This Sunday in Hanoi, President Bush will don a traditional Vietnamese silk tunic for the closing ceremony of an Asia-Pacific summit. The scene will not be far from a plaza where Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence in 1945 (prematurely, it turned out), using phrases from America's Declaration.
As much a nationalist as a communist, the man who spent part of his youth in New York and Boston never realized his hope of America playing a benevolent role for his small Far East nation.
Four wars pushed away that dream (first with colonial France, then with the cold-war United States, later with Khmer-Rouge Cambodia, and finally with a bullying China).
But this weekend, Vietnam will finally emerge on the world stage after a 20-year dash toward a market economy. It will not only host the 21-nation Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in grand style, but will welcome the first state visit of a US president – 31 years after the last American helicopter exited Saigon in that war's ignoble end.
This coming-out party, however, will be more for Vietnam's economy than its political progress.
Still a one-party communist state that jails dissidents by the hundreds, Vietnam loosely follows the Chinese model of development. Its economic growth rate is now second to China's, and its stock market is the most bullish in Asia. It enters the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January. And it's fair to say that Microsoft's Bill Gates comes as close to being a hero to Vietnam's urban youth as the iconic Mr. Ho.
Bush's visit was meant to be the engagement ring for a love match between former enemies. The US sees Vietnam as a strategic partner to keep China in check. Washington sends Navy ships and Pentagon chiefs for visits, and talks of joint military exercises. And Vietnam is a low-wage nation for US business (Intel just made a $1 billion investment). US-Vietnam trade was nearly $8 billion last year.
Unfortunately, the US House of Representatives missed the memo. This week, in a mood more anti-free trade than anti-Hanoi, it failed to pass a bill that would have lifted some cold-war-era restrictions on trade with Vietnam. Embarrassed GOP leaders claim the measure will pass in a December vote. Bush goes to Hanoi without that gift.
To win US favor for its WTO entry, however, Vietnam has eased up on religious and pro-democracy groups. While this leniency could be reversed, open markets have helped infuse democratic values better than US guns ever did.
On Tuesday, the State Department delisted Vietnam as a country "of particular concern" for severely repressing religious freedoms.
Without a multiparty democracy, Vietnam (like China) will be unlikely to curb rampant corruption and rising rural unrest that dog its secretive communist rulers, even though it has greatly reduced poverty for its 84 million people over the past decade.
Such contradictions within Vietnam – skyscrapers despite an average $700-a-year income – can be reduced with closer ties to the US. Nothing could be closer than a US president from Texas wearing an ao dai tunic in Hanoi.