Startled by Clinton's Flesh-Pressing

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Clinton reviews an honor guard during his official welcoming ceremony in Hanoi

It was a historic day of firsts. The first visit ever by a U.S. president to unified Vietnam, Bill Clinton's first "shop-op" in Hanoi, and, for the Vietnamese, certainly, the first time they ever saw a politician plunge into a crowd and shake hands. Indeed, for all the diplomatic and historic significance of Clinton's trip to a country that has figured so prominently in his own political history, by far the most gratifying aspect has been the warm reception he's gotten from the average Vietnamese. State media downplayed the visit, and officials tried to limit POTUS's opportunities to press the flesh, so the outpouring of interest and enthusiasm was genuine.

Throngs of people lined the route of the presidential motorcade when he arrived Thursday night (Vietnam time). Friday, as he toured the millennium-old Temple of Literature, a crowd in front of the complex shouted, "Hey, Bill! Hey, Bill." They were rewarded later when Clinton came out and worked what passed for a Vietnamese rope line under the nervous watch of government officials.

Then it was off to an "off the record" outing, which are so-called spontaneous events left off the schedule, but nonetheless carefully scouted out by the Secret Service. The presidential limo stopped at a handicraft store and bought some Christmas gifts (but Santa wants to keep them a secret), then to a chic cafe called Know One, Teach One. (You can e-mail them at Crowds quickly gathered at each stop, and Clinton once more shook some more hands.

The public highlight of trip was Friday's speech before a group of students at Vietnam National University. The tableau showed the considerable historic and political distance the President traveled to get here. Clinton shared the stage with a large bust of "Uncle Ho" himself, Ho Chi Minh, and down one auditorium wall hung a banner (in Vietnamese) which spoke of the "wonderful Communist party's" support for the university. Clinton addressed head-on the issue of the "the conflict we call the Vietnam War and you call the American War." But ever the optimist, Clinton tried to put a positive spin on those tragic days, arguing that "this shared suffering has given our countries a relationship unlike any other."

He also urged the hard-line Communist government here to loosen up its restrictions on speech and religion, and fall into line with international norms on human rights, but offered it only as advice: "We do not seek to impose these ideals."

One thing Clinton didn't mention was his own youthful opposition to the war, and his controversial attempts to avoid serving in it. Even though it's a major obsession of Clinton's critics and the press corps traveling with him, his staff says that it's never been an issue for the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese seem to agree. I asked one student, who was born in 1979, whether she thought it was good that Clinton had opposed the war. She replied, "Did he? I didn't know that."