Vietnam rolled out the red carpet yesterday for US President George W. Bush and many other world leaders converging here for a weekend Asia-Pacific summit focused on the drive for global free trade.
After his motorcade sped through Hanoi to the heavily guarded Sheraton Hotel, Bush went straight into a lunchtime meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard for talks which were expected to mainly focus on Iraq.
Dozens of residents peered out of the windows of their homes near the hotel to catch a glimpse of the US leader but Vietnamese police, not taking any chances, cleared the streets as part of a massive security operation.
"The US is a big country, Vietnam is small -- therefore this visit is meaningful," said 36-year-old businessman Nguyen Xuan Cuong of what is only the second visit by a US leader since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Bush was to be joined by Chinese President Hu Jintao (
Banners waved, the fountains were switched on and security was tight at the huge new US$270 million convention center on the outskirts of Hanoi which has been built especially for the APEC gathering.
The leaders from the group's 21 member economies were to focus mainly on how to restart negotiations on tearing down barriers to free trade, which broke down in Switzerland in July.
The 149 members of the WTO met on Thursday for the first time since then, after APEC foreign and trade ministers told WTO director general Pascal Lamy earlier this week they were ready to break the deadlock.
Bush is also expected to push the idea of a cross-Pacific free trade zone stretching from China to Chile, seen by some as a "plan B" should WTO talks collapse, and by critics as an obstacle to APEC's own long-term trade goals.
APEC was launched in 1989 to discuss trade and economic issues but its agenda was later expanded to cover security issues, especially terrorism.
Regional efforts to combat bird flu, contingency plans to protect businesses in the event of a terror attack and emerging threats such as possible strikes on the area's food supply are to be discussed here this weekend.
The North Korean nuclear crisis also looms large, with negotiators involved in efforts to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions shuttling between Hanoi's luxury hotels to discuss a date for resuming six-party talks.
"We really want to start this in December, but we are also very much aware of the need to have progress," chief US envoy Christopher Hill told reporters yesterday after a meeting with a senior Chinese diplomat.
Last evening, Bush was due to be received by Vietnamese leaders for a state banquet.
Following the weekend summit, he will travel to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to visit the fledgling but bustling stock market in East Asia's second fastest-growing economy after China.