Updated: 12/16/2013 02:19 | By Agence France-Presse

War veteran Kerry returns to Vietnam's Mekong Delta

Secretary of State John Kerry returned Sunday to Vietnam's Mekong Delta, which he navigated as a wartime gunboat skipper, to highlight its vulnerability to climate change in his role as top US diplomat.

War veteran Kerry returns to Vietnam's Mekong Delta

Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) talks with a local official during a visit to the Tan An Tay commune in Southern province of Ca Mau, along the Mekong River Delta, on December 15, 2013

Kerry, who arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday on a trip aimed at shoring up ties with Southeast Asia, travelled by boat through Ca Mau, a once-dangerous Viet Cong stronghold.

At the pier of the small port of Kien Vang, he spoke to officials and students -- many clad in white Ao Dai, Vietnam's traditional dress.

"It is obviously amazing for me to be here today," he said, according to a copy of his remarks released by the US State Department.

"Decades ago, on these very waters, I was one of many who witnessed the difficult period in our shared history. Today... I'm bearing witness to how far our nations have come together."

The one-time presidential hopeful, whose political activism was inspired by his experiences patrolling the area's waterways on US Swift Boats during the Vietnam War, said he came to the Mekong "not to go into the past" but to address key future challenges.

"Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change," he said, warning of "very serious impacts" if urgent action was not taken.

He announced a $17 million package to help local communities adapt to climate change and warned that the future of the water-dependent region was under threat from rising sea levels and proposed upstream dam construction by China and Thailand.

"That river is a global asset, a treasure that belongs to the region," he said, adding that the Mekong's resources must benefit people "not just in the country where the waters come first, but in every country that touches this great river".

Kerry served with the US Navy from 1966 to 1970 as a naval lieutenant. He was decorated with three Purple Hearts, awarded for combat injuries, as well as a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for bravery.

On Saturday he hailed ties between the two former foes as "stronger than ever" as he started his first official visit to the nation as the top US diplomat.

Washington is eager to underscore its commitment to Asia. Its eastwards "pivot" policy was shaken earlier this year when the US government shutdown forced President Barack Obama to cancel a trip to the region, allowing China to occupy centre stage at key regional summits.

"Kerry’s visit to Vietnam is part of the Obama administration’s policy of rebalancing," Vietnam expert Carl Thayer told AFP, adding it could be a precursor to a visit by the president to the communist country.

The region is beset by political and territorial tensions, including bitter maritime disputes between an increasingly assertive China and a number of its neighbours including Vietnam.

Kerry arrived in Hanoi late Sunday, and will meet Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh Monday to discuss deepening trade and security ties as part of his three-day visit.

On Saturday he said he vividly remembered his time in war-torn South Vietnam, describing an evening drinking on the roof of the Rex Hotel in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1969.

"I can't tell you how totally bizarre it was to be sitting on top of a hotel, having a beer... while all around you, you would be seeing and hearing the sounds of a war," he said.

It was on his return after two tours of duty that he became a fierce campaigner against the war, which ended in 1975.

Kerry, who celebrated his 70th birthday on Wednesday, said he was excited to have returned to Vietnam, his first time back in the communist country since he joined President Bill Clinton on his landmark visit in 2000.

Kerry's trip will also include a visit to the Philippines, a longstanding US ally, where he will tour the city of Tacloban which was devastated by a typhoon last month.

Kerry, a Catholic, attended a mass at the French-colonial era Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday.

US officials have recently welcomed some improvements in freedom of religion in the one-party state, long criticised for harassing and jailing Catholic activists.

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