HANOI, Vietnam, Nov. 15 -- President Bill Clinton arrived in Vietnam Thursday for the beginning of a three-day tour, the first visit by a U.S. president to the unified country since U.S.-backed South Vietnam fell to communist forces 25 years ago.
The United States withdrew from South Vietnam after fighting a losing war there lasted for more than a decade and cost the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans.
Clinton and an Air Force One entourage touched down in Hanoi at nearly midnight local time for an informal welcome by a host of ranking Vietnamese officials and young female flower bearers, who offered bouquets to Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea.
Clinton quickly left the airport after a round of handshaking and headed to his hotel downtown, where an estimated 10,000 onlookers lined the streets to watch the president's motorcade pass.
Clinton's official schedule begins Friday with a state welcome by Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. Afterward, Clinton is to address an audience at Hanoi University before attending a state dinner.
"The president will talk at some length about the history of our relationship, but more importantly about the future and where he sees that relationship going," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert, who previewed the president's speech to reporters.
Siewert said Clinton would also talk about issues related to ongoing U.S. efforts to recover missing servicemen, as well as economic and trade matters.
On Saturday, Clinton plans to meet Vietnam's Communist Party Secretary Le Kha Phieu at the party's Hanoi headquarters before speaking to a group of people involved in de-mining efforts. Clinton also plans to stop in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is to meet area business leaders Sunday before making the return flight to Washington.
Administration officials call the visit a historical milestone in terms of overcoming the Vietnam War and bettering relations, which have gradually become more normal in recent decades.
White House national security adviser Sandy Berger said a next step in improving ties was adoption of the recently signed U.S.-Vietnam trade pact, which both countries must still ratify.
"We are not closing a chapter here, we're opening a new chapter in the relationship," Berger said of Clinton's visit.
"We want the Vietnamese people to see that America supports their economic development, while encouraging those in Vietnam who have been willing to risk opening the country, both economically and politically, and in the process we want to build a fully normal relationship that benefits the American people and the Vietnamese people. Central to these efforts is the U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement."
Signed in July, the pact would ease restrictions on banking and customs and lowers U.S. tariffs on a wide range of Vietnamese goods and services. The deal faces some opposition in Vietnam, however, where conservative elements of the communist government fear that increased trade with the West would spur a burgeoning reform movement in the country.
Berger compared Vietnam's ongoing discussions on whether to ratify the accord to China's decision to pursue entry into the World Trade Organization, a move that would bring unpredictable outside influences in addition to trade benefits.
"The debate in Vietnam about signing the agreement was very much like the debate in China over joining the WTO, and it captures well the central dilemma Vietnam is facing -- whether to maintain a command-and-control system and shut out the world, or build prosperity by loosening controls and joining the world," Berger said.
"That's a choice Vietnam is making, but the president can and will encourage it to continue its reforms, strengthen its respect for human rights and for religious freedom."
But some outside observers with ties to Vietnam question whether Clinton's tour is either necessary or ultimately beneficial for relations.
Peter Zinoman, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said Clinton's visit could upset Vietnam's internal politics by reviving war memories, which some nationalistic communists use to galvanize anti-Western sentiment.
"Its effects on Vietnam are not really carefully thought," Zinoman said of Clinton's visit.
Zinoman, who has focused much of his studies on Vietnam, said the administration's pledge to raise human rights issues was likely to roil communist ranks and make things more difficult for political dissenters, who in recent years have enjoyed greater degrees of freedom.
"You can already see the Vietnamese battening the hatches and digging in to resist," Zinoman said of Hanoi's reaction to Western pressure on human rights issues. "Things will be tougher for dissidents."
Some Vietnam War veterans, meanwhile, fear that U.S. overtures to Hanoi would undermine efforts to find and recover missing servicemen.
"If there was anything left to bargain with, or have some sort of leverage, it was gone," Fred Lidle, 54-year-old veteran who talked about the recent trade deal with other veterans, said while visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington on Veteran's Day .
U.S. officials said recovery of soldiers missing in action or taken as prisoners of war remained the foremost issue in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Clinton was to visit an MIA excavation site outside Hanoi.
"The MIA issue, of course, was our first -- and still is -- our most important aspect in dealing with the Vietnamese," said U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Douglas Peterson, who also fought in Vietnam. He called efforts to locate missing U.S. military personnel "a huge success."
"We now call it a partnership because we are helping them, to the degree we can, to determine their losses, which number upwards of 300,000," Peterson said.
Zinoman, however, said problems surrounding missing soldiers were mostly resolved, except for some 2,000 outstanding U.S. cases. He also said the Vietnamese as a society have largely left the war behind and focused on concerns of today, unlike Americans who have carried the legacy of the war politically and emotionally for two generations, enshrining it in books and movies still in mainstream culture today.
"The Vietnamese don't have a syndrome from the war," said Zinoman. "There's much more serious, immediate problems."
The most pressing issue leadership in Hanoi faces is Vietnam's lagging economy, which has suffered in recent years as competing factions in the upper echelons of the Communist Party fought over whether to implement Western-style economic reforms or shut out international markets for political and ideological reasons.
An estimated 37 percent of Vietnam's roughly 79 million people live in poverty and the unemployment rate nationwide is about 25 percent. In 1999, Vietnam's gross domestic product grew by roughly 5 percent, a rate well below the nearly 9 percent expansion seen in 1997, before the Asian financial crisis caused Western dollars to pour out of Vietnam and other countries in the region.
Foreign investment fell from $8.3 billion in 1996 to roughly $1.6 billion in 1999, and the financial shock strengthened the hand of conservative communists in the government, who slowed the pace of reforms.
The pending trade pact, if implemented, would speed reforms. But the deal's fate in Vietnam and the U.S. Congress remains uncertain. In Washington, the accord faces congressional opposition driven by veterans' groups who hold considerable sway over lawmakers.
And in Hanoi, communist hard-liners opposed to recent reform efforts see the agreement as a potential opening for a democratization movement similar to the one that eventually led to the end of the Soviet Union.
A small group of Democratic lawmakers, including three Vietnam veterans, accompanied Clinton on the trip in a show of support for the pact. Sen. Bob Kerry, D-Neb., joined the president as well as Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.; and Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark. California Democrat Loretta Sanchez, a House member whose district includes a large Vietnamese immigrant population, was also on hand.
Clinton never served in Vietnam and actively opposed the war as a college student, an aspect of the president's visit that has stirred controversy.
Bill Shirley, a 53-year-old veteran who served in Vietnam as a Marine in 1968 and 1969, said many servicemen regard Clinton's avoidance of the war as cowardly, but support him nonetheless as commander-in-chief.
"He's in charge of foreign policy," Shirley said. "He's got every right and duty as president to carry out his presidential duties."
Ward Jones, a 54-year-old Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1969, was less understanding of Clinton's absence from the war.
"Why didn't he go before?" Jones asked.