By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006
HANOI, Nov. 17 -- President Bush arrived Friday in Vietnam on a mission to strengthen business ties with the rapidly changing country and ease the bitter memories of the war the United States waged here decades ago.
"History has a long march to it," Bush said when asked how he felt about being hosted by a former U.S. enemy. "Societies change, and relationships can constantly be altered to the good."
Bush is in Vietnam for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, a two-day gathering of 21 countries.
His visit has prompted comparisons between the failed U.S. military adventure here and the war in Iraq. Asked whether any lessons from Vietnam apply to the war in Iraq, Bush said: "One lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while."
"It's just going to take a long period of time for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate," Bush said. "We'll succeed unless we quit," he added.
Bush is the second U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the end of the war, following President Bill Clinton's trip here near the conclusion of his second term in 2000.
When Clinton visited, thousands of Vietnamese lined the streets to catch a glimpse of his motorcade, and many others crowded into the square outside his hotel. Interest in Bush's visit appeared less intense. As the president's motorcade drove by, some residents stopped their motorbikes to watch while others quietly waved from along the streets.
Still, Bush's route into Hanoi from the airport offered ample evidence of the Communist government's embrace of private enterprise. Billboards advertising the Hanoi Golf Club, farming equipment and Toyota and Chevrolet cars line the main road, which also runs past Panasonic and Canon manufacturing plants.
A long period of stagnation followed the Communist victory that led to reunification of Vietnam. But the economy has expanded in recent years, with a growth rate of 8.4 percent, although average income is just $638 a year.
"I have seen firsthand the great vibrancy and the excitement that's taking place in Vietnam," Bush said to Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet. "You're like a young tiger, and I look forward to continuing to work to make sure our bilateral relations are close."
After arriving from Singapore on Friday morning, Bush had a lunch meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and met with Vietnamese and Communist Party leaders. Later, the president was the honored guest at a state dinner.
On Saturday, Bush will meet with the leaders of South Korea and Japan in sessions expected to focus on efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, an issue that may dominate much of the economic summit.
North Korea agreed last month to resume talks on its nuclear weapons program, three weeks after conducting its first nuclear weapons test. Diplomats say they hope talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States will take place by year's end, but no date has been fixed.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said the countries involved in the talks have doubts that North Korea intends to abandon its nuclear program. They have expressed hope that the 21 APEC nations will craft a statement to put more pressure on North Korea, though South Korea has been reluctant to do so.
Asked about such a statement, David McCormick, a deputy national security adviser, said: "Certainly that will be an agenda item, and there was discussion of whether there will be an actual statement or not. To be determined."
Bush, who as a young man joined the Texas Air National Guard rather than serve in Vietnam, will spend part of his visit focusing on the lingering wounds from the war, including a visit to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is working to determine the fate of servicemen still missing from the war.
On his drive into Hanoi, Bush passed many sites of note, including the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, and Truc Bach Lake, where John McCain, now a Republican senator from Arizona, was shot down in 1967 when he was a Navy pilot. McCain was a prisoner of war for more than five years.
"Laura and I were talking about -- we were talking about how amazing it is we're here in Vietnam," Bush said. "And one of the most poignant moments of the drive in was passing the lake where John McCain got pulled out of the lake. And he's a friend of ours. He suffered a lot as a result of his imprisonment, and yet, we passed the place where he was, literally, saved, in one way, by the people pulling him out."
In fact, according to McCain, who broke both arms and his right knee while ejecting from his A-4 Skyhawk, he was hauled out of the lake on two bamboo poles and beaten on the shore by an angry mob.
In his autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain wrote that the crowd, shouting wildly, stripped his clothes off, "spitting on me, kicking and striking me repeatedly." A woman, possibly a nurse, intervened, and a Vietnamese army truck arrived "to take me away from this group of aggrieved citizens who seemed intent on killing me," McCain wrote.
He described subsequent repeated beatings and torture at the hands of his captors in the notorious Hoa Lo prison, known to American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton."
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.