In the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Tuesday, President Obama celebrated the dynamism of the fast-growing country.
He also met with dissidents and encouraged the government to improve its human rights record.
Like a growing number of American tourists, Obama seems to be enjoying himself in Vietnam.
The president snacked on noodles in Hanoi’s Old Quarter on Monday night but admited he didn’t hazard a dash across the busy streets, buzzing with motorbikes.
Obama’s not the first American president to visit Vietnam, but he is the first to have come of age after the war ended.
He thanked an older generation of leaders — including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is a former POW, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who also served — for paving the way to more normal diplomatic relations.
“Because our veterans showed us the way, because warriors had the courage to pursue peace, our people are closer than ever before,” Obama said.
The president hopes to strengthen those ties with a new trans-Pacific trade deal, though it’s controversial in the U.S.
The deal is designed to boost the U.S. profile in Asia and provide a counterweight to China’s growing military and economic might.
“You’ll be able to buy more of our goods, made in America,” Obama told the audience. “There are strategic benefits: Vietnam will be less dependent on any one partner, and enjoy broader ties with more partners, including the United States.”
The trade deal requires Vietnam to adopt labor and environmental reforms. Obama also pressed for political reforms such as freedom of assembly.
He notes that while he was able to meet with some human rights activists on Tuesday, others were barred from attending.
“It is my view that upholding these rights is not a threat to stability but enhances stability and is the foundation of progress,” Obama said.
He acknowledged that reform won’t happen overnight, but pledged the U.S. will continue to be a partner to Vietnam.
Obama suggested that’s a hopeful example to other parts of the world, that even the most intractable conflicts can give way to a brighter, more cooperative future.