VIETNAM BY PAIRS: The country and the war, the north and south

American visitors to Vietnam quickly forget about the war and receive a friendly response to a country still verydifferent between north and south.

Vietnam is a country. It's no longer a war. It's a point many Americans miss amid all the movies, books, and memories of what the Vietnamese call "the American war."

Vietnam has long since moved on. In fact, it has had two wars since the 1975 fall of Saigon: a short war with China and its own invasion of Cambodia.

Most Vietnamese today never experienced the US bombs or soldiers. They're too young. That may explain why American visitors are greeted with kindness and often excitement. Vendors look up to see a foreigner taking their photo and respond with a shy smile.

North and South Vietnam are now one, but their distinctions continue. Hanoi, the capital, remains a sleepier city with French colonial architecture and tree-lined roads. It bustles, but in a quieter way than Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). On the outskirts of Hanoi, rice paddies fill every possible space and are cultivated in age-old methods, plowed with buffalo and planted by hand. Even irrigation is sometimes done with manual labor.

Ho Chi Minh City bustles with construction. In every direction from the center of town, cranes fill the sky. Neon signs light up the night. Crossing the street is an exercise in trust. Don't look, just keep walking so all the motorbikes - that never stop coming - can go around you.

But it's the people themselves, so calm, so friendly, that help shake off the images of that bygone war from the mind of an American visitor.

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