The American president who opposed the war in Vietnam and avoided military service here three decades ago, arrived in Hanoi today on a mission to redefine U.S. relations.
Ahead of his arrival, President Clinton said he hoped his presence “opens a new page in our relations … hopefully one that will put an end to the divisions.”
It was nearly midnight in Hanoi when Air Force One landed so his official welcome to the capital had to wait until Friday morning. But the Clinton schedule in Vietnam includes very little time with its communist leadership.
No other U.S. leader has ever officially visited Hanoi and he is the first to visit Vietnam since U.S. troops withdrew from the country in 1975.
Richard Nixon was the last serving president to visit the region when he traveled to the former U.S.-backed South Vietnam in July 1969 when the war was raging. Clinton, the present-day U.S. commander-in-chief, avoided the conflict.
Clinton’s only focus on the past is for a “full accounting” of the American servicemen still missing in action since the war.
He is scheduled to observe work Saturday at the excavation site of an America jet-fighter which crashed in 1967 near Hanoi.
The jet was piloted by Air Force Capt. Lawrence Evert. Clinton has invited Evert’s two sons to join him at the site.
Clinton is seeking as much exposure as possible to Vietnam’s younger generations, too young to remember the war.
In the 1970s, Clinton avoided the draft and protested the U.S. presence in Vietnam.
On Friday, Clinton will deliver a major presidential address at Hanoi University, to be broadcast live on national television.
Hillary Charms Hanoi
But several hours before the president arrived, the Clinton charm had already worked its magic on the streets of Vietnam.
Drawing screaming crowds of hundreds of local people, First Lady and Senator-elect Hillary Clinton arrived in Hanoi hours before the president. She flew in directly from Israel, where she attended the funeral of Leah Rabin, widow of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Wednesday.
Having barely had time to drop her luggage at the presidential hotel, Mrs. Clinton was driven to a downtown art gallery to visit a painting exhibition. She then toured a shopping street, attracting hundreds more excited onlookers, a highly unusual scene in normally staid Hanoi.
The crowd, held back by Vietnamese police and U.S. Secret Servicemen, cheered and screamed when Hillary waved.
“I am delighted to be here,” she told reporters. “I am very excited about our trip here. I feel very good about the wonderful reaction,” she said.
‘One of the Most Well-Known Women’
Tran Hien Lan, an English literature teacher whose late father’s paintings Hillary saw at the gallery, was thrilled and proudly showed the First Lady’s signature in the guest book.
“It’s our great pleasure to see her here, because we’ve heard a lot about her, we’ve read a lot about her,” she said. “She is one of the most well-known women in the world.”
“I’ve admired her for a long time already and it’s the first time I get the chance to meet her directly and talk with her,” said Tran Tuyet Lan, general manager of a handicraft shop Hillary stopped at.
“It’s a pleasure for us, we are just very proud that we can serve her some nice products and present some of our traditional culture of Vietnamese people.”
A Post-War Generation
Over the past few years, communist Vietnam has been seeing the embrace of Western ways.
Twenty-five years after American troops left Vietnam, many young Vietnamese still perform the old revolutionary songs. But when the uniforms come off, Vietnam’s post-war generation rocks to a very American beat.
“The average Vietnamese youngster knows exactly as much about the Vietnamese War as one of our high school students somewhere in America, which is probably almost nothing,” U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson told reporters.
Peterson was a prisoner of war himself during the conflict Vietnamese call The American War, but is now one of the most outspoken champions of improved ties between the two countries.
Signs of American influence are everywhere.
Outside the capital of Hanoi, where American B-52s dropped their bombs during the war, stands a spanking new Ford car factory.
And the largest private employer in communist Vietnam, with nearly 50,000 workers on its payrolls, is none other than Nike, a veritable icon of American consumerism.
Food and ‘Cong Viec’
Where a U.S.-sponsored war once claimed nearly 3 million Vietnamese lives, today the American assembly line provides Vietnamese with jobs and security.
“These jobs are extremely attractive,” said Nike’s Chris Helzer. He said American companies now arriving in Vietnam are met with a flood of job seekers.
“Here you have a people who, for the first time in a long, long time, see opportunities for prosperity,” said Helzer. “And they’re excited.”
For a month’s work in the Nike factory just outside Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Thuy, 22, earns only $50 a month, but that is three times the national average.
With a salary like that, Tran is the proud possessor of the two things the post-war generation most dearly wants: family and “Cong Viec,” (a good-paying job).
But not everyone is happy with American-style capitalism sweeping the country. Local elders and some communist leaders remain suspicions about the growing consumerism. A Communist Party official recently warned of the dangers of American economic imperialism.
But the old rhetoric has a hollow ring. The heroes of the post-war generation are young entrepreneurs like Tran Thang, who started his own securities firm to trade on his country’s first-ever stock market.
Only four companies are listed on the Vietnamese Stock Exchange so far, but Vietnam now boasts its own Wall Street.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.