- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON) President Clinton spent the last day of his Vietnam trip going over the heads of his hosts, urging the country's entrepreneurs to embrace the free-market reforms their leaders have been slow to adopt.
Speaking at a bend in the Saigon River that is the site of Vietnam's newest shipping container terminal, Mr. Clinton yesterday wrapped up a path-breaking three-day trip by noting that even Vietnam's communist leadership concedes the state can't create enough jobs for a country where more than half the population is under the age of 30.
"Vietnam's young people have the talent and ideas to create the jobs of the future for themselves in a new era of entrepreneurship, innovation and competition," Mr. Clinton said, speaking in a makeshift amphitheater of boxy blue cargo containers, with a giant computerized double-bay crane looming behind him.
"That must be the future for Vietnam and its young people," he said.
The president amplified the point in an interview with CNN.
"I think the trend toward freedom is virtually irreversible," Mr. Clinton said. "These folks are too young. They're too vigorous. And, as you can see in the streets, there is a lot of good will toward America here."
In the CNN interview, Mr. Clinton touched on his difficult personal past with Vietnam, having dodged the Vietnam draft and having organized anti-war rallies against the United States while a student at Oxford.
A visit to a site near Hanoi where an American fighter jet may have gone down proved the emotional centerpiece of the three-day trip. Mr. Clinton said that when he first arrived here, he recalled Arkansas classmates from Hot Springs High School who had died in the war.
He cited the experience of U.S. Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson, who spent six years in a brutal North Vietnamese prison and who is now a leading advocate of warmer ties.
"I was thinking about the personal tragedies I had been in contact with as a boy," Mr. Clinton told CNN. "And then the moment intervened and we went on with the future."
Mr. Clinton announced yesterday that the Overseas Private Investment Corp. has set up a $200 million line of credit to support U.S. firms seeking financing for projects in Vietnam.
Mr. Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea left Ho Chi Minh City yesterday evening, concluding the first visit to Vietnam by an American president since Richard M. Nixon visited U.S. combat troops here in 1969.
White House officials say they have sensed a growing divide between the stand-pat instincts of Vietnam's dominant Communist Party in Hanoi and the vibrant, raucous, anything-ought-to-go business ethic of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
The day's events referred only glancingly to the legacy of the Vietnam War and the frosty relations between the two countries that have just begun to thaw.
With a per-capita income nearly four times the national average and a thriving small-business sector, most of the Saigonese at times seem unable to recall last week, let alone a devastating civil war that concluded 25 years ago in the heart of the city.
The warmth of the crowds here stood in sharp contrast to the cordial but correct greeting Vietnam's top leaders gave Mr. Clinton during a two-day stay in Hanoi.
A Saturday-evening discussion with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu contained at least one pointed exchange when Mr. Phieu appeared to bristle at the free-market gospel Mr. Clinton has preached relentlessly here, calling his arguments "imperialist."
"The Soviet Union has collapsed, but we are still here," the general secretary told Mr. Clinton at one point, according to accounts from both sides. Mr. Phieu is considered by many to be the most powerful figure in the country.
National economic adviser Gene Sperling said other Vietnamese leaders seemed more "pragmatic," and Mr. Clinton in any case put aside ideological arguments with his personal embrace of capitalism, Ho Chi Minh City-style.
For the third straight day, the president found time for a shopping jaunt, hitting about a half-dozen antique shops on Nguyen Long Bien Street, where a curious and excited crowd roared its approval when Mr. Clinton shook hands and posed for pictures.
Mr. Clinton and his daughter, Mr. Peterson, and others later stopped to dine on spring rolls and snacks at one of the ubiquitous inexpensive restaurants specializing in a popular soup known as "pho."
The president also gave a brief pep talk to the American business community and hosted a roundtable discussion with a half-dozen young Vietnamese on globalization, technology and economic freedom.
Tran Truong Son, 32, a Communist Party member and director of a company that trades spare machine parts, told the president: "Freedom as you think of it is different for us. For us, freedom means peace."
Mr. Clinton told the young people that America also was searching for the right balance between personal freedom and responsibility, between stability and innovation.
"More people [in the United States] are getting the balance right," he said. "Every society has to debate this."
After the meeting with U.S. and Vietnamese business leaders at City Hall, Mr. Clinton huddled for about 10 minutes with Ho Chi Minh City Archbishop Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, spiritual leader to this country's 6 million Roman Catholics.
White House spokesman P.J. Crowley gave no details of the discussion, but said the meeting itself was meant as a clear signal of support for the church as it "tries to build a relationship" with the socialist regime.
With Vietnam's economy at a crossroads and its leaders still determining how far to go in opening up to the world economy, Mr. Clinton was clearly appealing past the political leaders to the young and enthusiastic crowds on the streets.
At the container port, with a bright midday sun beating down on the crowd, Mr. Clinton said: "One of the things I have learned in the last three days is that Vietnam has an ancient history, but it is still a very young nation."

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