Sunday, November 19, 2006

Unlike Clinton, Bush Sees Hanoi in Bit of a Hurry

The New York Times
Unlike Clinton, Bush Sees Hanoi in Bit of a Hurry

HANOI, Vietnam, Sunday, Nov. 19 — President Bush likes speed golf and speed tourism — this is the man who did the treasures of Red Square in less than 20 minutes — but here in the lake-studded capital of a nation desperately eager to connect with America, he set a record.

On Saturday, Mr. Bush emerged from his hotel for only one nonofficial event, a 15-minute visit to the Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command, which searches for the remains of the 1,800 Americans still listed as missing in the Vietnam War.

There were almost no Vietnamese present, just a series of tables displaying photographs of the group’s painstaking work, and helmets, shoes and replicas of bones recovered by the 425 members of the command. He asked a few questions and then sped off in his motorcade.

On Sunday morning, Mr. Bush attended an ecumenical church service in an old French-built Catholic basilica to underscore the need for greater religious freedom.

But the mood of this trip could not have been more different from the visit of another president, Bill Clinton, exactly six years ago this weekend, when he seemed to be everywhere.

And while the difference says much about the personalities of two presidents who both famously avoided serving in the war here, it reveals a lot about how significantly times have changed — and perhaps why America’s “public diplomacy” seems unable to shift into gear.

In 2000, tens of thousands of Hanoi’s residents poured into the streets to witness the visit of the first American head of state since the end of the Vietnam War. Mr. Clinton toured the thousand-year-old Temple of Literature, grabbed lunch at a noodle shop, argued with Communist Party leaders about American imperialism and sifted the earth for the remains of a missing airman.

On Saturday, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, conceded that the president had not come into direct contact with ordinary Vietnamese, but said that they connected anyway.

“If you’d been part of the president’s motorcade as we’ve shuttled back and forth,” he said, reporters would have seen that “the president has been doing a lot of waving and getting a lot of waving and smiles.”

He continued: “I think he’s gotten a real sense of the warmth of the Vietnamese people and their willingness to put a very difficult period for both the United States and Vietnam behind them.”

Perhaps, but the Vietnamese have barely seen or heard from Mr. Bush. He spoke at his first stop, Singapore, promising that “America will remain engaged in Asia.” But the response was tepid — the invited audience somehow missed several of built-in applause lines — and one senior Singaporean diplomat, declining to be quoted by name, said there was little in the speech “that his father didn’t say to us 15 years ago.”

Others questioned whether the United States was so fixated on the Middle East that China had been given free rein to spread its influence.

Here in Vietnam, what has been missing, at least so far, are the kinds of emotional moments of reconciliation that marked Mr. Clinton’s visit. Mr. Clinton took the two sons of the missing airman, Lt. Col Lawrence G. Evert, to a rice paddy in Tien Chau, a tiny town 17 miles northeast of Hanoi. There, they searched for remnants of the colonel’s F-150D Thunderchief, which crashed during a bombing run in 1967. Scores of nearby villagers joined in the effort, and the soil gave up the airman’s bones.

There will be none of that for Mr. Bush, but he plans to highlight the new Vietnam on Sunday and Monday at its stock exchange in Ho Chi Minh City. Then he moves on to Indonesia for a few hours to meet “civic leaders,” something he did three years ago in a stopover in Bali.

But Mr. Bush is not staying overnight in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, which Washington has portrayed as a critical test in the struggle to promote moderate, democratic Islamic states. The Secret Service said it was too dangerous, so he will spend the night in Hawaii.

Waiting for One More Star

The Hadong Silk shop in this city’s Old Quarter is the first port of call for well-heeled visitors on the hunt for the tailor-made silkwares for which Vietnam has become famous. This weekend, with heads of state from 21 countries in town for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, a parade of dignitaries streamed in for fittings of made-to-order shirts, dresses and suits.

Laureen Harper, the wife of Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, showed up on Friday, made a few purchases and signed the guestbook for Dang Thi Thu Thuy, the petite, exquisitely dressed owner. Ditto for Australia’s first lady, Janette Howard.

But Mrs. Thuy was searching for more. “We really hope that Mrs. Bush will come into our store,” she says. “We are waiting for her, but she hasn’t come.”

The walls of Hadong Silk are lined with giant framed photos of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who came to the shop during Mr. Clinton’s visit in 2000. There is a photo of Mrs. Clinton towering over three saleswomen, another of her standing next to Mrs. Thuy, both clad in silk suits, and one upstairs of her, surrounded by Secret Service agents, perusing silk blouses.

Vu Thi Thu Huong, a saleswoman, said the shop was so excited after Mrs. Clinton left, having bought 10 raw silk shirts for her husband, that the distinctive square collar on their men’s silk shirts was renamed the “Bill Clinton Collar.”

So, will there be a “George Bush Collar”?

Mrs. Thuy shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she said. She gestured to her camera, and said, “If she comes we will take her picture, too.”

Mrs. Bush visited the Temple of Literature, a monument to the legacy of Confucius, and the Museum of Ethnology, which focuses on Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. With the spouses of other leaders, she saw water puppets. It is unclear whether she bought any silk.

Statements of New Times

The Vietnamese are teetering somewhere between welcoming and overwhelmed as world leaders zoom through their streets and jam the hotels so fully that several diplomats have been housed in youth hostels.

The country wants to portray itself as a rising competitor to China, but this is still a city with the slow-paced feel of an Asia that has been largely lost, one where the bicycle and the moped are the chief modes of transportation, and where old houses cooled by lazy ceiling fans have yet to be bulldozed for look-alike condos, Beijing-style.

But it is also a place that reminds visitors of who prevailed over the Americans. One building that Mr. Bush zipped past is the Military History Museum, which displays a giant sculpture made of the broken fuselages and wings of downed French and American aircraft. The place was close to empty when Mr. Bush and his colleagues were meeting, but had he stopped by he would have heard a pretty one-sided account of the December 1972 bombing of Hanoi, and seen photographs of a troubled President Lyndon Johnson.

Just down the road, a giant banner mixes old and new. “The Great Ho Chi Minh Is Still Alive in Our Modernizaton and Industrial Progress!” it proclaims of the man who proclaimed Vietnamese independence.

If Mr. Ho were still alive, and able to sit up from his spot in the mausoleum, he would have seen road signs advertising the underwriting of the conference by Citigroup and Samsung.