Crowds Go Wild for Clinton in Hanoi

HANOI, Vietnam, November 18, 2000 : It happened twice: the president of the United States, his face glowing, walked right up to Dang Dinh Hiep, grasped his hand and gave him a brilliant smile. Then he returned and did it again.

”He shook my hand and then he came and shook it again!” exclaimed Mr. Hiep, 52, a post office worker — one of tens of thousands of people who thronged the streets today to catch a glimpse of President Clinton as he toured Hanoi. ”I’m a happy man.”

Twenty-five years ago as a Communist soldier, Mr. Hiep said, he had helped capture the southern capital, Saigon, sharing in Vietnam’s moment of victory over the United States. Today he had met the president and he was thrilled again.

”He’s a wonderful man,” cried Mr. Hiep, as if Mr. Clinton could still hear him. ”Very happy and smiling. He was against the war in the past and now he is contributing to better relations between our countries.”

And then, like a baseball fan brandishing a home-run ball in the stands, he held up two fistfuls of yellow police tape, something to show to his grandchildren to prove that he had been here.

Almost everywhere Mr. Clinton went today on his first full day in Vietnam — at his hotel, at the government guest house, at the Temple of Literature, at Vietnam National University — he was met by huge, excited crowds, waving and calling out to him.

Neither the visiting American delegation nor the Vietnamese authorities, it seems, had anticipated their numbers or their enthusiasm.

Police officers in forest-green uniforms used nightsticks and electric prods to hold back the crowds, sometimes chasing and taking a whack at someone who tried to stray too close.

”He’s coming! Here he comes!” people shouted as the president’s motorcade approached the Temple of Literature, a historic landmark in the center of town. ”I can see him! There’s his wife! How handsome he is! He seems so young and healthy, he’s so pink, just the way he looks on TV, but even handsomer! I want to shake his hand! I want to give him a hug!”

Le Thi Loan, 33, who works in a tea shop, had been waiting for five hours with her 8-year-old son to see Mr. Clinton. ”We really look up to him,” she said. ”He’s a talented man, a great man.”

Nguyen Tra My, 30, who works for an Austrian food-processing company, was wearing her finest clothes and most brilliant lip gloss.

”Looking at Clinton is our dream come true,” she said as she waited, speaking in excellent English. ”We hope that we can contact him and say some sentences to him. He is a very, very nice man and he really supports Vietnam very much. Actually, all of us, we really like him and respect him very much.”

Two old veterans shared tiny cups of tea as they waited nearby.

”During the war we had a very hard time here, and after the war it was very difficult too; not even rice to eat,” said one of them, Le Xuong, 79. ”Life is much better now. And we are trying to erase our hatreds of the past and turn a new page in our history.”

That is right, said Nguyen Trong, 70, a retired colonel who said he had served in four wars, involving France, Cambodia and China as well as the United States. ”That’s the way it is,” he said, ”close down the past. We have a saying in Vietnam: 1,000 friends are not enough, but one enemy is too many.”

After about half an hour Mr. Clinton emerged from the Temple of Literature, his pale blue necktie shimmering in the bright fall sunshine.

”Hello! Hello!” people called to him in English.

And Mr. Clinton responded: he plunged into the crowd, moving from right to left and then to the right again along the sidewalk.

Nguyen Ngoc Ba, 40, an electronics repairman, was directly in the president’s path.

”He just came right up and grabbed my hand,” he said. ”His hand was warm, maybe from shaking so many hands. It was very quick, just long enough for me to feel the warmth of his hand.”

The warmth seemed to flow both ways. Mr. Clinton paused before climbing at last into his black limousine. ”Look at the children,” he murmured to a security agent.

The biggest crowds of the day were in the streets outside the university, where students and residents packed the sidewalks, some sitting on walls and some perching in the branches of trees for a better view.

”Vietnam-America: Close the past, open up a new horizon,” read a hand-lettered sign in English held up by several young women, students at the university. ”We want relations to be better and better,” said one student, Do My Hien, 20.

But soon, a group of security men came up and seized the sign, folding it into a small square before marching away with it. ”I don’t know why they took it,” said one of the young women. ”Maybe they don’t understand what it says.”

In the Giao Duc bookstore nearby, staff members gathered with several friends by a small television set to listen as Mr. Clinton addressed the nation in a live broadcast from the university’s auditorium.

Some of them said they had stayed up until almost 1 a.m. today to watch his motorcade when he drove down their street from the airport after his arrival in Vietnam.

”We didn’t know the schedule so we waited for him all day,” said Le Thi Tam, one of the workers at the bookstore. ”Some people began waiting for him at 3 p.m.”

Surrounded by shelves of textbooks — philosophy, economics, psychology, computer science, foreign languages — they watched now as Mr. Clinton strode to the lectern, a bust of Ho Chi Minh to one side.

”A big guy,” commented Tran Quang Binh, who teaches mathematics at the university.

”He looks like Kennedy,” said Chu Anh Quan, a bookstore worker, adding in English: ”Very handsome.”

”No, not like Kennedy,” said another worker, Tran Thu Lan. ”Kennedy was more stylish, more like a playboy.”

They leaned forward in their chairs as Mr. Clinton began to speak, one woman embracing another from behind, their heads almost touching.

”He’s explaining the war,” said Mr. Binh, the mathematics teacher, at one point. ”Back in the war time he was one of the antiwar protesters.”

And then there was a murmur of agreement when Mr. Clinton said, ”We cannot change the past. What we can change is the future.”

”That’s right,” Mr. Binh said. ”He’s talking sense.”

Ha Tuan Anh, the bookstore manager, offered a sobering aside: ”He’ll be out of a job in eight weeks,” he said. ”They have a law limiting them to two terms.”

Which led Mr. Binh to observe: ”In our system you can stay on for years and years.”

There was a small silence in the room as the speech ended and the bookstore audience sat back in their chairs considering their verdict.

”Pretty good speech,” Mr. Anh said.

”Very good,” Mr. Binh agreed. ”It’s probably written by his speechwriters.’

Copyright The New York Times