Changing attitudes (and fast food) delight Vietnamese visitor. Exchange journalist seeks better ties with US

Hoang Thinh came to America with a mission: to improve relations between the United States and his native Vietnam. At the end of his three-week stay, on the first journalist exchange program between the US and Vietnam since the war, he noted numerous signs that old animosities are fading.

``The American and Vietnamese people are both victims of the war,'' he said. US veterans are now returning and finding hope in the land in which they once fought, he noted. During his visit, Mr. Thinh frequently pulled out a worn copy of a recent article by one such veteran, entitled ``My enemy, my brother,'' to emphasize what he saw as changing attitudes.

Many he met during his October visit, which was sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor and took him to Boston, New York, and Washington, shared his sense of new possibilities.

Kevin Bowen, a Vietnam veteran and resident of the Boston area, spoke of his recent trips back to Vietnam as ``reaffirming good feelings for the land and its people, the feeling we can do some good things for the country out of a situation that was very bad.''

Mr. Bowen, co-director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, said, ``We thought we were going to build a country. Going back is a second chance.''

Thinh made an effective spokesman for his country. His typical greeting was an energetic, round-the-waist bear hug. ``I learned it in my travels,'' he said, referring to a 40-year career that has taken him to Burma, Bulgaria, Albania, North Korea, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Soviet Union, and now the United States - for the first time.

Active in Vietnamese politics for most of his life, the Hanoi-based journalist has seen many faces of war - with the Japanese, the French, the Americans.

Thinh remembers covering the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when Vietnamese troops handcarried pieces of artillery to the heights overlooking French positions; antiwar activist Jane Fonda's visit to Hanoi in 1972; and the Paris peace talks.

Americans' hospitality delighted Thinh. Among some of his surprises: fast-food restaurants, women wrestlers on late night TV (``they are very brave''), and the level of American interest in the Vietnam War, evidenced by the large number of books on the subject on the shelves of bookstores.

He met with journalists, Asian experts, politicians, and groups pressing for resolution of the MIA question. In nearly every encounter, he asked: What do you see for the future of relations with Vietnam?

``It is a pity after 13 years, we could not normalize relations between the two countries,'' he said. ``Between France and Vietnam, we have nearly 100 years of domination by France, yet we have friendly relations with France.''

Thinh showed a keen awareness of the economic benefits normal relations would bring to his country. But he was also aware that, in the absence of a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and a resolution of MIA issues, such a prospect is remote.

Many Vietnamese in Boston, opposing normalization, resented Thinh's visit. The day after his arrival, leaders of Boston's Vietnamese community organized a task force to oppose normalization, which they say will undermine the efforts of resistance groups and help communists solidify their power.

``What troubles us is that the current government projects the image that they want to reconcile with Americans. But we think they should reconcile with their own people. They haven't done that,'' task force member Nam Van Pham said.

The Committee for Vietnamese Perspective also opposed the journalist exchange, Mr. Pham said, because ``a journalist from Vietnam is not like a journalist from another country. He's working for the government. He's a paid agent. His presence in Boston with an invitation from The Christian Science Monitor does not sit well with us.''

But a Vietnamese student, striking up a conversation in Vietnamese with Thinh at a bus stop, had a different response to the visit. He left Saigon in 1975, and was eager to return to trace his own cultural roots.

He took Thinh to trace the roots of another visitor from Hanoi: from Boston's Parker House (now the Omni Parker House), where Ho Chi Minh had worked as dishwasher, to what many believe to be a profile of the leader on a gas storage tank alongside the southeast expressway. The blue image was painted by antiwar activist Corita.

``It doesn't look much like him,'' Thinh said. But he seemed pleased the fading portrait was still there.

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