Jay Ellis: US Has 'Big Debt' to Vietnam

In 1992, on his first trip to Vietnam, Jay Ellis was sitting in a bar in Ho Chi Minh City with some fellow Americans who had just returned from a trip through the Mekong Delta.

One man was unhappy, and Mr. Ellis asked if everything was OK. The question provoked a gush of sadness from the man, a veteran of America's war here. He told Ellis how beautiful he thought the Vietnamese were and how sad he felt about what he had done during the war.

A self-described "old hippie," Ellis heard a calling in the vet's remorse. After a motley career - motorcycle mechanic, jewelrymaker, sailboat navigator - in 1995 he invested a small inheritance to create the US-Vietnam Friendship Hotel, a modest establishment on a Hanoi side street. Portraits of George Washington and Ho Chi Minh preside over the entrance.

"My main idea was to try to reach out to vets but now I think there's so much more," says Ellis, wearing a "Vietnam - USA" T-shirt. He has witnessed wrenching encounters between US and Vietnamese veterans, some of them at parties he's organized, but simultaneously stresses the future. "If the US can't look to Vietnam as a little brother, we are really going to miss out."

To achieve that close a relationship, he says, America is going to have to continue facing up to the war. "The US has a big debt to this country, and a lot of people disagree with me," he adds. His view is very Vietnamese - that the US government must do more to compensate Vietnam for the damage done, particularly by chemical defoliants.

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