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.

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.

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.

Foreign business-people agree attitudes are changing. "It's a very young country," says Don Morrison, whose Vietnamese wife runs a restaurant and art shop in old Saigon. "It's definitely easier than it was to do business here." And, says Mr. Morrison, who came from Scotland seven years ago, "there's no reflection of anti-American sentiment."

Vietnamese leaders, sublimating their once "eternal friendship" with North Korea, are also moving quickly to widen relations with South Korea, which at the peak of the war had 48,000 troops in Vietnam. Nor do Vietnamese dwell on the legacy of Agent Orange, the defoliant that Americans sprayed over broad swaths of the countryside, leaving a devastating legacy of illness and death.

"The war was a long time ago," says a government official, briefing a foreign visitor this week. "More than half the people of this country were born after the war. Only the older people remember well what happened. Now we want to move ahead."

In the village of Ap Bac, 40 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, a farmer points to a spot where Viet Cong guerrillas ambushed South Vietnamese army tanks on Jan. 2, 1963, killing three US advisers and killing and wounding hundreds of Saigon army soldiers.

Billboards in a rice paddy near his home show where helicopters were shot down, and a nearby monument memorializes the first major engagement of the war. "The war here was fierce and brutal," says the farmer, Nguyen Van Huan. "There were many battles after that one. This was the base for the Liberation forces. All I wanted was for the country to be at peace."

Now that peace is here, however, Mr. Huan, whose seven children are grown, faces other problems. "We need more jobs," he says. "The population is growing. There is not enough land."

Beside the monument, Do Xuan Chinh, a former Viet Cong sergeant, shows off a guest book that includes a page signed by Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary North Vietnamese general, during a visit several years ago. "The Ap Bac battle began the special war the Americans waged," say the words written in Giap's name. "People here in Ap Bac and elsewhere should follow the tradition of fighting and winning, for building this place as a symbol of a good village."

Mr. Chinh acknowledges "people here still have difficulty" but says, "they are making progress." As for thousands of Vietnamese sent to "reeducation" camps, he says they included only "those who were so brutal, who flew the US and Saigon flags."

Beneath the surface, Vietnamese still grumble about government control. "People are always complaining and making fun of the government," says one recent visitor, a Vietnamese who now has a foreign passport. "The government maintains strong control but does not want to upset people."

In an Internet cafe here, teenagers pack booths listening to music. A student shrugs when asked about the celebration Saturday. "I heard about it," he says. "It is not my concern."

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