KIEN VANG, Vietnam — From an American gunboat decades ago, John Kerry patrolled for communist insurgents along the winding muddy waters of the Mekong Delta. From those familiar waterways that eventually turned the young lieutenant against the war, the top U.S. diplomat confronted a modern enemy Sunday — climate change.
In this remote part of southern Vietnam, rising sea waters, erosion and the impact of upstream dam development on the Mekong River are proving a more serious threat than the Viet Cong guerrillas whom Kerry battled in 1968 and 1969.
"Decades ago on these very waters, I was one of many who witnessed the difficult period in our shared history," Kerry told a group of young professionals gathered near a dock at the riverfront village of Kien Vang.
"Today on these waters I am bearing witness to how far our two nations have come together and we are talking about the future and that's the way it ought to be," he said.
That future, especially for the water-dependent economy of the millions who live in the Mekong Delta, is in jeopardy, he said.
Kerry pledged $17 million to a program that will help the region's rice producers, shrimp and crab farmers and fisherman adapt to potential changes caused by higher sea levels that bring salt water into the delicate ecosystem.
Kerry said he would make it a personal priority to ensure that none of the six countries that share the Mekong — China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — and depend on it for the livelihoods of an estimated 60 million people exploits the river at the expense of the others.
In a pointed reference to China, which plans several Mekong Dam projects that could affect downstream populations, Kerry said: "No one country has a right to deprive another country of a livelihood, an ecosystem and its capacity for life itself that comes from that river. That river is a global asset, a treasure that belongs to the region."
The Mekong's resources must "benefit people not just in one country, not just in the country where the waters come first, but in every country that touches this great river."
It was his first visit since 1969 to the delta's rivers, which had made a vivid impression on him as a young officer. Kerry had made 13 previous postwar trips to Vietnam.
As Kerry's boat eased off a jetty onto the Cai Nuoc River, he told his guide: "I've been on this river many times." Asked how he felt about returning to the scene of his wartime military service for the first time, Kerry replied: "Weird, and it's going to get weirder."
Standing next to the captain and surveying the brown water and muddy banks, Kerry recalled the smell of burning firewood as his boat passed through small fishing villages where the aroma hasn't changed in 50 years.
At one point, a family in a sampan traveling in the opposite direction smiled and waved. Kerry waved back, and noticed the family had a dog on board:
"I had a dog, too. Its name was VC," he said. VC was the abbreviation for the Viet Cong, forces fighting the South Vietnamese and their U.S. allies.
Before his remarks in Kien Vang, Kerry visited a general store and bought candy for a group of children. He delighted them with a few words in Vietnamese.
Back on the boat, Kerry looked out at the jungle canopy that rises just off the riverbank. "It hasn't changed all that much. A lot of it is same old, same old," he said.
"This was what we called a 'free-fire zone'," he said. "The Viet Cong were pretty much everywhere."
Kerry first set foot in Vietnam 44 years ago after volunteering for service because, as he has said, "It was the right thing to do."
He was decorated with three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for fighting in a conflict that he came to despise and call a "colossal mistake," one that profoundly influenced his political career and strategic view.
"When I came home after two tours of duty, I decided that the same sense of service demanded something more of me," he wrote in his 2003 book, "A Call to Service," as he was unsuccessfully campaigning for the presidency in the 2004 election.
"The lesson I learned from Vietnam is that you quickly get into trouble if you let foreign policy or national security policy get too far adrift from our values as a country and as a people."
On his first trip to Vietnam as secretary of state, he was determined to bolster the remarkable rapprochement that he had encouraged and helped engineer as a senator in the 1990s.
In the city he first knew as Saigon, the capital of the former South Vietnam, Kerry on Saturday met with members of the business community and entrepreneurs to talk up a trade agreement the U.S. is 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 that include a commitment to a more open society, the free exchange of ideas and education.
comments on this story
He spoke after attending Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the 1880s and 1890s under French colonial rule, in a bid to show support for the tenuous freedom of worship in Vietnam. Vietnamese authorities have been criticized for harassing, prosecuting and jailing Catholic clergy.
By the end of Sunday, he was in Hanoi, where he planned talks with government officials Monday that were expected to focus on maritime security and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
He also was expected to make the case that respect for human rights, particularly freedom of speech and religion, is essential to improved relations with the United States, and raise the issue of political prisoners.