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Hey, Bill Clinton!

At first I found it amusing. "Hey, Bill Clinton," shouted our hotel doorman, as I crossed the lobby, soon after checking into our Hanoi hotel. By this weekend,.it was starting to grate. "Bill Clinton, when you going home?"

And it wasn't just the doorman. The floor lady, two taxi drivers, two waiters and a man from the Foreign Ministry have all told me that I look like the former president. I've started to stare into the mirror at the end of each day, not sure whether I should feel flattered or appalled.

I really don't think I do look like Clinton, and I soon developed a theory: that all this attention wasn't so much about me, but about him - a product of the Vietnamese continuing fascination with the past president, who in 2000 became the first U.S. leader to visit Vietnam since the end of the war.


He'd been welcomed like a rock star back then. The small Saigon noodle restaurant in which he ate has become something of a shrine to the man, his picture plastered on the walls. The restaurant is much expanded over the years, but still trades on its Clinton connection.

The Clinton visit left an indelible imprint on Vietnamese minds, in a way that President Bush's visit simply cannot match. That's not to belittle the importance of the Bush visit, but Clinton's was the real ground-breaker, and that won't easily be forgotten here.

I tested my theory with a group of young Vietnamese I met in a café in an old area of Hanoi made up of narrow streets, overhung with trees and lined with Parisian-style cafes. It is a popular meeting point for Hanoi youngsters. Chung, who owns a small bar, was sipping strong Hanoi coffees with a group of friends: Kurn, who works in a publishing house, and two young women, Hoa and Ling, who work in a new privately-owned advertising agency. They are former classmates, all now in their mid-20s, and all doing well. Ling recently married the owner of a small computer company and she was showing her wedding photos.

I asked them what they thought of the visit by George Bush. Yes, very important, said Ling, "But so inconvenient. They close the roads, you know, and we can't move around."

As I was soon to discover, moving around is rather important to Ling and her friends, especially when they want to show off – and showing off is a major pastime of Hanoi youngsters.

All had recently bought new scooters. And when you get a new scooter in Hanoi there is only one thing to do: call your friends and go for a spin.

The motorcycle is king in Hanoi. By some estimates there are more than 2 million in a city of 4 million people, and to Chung, Ling and their friends, you are what you ride. “It’s not so much transportation as a fashion,” Chung told me. “It’s like having the latest cell phone, clothes or sunglasses.”

Each day before dusk, Hanoi's gripped by a cruising ritual they call "luon lo," which translates literally as "wandering" - thousands of youngsters riding around the city's lakes – to see and be seen.

Like most of the two-thirds of Vietnamese born since the war, these youngsters are embracing the world at breakneck speed, with little concern about politics or the past.

There are now so many motorcycles that life seems to revolve around them. As we discovered trailing them around the lake for a spot for Weekend Today, traffic rules appear to be optional and the streets frequently gridlocked.

One result of this has been an explosion in traffic accidents involving motorcycles, and the authorities have responded by trying to ban new registrations in the city. It hasn't had much effect. This is a generation that doesn't easily take no for an answer, and they have quickly found ways to sidestep the new rules, usually by having their bikes registered outside the city.

By sunset the roads here are jammed with bikes, weaving and dodging, their horns blaring. Traffic policemen look on helplessly, and Bill Clinton politely declines an offer of a ride back to the hotel on the back of a bike.

Photo caption: Motorcycles and scooters own the roads of Hanoi. Photo by NBC's Ian Williams.