HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — John Kerry first set foot in Vietnam 44 years ago, a young U.S. Navy officer fighting in a war that would come to profoundly influence his political career and foreign policy thinking.
He returned again Saturday, this time as America's top diplomat, offering security assurances and working to promote democratic and economic reforms in the communist country.
In his 14th trip to the Southeast Asian nation since the war's end, the U.S. secretary of state was trying to bolster the remarkable rapprochement that he had encouraged and helped to engineer as a senator in the 1990s.
"I can't think of two countries that have worked harder, done more and done better to try to bring themselves together and change history, to change the future, to provide a future for people that is very, very different," Kerry told a group of businesspeople, students and others at the U.S. Consulate's American Center in Ho Chi Minh City.
Kerry last was in Vietnam in 2000, when Bill Clinton became the first American president to visit since the end of the war in 1975 and the start of the U.S. embargo against the former French colony.
Between 1991 and 2000, Kerry traveled 13 times to Vietnam to try to normalize relations, beginning with visits to clear up lingering questions over the fate of American prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action.
In the city he first knew as Saigon, the capital of the former South Vietnam, Kerry met Saturday with members of the business community and entrepreneurs to talk up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a broad trade agreement that the U.S. is now negotiating with Vietnam and nine other Asian countries.
To take full advantage of the deal's economic opportunities, Kerry said Vietnam, which has been widely criticized for its human rights record, must embrace changes.