right for both sides."

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