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Vietnamese Await ‘Uncle Bill’

November 16, 2000

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ When the guy students call ``Uncle Bill″ rolls up to hang out at Hanoi National University, Nguyen Van Mao will be ready across the road, just in case, with an empty stool and an extra beer.

Mao means no disrespect by referring to his country’s visitor, President Clinton, as ``Uncle Bill.″ In Vietnam, ``Uncle″ is a term of affection. The Vietnamese often call the late Ho Chi Minh, founder of their communist society, ``Uncle Ho.″

If Clinton did stop at the grubby low open-air table of Mao’s favorite ``bia hoi,″ or shop-front nickel beer joint, he’d probably like what he heard.

``America is a great place, and it’s high time we got together to act like friends,″ said Mao, 54, a tree trimmer with chin whiskers and a dirty red shirt, who has two kids studying education at the university.

Mao gestured with his left hand, revealing three stumps where fingers once were.

``Oh, that,″ he said. ``From the Ho Chi Minh Trail. An American mine.″ He was with troops who stormed Ban Me Thuot in 1975. ``That’s past, and I don’t think about it. For me, I look at now.″

A friend in a green pith helmet nodded agreement while sucking on a tobacco waterpipe that looked like a bamboo bazooka. So did the barkeeper, filling a fresh glass from his battered plastic draft barrel.

``If he comes here, he can sit under our tree,″ Mao said, glancing up at the leafy green crown of an old acacia. ``It was scarred and sick during the war from American bombing. Look at it today.″

Across the road on campus, enthusiasm was obvious.

``I can’t wait to see him here,″ effused Ngo Thu Hang, a 21-year-old Korean studies major.

``Before people used to think only about defending their physical boundaries,″ she said. ``But Uncle Bill gives the impression that sympathy among peoples is more important than lines between nation states.″

Thi Minh Tan, 19, a literature student, echoed the thought.

``He’s never been here, but I think he understands Vietnam,″ she said. ``He seems to believe in people. Still, I’d like to ask him if he is really interested in making friends or just expanding globalization.″

Like most students, Tan is eager to visit America. She worries about drugs and racial problems, as reported in Vietnam’s official media. But she thinks her own society is neglecting culture for commercialism.

A glance in the university bookstore suggests what she means. To an earlier generation, a text on Pascal was about French philosophy. Now it is a computer language. Entire shelves are devoted to business English.

Downtown at V.I. Lenin Park, Nguyen Thanh Luong watched a workman wash the old Russian ideologue’s stone goatee with a rag on a 20-foot bamboo pole.

``I think if Lenin were alive today, he would be happy to see Clinton coming here with a message of peace among all peoples,″ Luong ventured.

The Vietnamese have not forgotten what they call ``the American war″ but it is history, which in Vietnam covers a very long period of time.

Opposite Lenin park, the Army Museum displays wreckage of U.S. warplanes and heralds the fall of Saigon. But it celebrates other battles as well: Bach Dang River, in 1288; Chi Lang, in 1427; Thang Long, 1789.

Clinton’s schedule includes some private reflection in the oldest precincts of Hanoi, the Temple of Literature, known as Van Mieu.

Its five sections, dating back a millennium, are a copy of the temple at the Chinese birthplace of Confucius. It was Hanoi’s first university, where nobles and notables learned the fine arts of world-building.

``I’m so excited that he might stop and say hello,″ said Do Thuy, 29, who wears a traditional ao dai tunic and pants in the shop she tends within the temple walls. Like Mao at the beer joint, she wants to be a friend of Uncle Bill.

Secret Service agents found no bombs among her colorful puppets, wooden fish and stone water buffalo, she said, so she expects to be open for business.

When asked to guess at Clinton’s possible musings as he strolls the ancient spiritual artifacts, with heady incense and monks in yellow robes, Thuy demurred. Pressed, she gave it a shot.

Confucius was the one who said a 1,000-mile journey begins with a single step, but Uncle Bill already knows that. His main thought, Thuy felt, would be similar to almost everyone else’s.

``Tourists always mention the peace and tranquility of this place,″ she said. ``It is where everything outside disappears, and you can just feel peace within yourself and the world around you.″

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