Olympic torch cheered in Vietnam

April 29, 2008 8:08:09 AM PDT
Thousands cheered the Olympic torch through Vietnam's largest city Tuesday, ending to the international leg of the flame's relay after weeks of protests and disruptions by anti-China activists. The torch now will be taken to the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau and then the mainland, including restive Tibet and the summit of Mount Everest, and finally to the Games themselves in Beijing in August.

The relay got off to a shaky start in Ho Chi Minh City after the flame went out less than 700 feet from the start outside the city's 19th century opera house, but Olympic officials reignited it after several minutes.

Chinese citizens, mostly those working or studying in Vietnam, were the loudest among the crowds in this southern city, which was once known as Saigon. Waving huge red flags, they chanted "Beijing! China!" repeatedly as if they were at a soccer match.

"Seeing this makes me so happy," said Emily Chen, a Chinese worker at a Nike factory in Vietnam. "More power to China!"

Vietnam had assured its communist ally and giant northern neighbor it would not allow demonstrators to disrupt the parade, but several demonstrators staged a brief rally earlier in the capital.

They were detained after unfurling an anti-China banner and shouting "Boycott the Beijing Olympics" in a market in Hanoi, two witnesses said on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of getting into trouble with authorities. Police declined comment.

The torch relay has been disrupted by protests or conducted under extremely heavy security since it left Greece on March 24, turning an event that should have built up excitement for the Games into something of a public relations disaster for the hosts.

The protests have mostly been in response to China's crackdown last month on anti-government riots in Tibet and to more general concerns over human rights issues in China.

China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979, but ties have improved in recent years.

"I don't know about the protests in other countries, but as far as Vietnam is concerned, we are happy to welcome this torch," said Vu Thi Van, a 61-year-old woman who was carrying an Olympic flag. Scores of Western tourists along with ordinary Vietnamese, some with children on their shoulders, jostled to get a view of the torch as it was carried past famous landmarks, including the Rex Hotel, where many U.S. military officers stayed during the Vietnam War.

"The protests have been mistaken," said Nguyen Manh Hung, an economics student. "Sport should bring people together."

The torch arrived in Vietnam from North Korea, where tens of thousands of citizens were mobilized to celebrate the relay in Pyongyang in the flame's first visit to the authoritarian nation.

Even though the flame will soon be on Chinese soil, there are no guarantees of an easy ride.

On Tuesday, three pro-Tibet activists who planned to protest during the Hong Kong leg of the torch relay were stopped on arrival at the territory's airport and deported, said Lhadon Tethong of Students for a Free Tibet.

Hong Kong Immigration Department spokeswoman Ho Tse Bing-yee declined comment.

Disruptions also could occur during the torch relay in mainland China, particularly in Tibet or the western region of Xinjiang.