Little Saigon Laments Clinton's Move

Over bowls of beef tendon soup, US Vietnamese mull ties with Hanoi

AT the Hien Vuong Vietnamese Noodle restaurant here this week, you can get beef tendon and chicken tripe ... and an earful about US-Vietnamese relations.

''You Americans have just given respectability to the most corrupt, abusive regime in the world,'' says a 1980 emigre from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), who offers only his American appellation, Michael. The music of pop singers Khanh Ha and Ngoc Huong echoes through the Asian Garden Mall during interviews with residents of Little Saigon, the largest community of Vietnamese (160,000) outside Asia.

Earlier, on 100 TV sets at the mall, Michael and dozens of others watched as President Clinton announced he was extending full diplomatic recognition to the former US military foe, now a unified communist country of 73 million.

After three hours of interviews along Bolsa Avenue - the Vietnamese slice of northern Orange County - armed with my favorite pen and best ''Gallup'' impression, an informal poll tallied 70 percent ''against'' Clinton's move, 30 percent ''for.''

''You American journalists have not checked any further than the big cities [in Vietnam], where everything looks OK,'' continues Michael, with glaring eyes and flailing hands.

Lamenting television reports he has seen on three major networks depicting a Western-like consumer society reigning in cities such as Hanoi and Saigon, he continues: ''Just go out into the countryside, and you will find that the regime is destroying 95 percent of the country. Of course villagers could never talk freely to you because they would fear for their lives.''

Out of some 16 interviews, half of the respondents identified themselves as ''boat people'' - coming from the waves of refugees who set out in small boats for Thailand, Phillipines, and elsewhere before making it to America over the past two decades. ''Boat people'' in Vietnamese pockets across the states have been some of the most vocal opponents to rapprochement.

Many offered long sagas of why Vietnamese here do not trust Vietnam's government, no matter how much ''cooperation'' they have given the US in accounting for prisoners of war and the missing in action.

After being caught trying to flee Vietnam in a boat 16 years ago, one woman says she endured two years of jail, ''being treated like an animal,'' suffering such dehumanizing treatment as one, seven-minute bath every two weeks.

''Your president has an election coming up and is more interested in putting his military evasion behind him than in healing the nation's wounds,'' says Tuan Do, a local teacher and bookstore owner.

Noting that scores of US businesses are lined up to make deals with Vietnam, Mr. Do says, ''if [Clinton] appears to make things good just for money, he leaves a bad impression for third-world countries that look up to the US as a beacon of human rights.''

Do, who left in 1975, says he will never return, based on reports he gets from friends still living there. ''The Vietnamese government and upper classes will benefit from this,'' he says. ''Most of the ordinary citizens will be left out.''

But television store owner Phuc Hoang, disagrees, offering the most often-heard reason for the US move to normalize relations. ''This will be good for business in Vietnam and thus for the people,'' he says.

''My family who are there will be able to visit me easier than before, and I will be able to visit them.'' Pointing to the Vietnamese children born in the US since the war, Mr. Hoang says, ''Both Americans and Vietnamese need to put that conflict behind.''

Two women who run a shoe store say diplomatic relations are not the way to achieve that. ''This is a regime that always says one thing and does another,'' says Nhatrang Lee, a refugee from Nhatrang who escaped to the Phillipines two years ago, before arriving in California.

Realizing the US is looking for an ally in the region because of bad ties with China, she adds: ''I hope the Americans keep their eyes open through this.''

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