George Bush became the second US president to visit post-war Vietnam on Friday, saying his presence 30 years after a war that split America was proof the two countries "can reconcile and move beyond past difficulties."
With US embroiled in a bitter and bloody conflict in Iraq, Bush said Vietnam's experience showed divides there can also be healed in time.
"My first reaction is, history has a long march to it, and that societies change and relationships can constantly be altered for good," said Bush, in Hanoi to attend the 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Thousands of Vietnamese, some smiling and waving, some impassive, some astride motorbikes and bicycles, lined the streets of his motorcade route as Bush arrived
Bush told reporters he found it poignant driving by the Hanoi lake into which former POW and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, landed when his fighter jet was shot down during the war.
After an arrival ceremony, Bush was to meet leaders of Vietnam's communist state, the type of government US forces had tried to prevent in a bloody war that cost 56,000 American lives and ended in a humiliating defeat 30 years ago when communist forces overran the US-backed government in Saigon.
Bush said he found a "new hopefulness to this country."
"It shows how hopeful the world can be and how people can reconcile and move beyond past difficulties for the common good. Vietnam is an exciting place, a place with an enormous future," he said, while noting it had work to do on religious freedom.
Bush, a pilot for the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war, said Vietnam's experience was proof that it will take time to resolve the Iraq war and defeat Islamic militants.
Success takes time
"One lesson is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world and the task in Iraq is going to take a while," he said.
While in Hanoi Bush will meet the leaders of the other countries trying to persuade North Korea to forswear nuclear weapons, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.
Asked if he was getting sufficient cooperation from South Korea was doing its part to to prevent North Korea from exporting nuclear-related technology, Bush said he would talk to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun "about implementing the United Nations Security Council resolution."
"We have a chance to solve this issue peacefully and diplomatically. It's important for the world to see that the Security Council resolutions which were passed are implemented. Part my discussions will be how we fully implement those sanctions that the world has asked for," he said.
He said it was also "a chance to set the conditions right so the six-party talks will succeed."
The resolution, approved after North Korea's October nuclear test, imposed sanctions on North Korea to prevent it from exporting nuclear materials or technologies.
Bush, who spent the war as a pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, will see his biggest reminder of the conflict Saturday when he visits the joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, in which US and Vietnamese experts are still trying to identify remains of American war dead.
Bush, who lost some of his clout in Washington when Democrats ousted his Republicans from control of the US Congress on November 7, came without a deal aimed at normalising trade between the United States and Vietnam.
Bush had hoped to have a symbol of American friendship in hand on arrival, legislation granting Vietnam permanent normalised trade relations to allow its accession to the World Trade Organisation.