US First Lady Hillary Clinton Sunday thanked the tens of thousands of Vietnamese who had feted her husband on the streets, saying she had been "overcome with emotion" at the changed relations between the former foes.
"This has been a very special few days for my husband, my daughter, my mother and me, and this is in large part because of the warm welcome we have received first in Hanoi and now in Ho Chi Minh City," she told a women's meeting here.
"I am very grateful to the government of Vietnam and to the ordinary citizens who lined the streets ... and who stopped their bicycles and mopeds to wave as we passed by."
Clinton and his wife Hillary, on their last scheduled foreign trip, have been given rapturous receptions in walkabouts in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in unprecedented scenes that have surprised both the communist authorities and the American delegation.
Earlier in the day, US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, leading talks on a bilateral trade deal signed in July, called the reception "tremendous" and "heart-warming ... something all of us will always remember, most particularly the president.
"Of all the trips we have taken over the last eight years, this is the one that will always stand out. This is a very emotional visit."
The First Lady added: "It is hard not to notice how young and enthusiastic this country is," saying the "resiliency and hard work" of the Vietnamese people filled her with confidence for its future.
"I hope that future includes a close relationship with the United States," she told her audience in the French colonial opera house which served as the parliament building for the Saigon regime so disastrously backed by Washington during the war.
"Over the past few days, I have found myself being overcome by emotion on many occasions when I think how dramatically our relationship has changed since my youth when our countries were at war.
"Back then I could never have imagined that the United States and Vietnam would have signed an historic bilateral trade accord this summer," she said, referring to the July agreement which has been the cornerstone of her husband's policy of rapprochement through trade.
"There is much that Vietnam and the United States can do together as we build a new relationship," the First Lady said, announcing Washington would provide 30 million dollars in assistance for the battle against AIDS here over the next five years.
A total of 7.5 million dollars will be spent by the US Agency for International Development on expanding its existing program here while 22.5 million dollars will be spent by the Center for Disease Control on boosting screening and research.
The widely-trailed package is the largest boost to Washington's still small aid budget, announced during the Clintons' visit here, despite heavy pressure from the Vietnamese authorities for a much bigger gesture as recompense for the enormous destruction wrought by the war.
US aid officials acknowledge they had to "strip the closets bare" to offer even that amount as Clinton lacked the authority to commit new funds in the lameduck months of his presidency.
Like her husband in his televised address to the Vietnamese nation Friday, Hillary did not neglect to raise the issue of human rights.
People should not stay silent about the continuing litany of abuses against women and nor should they do so about the repression of religious and political freedoms, she told the meeting hosted by the state-sponsored women's union.
City council deputy chairwoman Pham Phuong Thao thanked the First Lady for her "message of peace and friendship" and said she hoped she would continue to promote closer ties with Vietnam when she joins the US Senate.
The Clintons had "turned a new page in relations" through their visit, the first to communist Vietnam by a US president -- HO CHI MINH CITY (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)