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Bush ends Vietnam trip

The Baltimore Sun

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam --President Bush ventured into this booming, wildly capitalist commercial center of an ostensibly communist Vietnam this morning, speeding off to the stock exchange to talk with local business leaders before preparing for a quick visit to Indonesia.

His arrival here, where he was also to tour the government-run Pasteur Institute to highlight work on avian flu and AIDS prevention and treatment, concluded three days in the country that have been dominated by Bush's efforts to hold together reluctant partners - notably China, South Korea and Russia - in the effort to step up pressure to dismantle Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs. In both cases, he found progress agonizingly slow, though there was more evidence of unity in dealing with the North.

Yesterday, Bush formally signed an agreement that paves the way for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, a step China took years ago and that Russia has long struggled to match.

As he has throughout his trip, Bush avoided dwelling on America's past with Vietnam, though it is difficult in a city like this one, filled with so much potent symbolism of American defeat.

For many Americans, the imagery of this teeming, chaotic place is fixed in 1975, when the last Americans were evacuated by helicopter. Bush sped past the spot on his arrival here but made no stops that would invite comparisons to the debate over whether the United States should stay or retreat from Iraq.

He steered clear of the other sites that so dominated American politics in his youth and spent the night at one of the gleaming new hotels that dot the skyline here, rather than one of the old haunts where President Johnson, Robert McNamara and the rest of official Washington struggled to manage a losing effort.

Instead, he arrived here and made an unannounced stop for dinner with Prime Minister John Howard of Australia at a trendy restaurant in a neighborhood that symbolizes the new Saigon - the name residents insist on using for a city that was renamed immediately after the communist victory. After dinner, Bush mounted the running board of his waiting limousine and waved to a crowd of the curious who had jammed the streets as news of his arrival spread. It was a crowd that had virtually no memory of the war, and there were muted cheers.

Bush's travel plans ran into an unexpected hitch today: technical problems with Air Force One, the White House said, forcing him to take a smaller,backup plane, a government-operated Boeing 757, from Vietnam to Jakarta, Indonesia. White House officials were scrambling to put some of his staff on other flights, including a commercial Boeing 747 used by the White House press corps.

In a trip that has focused relentlessly on the future, Bush urged China's leader, Hu Jintao, to create "a nation of consumers and not savers, which will inure to the benefit of our manufacturers, both large and small, and our farmers, as well." It is an echo of what Bush's father used to urge in his visits to Japan, in hopes of closing the trade gap.

At the meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Bush talked about exploring new free trade arrangements for Asia - a long-sought but still distant goal - and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used the case of Vietnam as an instructive example for economic reform. In a speech in Hanoi, she said that "20 years ago the leaders of Vietnam took a hard look at their isolated economy and they made a strategic choice to begin reforms." In fact, they have really only turned to serious reform in recent years.

Bush's spokesmen said that he and the leaders of Japan and China see "eye to eye" on steps to take to put more pressure on North Korea. But they did not use those words to describe talks with the South Koreans, who have been particularly reluctant to fully join efforts to intercept suspected illicit shipments of arms, or cut off economic links after the North's nuclear test.

The chief American negotiator with North Korea, Christopher Hill, is scheduled to fly to Beijing this week to work out a mix of incentives for the North and get the Chinese to push for some symbolically important dismantlement of part of North Korea's weapons complex. But that last step is one the North Koreans have not yet indicated they are ready to take in advance of the resumption of negotiations.

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