SCMP Saturday, November 18, 2000


'Nice man' has women charmed


President Bill Clinton's reception in Hanoi yesterday demonstrated that Vietnamese attitudes to America remain divided from one generation to another, and that relations between the two former enemies still have some way to go before they are fully healed.
The first serving American president to visit Vietnam since Richard Nixon's trip to Saigon in 1969 and the first to visit Hanoi, Mr Clinton's warmest welcome came from the young, in particular young women.
Thousands of female students wearing traditional ao dai dresses assembled outside the National University, from where Mr Clinton delivered his unprecedented, nationally televised speech of reconciliation, with many weeping tears of joy.
"What is he, 50 years old?" asked Thu Ha, 21. "But he's so tall and strong. Are all Americans like him?" she asked.
Elsewhere in the city, middle-aged women sat glued to their television sets as President Clinton delivered a relaxed message of reconciliation. "He seems like such a nice man, and so young to be president," said 43-year-old Thu Hong Ha.
"And I heard he comes from a very troubled background, that he had a childhood without a mother," she said. "Yet now he is president of the most powerful country in the world. He's a great example for all our young people."
Others were equally pleased to see Mr Clinton. "America is a great place, and it's high time we got together to act like friends," said Nguyen Van Mao, 54, a tree trimmer. Mr Mao gestured with his left hand, revealing three stumps where fingers once were. "Oh, that," he said, explaining that he was with troops who stormed Ban Me Thuot in 1975. "From the Ho Chi Minh Trail - an American mine. That's past, and I don't think about it. For me, I look at now."
Student Thi Minh Tan, 19, added: "He's never been here, but I think he understands Vietnam. He seems to believe in people. Still, I'd like to ask him if he is really interested in making friends or just expanding globalisation."
Not everybody was impressed, with several older men sipping tea in a down-town cafe merely glancing at the television set before returning to a conversation about the night before's football game, in which Indonesia beat Vietnam 3-2.
"What is he, a god or something?" snorted ex-soldier Nguyen Duch Thanh. "He's just a man, you know, and I'm not convinced that America really wants to be friends. I think their trade policy is just a trick so they can take over Vietnam by controlling our economy."
"It's all just talk," said one of his companions. "Maybe I'll read about it in the papers tomorrow, but I'll bet you 100,000 dong that I won't read about Mr Clinton saying sorry for the war, or offering to help the people who still suffer from it," he said.
Much of the city continued life as usual as Mr Clinton delivered his speech of reconciliation. Many older Vietnamese who suffered during the Vietnam War remain suspicious of American intentions.
"America's ambition is to be the boss of the world," said 50-year-old Nguyen Duc Luong. "I hate the US because it always interferes with the internal affairs of other countries and seeks only to make money.
"Americans are selfish and arrogant and they are also hypocrites."
But Mr Clinton's opposition to what the Vietnamese call the American War, and his personal dedication to normalise relations during his two terms in office, have given him credibility with Vietnam's leadership and widespread personal popularity.