HANOI AND HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — Vietnam," its leaders have been insisting for years, "is not a war, it's a country." For the 3,000 or so Americans who have taken up residence here since the late 1980s, it is more than that: It's a business opportunity, an experience, a place, as one young American puts it, "to go for it."
That the war is long over and part of the history books is the ever-ready refrain of nearly everyone who wants to help build a new relationship between the United States and a country with impressive economic potential. For most Vietnamese and some Americans, particularly those too young to remember the conflict, this attitude fits without a hitch.
For Americans of another generation, there is no denying the war. Its legacy may lie below the surface, but never very deeply. One American businessman in Hanoi works hard to promote trade and investment between the US and Vietnam. He did not fight here, but during a recent interview his eyes briefly shone with tears when he recalled a good friend from high school whose name is etched "on the wall" - the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.
There is widespread praise for the new American ambassador in Hanoi, former congressman Douglas "Pete" Peterson, partly because his 6-1/2 years as a prisoner of war gives him unimpeachable credibility. If anyone can promote closer ties between the US and its former enemy, his supporters say, it is a man who suffered as he did.
Even a short drive through the Vietnamese countryside - past glassy rice paddies spiked with palm trees and fringed by low, craggy mountains - stirs visual memories in anyone who has seen an Oliver Stone movie in the past decade or so. The only thing missing is the slow staccato of a helicopter rotor.
Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has been reforming its economy and undoing years of Soviet-era isolationism. The country has received billions of dollars in foreign investment and the ruling Communist Party has begun walking a very Chinese tightrope: encouraging freedom of choice and individual initiative in the marketplace while the maintaining tight control of politics.
Lobbied by anxious American businesspeople, who saw other countries moving into this emerging market, Washington lifted a trade embargo in 1994 and the next year President Clinton established full diplomatic relations. Now many of these same businesspeople are having difficulties, frustrated by slow reforms and an economy that seems to be resting after years of rapid expansion. These investors, executives, and company employees form the biggest segment of the American community here. But it is a motley group that includes English teachers, diplomats, those employed by nonprofits, and a few devoted to healing the wounds of war.