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Now top US diplomat, Kerry returns to Vietnam

HO CHI MINH CITY -- Forty-four years after first setting foot in the country as a young naval officer, John Kerry returned once more to Vietnam on Saturday, this time as America's top diplomat offering security assurances and seeking to promote democratic and economic reform.

Making his 14th trip to the communist Southeast Asian nation since the end of the war that profoundly influenced his political career and foreign policy thinking, Kerry is trying to bolster the remarkable rapprochement with the former U.S. enemy that he 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.

The visit is Kerry's first to Vietnam since 2000 when he was part of then-President Bill Clinton's historic trip, the first by an American president since the end of the war in 1975 and the start of the U.S. embargo against the former French colony. But, 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 from the conflict.

Here, 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 wide-ranging trade agreement that the U.S. is now negotiating with Vietnam and nine other Asian countries. To take full advantage of the economic opportunities offered by the pact, Kerry said Vietnam, which has been widely criticized for its human rights record, must embrace changes.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, is greeted by priests as he arrives to attend a service at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on Saturday, Dec. 14. (AP)

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