HANOI, Vietnam – Former President Clinton was swarmed for autographs, handshakes and photographs on the streets of Hanoi Wednesday by throngs of admirers whose warm welcome contrasted sharply with the restrained reception given President Bush last month.
Clinton, in town to sign an agreement between his foundation and the Vietnamese to get more AIDS drugs to children, left the Hilton Hotel in the center of Hanoi, crossed an intersection buzzing with motorbikes, and strolled toward Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of the city.
The United States normalized relations with its former foe under Clinton, who was greeted by adoring crowds when in 2000 he became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war ended in 1975.
"It feels great to be back," Clinton said as he set off for his stroll.
The feeling among most Vietnamese was mutual.
"I love you!" a young man shouted, reaching over the crowd for a handshake.
"There are no words to describe how happy I am," squealed 17-year-old Nguyen Thu Hang, jumping up and down and clutching Clinton's freshly signed autograph. "I'm going to frame this and hang it on my bedroom wall!"
Bush didn't emerge from inside tight security to mingle with crowds during his four-day visit to attend the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Outside of official meetings, the president's touring included a visit to Vietnam's stock exchange, where he struck a gong to open a day of trading. He then met with a group of Vietnamese and American businessmen.
Clinton came to Hanoi to sign an agreement with the Vietnamese government under which his Clinton Foundation will increase the amount of pediatric drugs it is providing to Vietnamese children living with HIV and AIDS.
The foundation provided medicine for 400 children in 2006, but plans to triple the number of children it is helping by the end of 2007.
Followed by Secret Service agents and Vietnamese police, Clinton stopped along a half-mile route to chat with his Vietnamese admirers before making his way to an art gallery in Hanoi's Old Quarter and then to the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, who led Vietnam's communist revolution.
After he and Health Minister Tran Thi Trung Chien signed the pediatric AIDS agreement, Clinton took part in a discussion about AIDS with several university students and a young woman living with HIV.
The Vietnamese government estimates that 260,000 Vietnamese people were infected with HIV last year, but public health experts think the actual number is higher. In Vietnam, most infections are linked to intravenous drug use and unprotected sex for money.
The Clinton Foundation's activities are being financed by UNITAID, an organization formed by France and 19 other nations that have earmarked a small portion of their airline tax revenues for HIV/AIDS programs in developing countries.