Good morning, Vietnam

Clinton's historic visit is a delicate bridge between the past and the future.

Twenty-five years after the US evacuated the last Americans from the rooftop of the US Embassy in Saigon, President Clinton yesterday became the first American president to visit Hanoi and the first to land on Vietnamese soil since Richard Nixon.

For the US, the historic visit caps a decade of detente with Communist former foes since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and opens a fresh chapter in a country in which 58,000 American lives were lost. For Mr. Clinton, it is a somewhat more personal achievement to have opened, on his presidential watch, relations with the country in which he did not want to fight when his draft notice came.

"In some ways, there is a closing of a circle," says Nayan Chanda, an expert on Vietnam and editor at large of the Far Eastern Economic Review. "It essentially brings legitimacy to the Vietnamese leadership. It says, 'OK, we accept you.' "

Whether the Vietnamese regime warrants that sort of approval is the subject of some dispute. This is especially so in conservative circles, which perceive Clinton as too willing to engage with nations still under one-party Communist rule. From the thaw in relations with Cuba to the speed-up in diplomacy with North Korea, Washington's view of former cold-war enemies has refocused as never before.

But perhaps it's inevitable, as yesterday's rogue revolutionaries appear to grow far more interested in the information revolution than in Marx and Stalin.

Take Lt. Gen. Vu Xuan Vinh, a senior member of the Central Executive Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). In his 51 years in the military, General Vinh fought French, Japanese, and then US forces. Today, the things that get him excited are the recently opened stock exchange in Ho Chi Minh City, the prospect of selling shares of state-run industries, increasing exports, and making Vietnam a hub for high-tech industry. He considers Clinton's visit "a mark of the US seeing Vietnam not as a war, but as a friendly country," he says.

"The most important thing is information technology," says Vinh, who wears his white hair in a buzz cut and sports a uniform with red epaulets and an enamel pin of Ho Chi Minh. On the other side of his jacket is a grid of ribbons so faded they look like they were unearthed at an Army-Navy antiques store.

Technology and the party

Vinh says he is not worried that the 60 percent of the population under age 30 could lose their ideology on the way to the Internet. "I have no fear of that. Even the Politburo ... says that the government should find a way to push, and push fast, the development of information technology. We're trying to keep up with the rest of the world."

To that end, Clinton's visit here could be a great boon. He will arrive with representatives of 50 major US companies interested in opening up shop in Vietnam. The US and Vietnam opened diplomatic relations five years ago, but just this July signed a bilateral trade agreement that has to be ratified in Congress and in the Vietnamese National Assembly to take effect.

Bureaucratic hurdles to doing business here are still high. On the one hand, the Vietnamese regime announced a liberalization policy of doi moi, or economic renovation, as far back as 1986. On the other, this is still a command economy in the purest sense. In Ho Chi Minh City, Chris Helzer of Nike Inc., learned that lesson when Le Kha Phieu, secretary-general of the VCP and one of the two highest-ranking officials Clinton will meet, called one day and said he was dropping by. In two hours, that is. "Oh gee, thanks for the notice," jokes Helzer. The sneaker factories Nike contracts with now are the biggest employer in Vietnam after the government. Mr. Phieu "asked about the workers and how they were being treated, and said, wow, this is the upside of foreign investment."

But it is not clear that the government's treatment of its own 80 million people has changed alongside its economic orientation. On the streets of Hanoi, and even among the heady students at the university campus where Clinton will speak today, it is nearly impossible to engage anyone in a discussion about politics. Press freedoms are still limited: Local papers carried no news of Clinton's upcoming visit. A report recently completed by Washington-based Freedom House says there is evidence of persecution of Christians and Buddhists, a charge the government here strongly denied in a statement this week.

Nudging political freedom

"Clinton has a delicate balancing act of encouraging their opening up politically and economically, while at the same time, encouraging their human rights record," says Andrew J. Pierre, a professor at Georgetown University who recently spent four months here. "This comes down to whether you believe that a presidential visit is a sign of approval, and I don't think it is. I think that we should be talking to countries with which we have problems. We want to try to encourage the Vietnamese people to adapt a new structure for their country."

Observers say Clinton, in what may be the last and most momentous foreign trip of his presidency, will be looking for a deft way to do exactly that. He is expected to gently critique, not criticize. And that, perhaps, sums up the kind of realpolitik that Washington has adopted during the past eight years. After decades of wars hot and cold, economic sanctions, and diplomatic isolation imposed on foes, the motto going into the 21st century might be: "If we can't beat 'em, they'll join us."

"The US cannot bring a revolution in Vietnam, because that has to come from within, but the US can help," says Chanda, the Vietnam expert. "In coming here, Clinton is trying to placate the old guard to reach the young."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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