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Vietnam's long journey from war

Saturday a rising nation celebrates the end of the war with the US and its allies on April 30, 1975.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2005


The signs of preparation for a major celebration are everywhere. In this coastal town of French-built villas near the decaying prison where French and South Vietnamese jailers once tortured dissidents in "tiger cages," soldiers in dress uniform march along the beach to military music.

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All around Vietnam, in cities and villages alike, banners proclaim the joy of "liberation," and the national flag protrudes from taxis, homes, and stores.

And in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the swarming center of 8 million people 150 miles northwest of here, hundreds of musicians, drummers, and dancers rehearse for an elaborate show. As Vietnam observes its victory 30 years ago over what is now called "the Saigon Regime," the air is thick with pride.

Saturday, leaders from Hanoi, who were young soldiers and bureaucrats in 1975, will gather before the former Independence Palace to review a grand parade and boast of the glories of the new order. As a reminder, a tank squats on the lawn evoking the day when northern forces crashed through the gates of the palace after helicopters lifted the last American officials, journalists, and Vietnamese with the right connections from the roof of the US Embassy.

Yet amid all the pomp and circumstance, there's little sign of distaste for the United States, whose troops waged war here from 1965 until their final withdrawal after the signing of the Paris peace treaty in 1973. "We have too much work to do," says a young man who, like more than half of Vietnam's 80 million people, was born after April 30, 1975. "My parents talk about these things. We don't think about them."

The lessons learned in school about the revolution - the defeat of the South Vietnamese and US forces - and the rise of the new order seem hardly to permeate the outlook of most people as they fight to survive in what, to all outward appearances, is a free-wheeling environment. The communist government may control the economy through large state-owned corporations, but private entrepreneurs are everywhere, running everything from restaurants to Internet cafes.

A young official from Hanoi talks of the happy life of the people and the freedom they now enjoy in comparison to the "brutality" of the US-backed Saigon government. Just as easily, he says that people are "forgetting" the American role and "wish to be friends" with the US. While histories of the war - in print and on TV - extol the defeat of the Americans in a one-sided manner, they avoid criticism of Washington's current leaders.

Adam Sitkoff, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi says relations between Vietnam and the US are "increasingly better."

The big question now is trade, and whether the US will support Vietnam's application for membership in the World Trade Organization - a step the US Embassy in Hanoi says may happen if Vietnam opens up more fully to investment and eases trade restraints. As it is, Vietnam and the US now do $7 billion a year in trade, up from $1.5 billion five years ago when they signed a bilateral trade agreement.