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Bush winds up Vietnam trip in thriving south

Written by: Staff
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HO CHI MINH CITY, Nov 20: US President George W Bush helped showcase Vietnam's transformation from bitter wartime foe to economic success story today as he wrapped up a visit to the Southeast Asian country in Ho Chi Minh City.

The second post-war US leader to set foot in Vietnam, President Bush wasted no time shifting gears from Hanoi, seat of communist power, to the bustling former capital of the US-backed South Vietnam government toppled in 1975.

Mr Bush's welcome in Hanoi was muted, but in the thriving commercial hub of former Saigon throngs of onlookers -- many of them youngsters born after the war had ended -- lined the streets, waving and cheering as his motorcade rolled passed.

Diplomacy was President Bush's main focus in Hanoi, where he attended the 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and sought help from China and Russia on the nuclear stand-offs with North Korea and Iran.

His week-long trip, which began in Singapore and ends in Indonesia, was his first visit abroad since Democrats walloped his Republicans in November 7 elections, prompting him to reassure Asian allies of his commitment to security and free trade goals in his final two years in office.

His first order of business today was a tour of Vietnam's stock exchange, symbol of an accelerating shift toward capitalism three decades after a war that brought communists to power from north to south in a humiliating defeat for America.

''They want American business,'' White House spokesman Tony Snow said, citing Mr Bush's view that ''this is a country (with) ... a sense of vitality''.

President George Bush was granted the honour of striking a gong three times to open trading at the exchange, named -- in no small irony -- after Marxist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, US nemesis in the war.

After a brief trading floor tour, he participated in a roundtable with American investors and returned Vietnamese exiles who are now seeking opportunities in the country.

''I'm very interested in hearing what the opportunities are like, the obstacles you face, and perhaps the United States can help,'' he told them. ''I am amazed at the size of the growth and the fact that people are beginning to realise dreams.''

He quizzed executives about the bureaucracy for business start-ups and the ease of foreign investment. ''I see Vietnam as an entrepreneurial paradise,'' Walter Blocker of consumer goods distributer Ganon Vietnam told Mr Bush. The sleepy trading floor consisting of a few dozen desks and screens had more the feel of a library than of the New York Stock Exchange. But the market index spiked to near record highs on what traders said was enthusiasm for the President's visit.

NOT DWELLING ON PAINFUL PAST

 In keeping with President Bush's desire not to dwell on old animosities but to focus on the new Vietnam, he was later to visit the Pasteur Institute to spotlight US-Vietnam cooperation in fighting HIV-AIDS and avian influenza.

He was also due to pay homage to Vietnam's past by touring a museum displaying 10,000 years of human history in the region.

Bogged down in his own unpopular war in Iraq, Mr Bush found it hard during his 3-1/2-day visit to avoid comparisons with the Southeast Asia conflict that divided America a generation ago.

He may have been reminded of past upheaval when his motorcade drove past the presidential palace in Ho Chi Minh City, where North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates in 1975 in a takeover of the city.

But early on in his trip, Bush suggested Vietnam's economic rebirth gave him hope about what could happen in time in Iraq.

President Bush steered clear of the meet-the-masses approach taken by his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton -- a fellow baby boomer who in his youth also famously avoided serving in Vietnam -- when he made his historic visit to the country in 2000.

But while Clinton's trip was about reconciliation, Mr Bush seemed to capture the mood of a country trying to look beyond a war that killed 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese.

Do Hon, 27, a designer clothes shopgirl who was thrilled at President Bush's visit, had yet to be born when the war ended. But her grandfather worked with the Americans.

Asked if she now yearned for US-style democracy, she said in halting English: ''I want freedom. I want scooter, iPod''.

President Bush's final Asian stop today was to be Indonesia, where thousands of protesters have demonstrated against him already.

He will spend little more than six hours in the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation and will not stay overnight, possibly concerned about al Qaeda-based militants based there. He meets President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono outside Jakarta.

Indonesia is a key ally in the US war against terrorism and looks to America for investment. But many of Mr Bush's policies, especially in the Middle East, are unpopular there.

Reuters

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