After 25 years, military forces are leaving Cam Ranh Vietnamese city, a strategic target in Cold War, going through changes of a new era.

April 27, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

CAM RANH, Vietnam -- To thousands of American soldiers, this palm-strewn paradise offered a deceptively placid first look at Vietnam.

With its stunning beaches and turquoise waters set off by gumdrop-shaped hills, Cam Ranh Bay shimmered in the heat like an unexpected oasis, a paradise that cloaked subsequent anguish. Visiting the soldiers stationed here once, comedian Bob Hope called this giant military base "the world's largest sand trap."

But now, after 25 years of military occupation -- by Americans until 1975, then by the troops of the Soviet Union -- this strategic target on the Cold War map of the world is being surrendered without a shot or a whimper. Shopkeepers, students and bar girls can tell you what the Vietnamese government won't officially confirm: The Russians are going home.

The visit of the first American journalist to the forbidden city of Cam Ranh, where the United States once spent more than $2 billion to construct a giant military base, reveals that the former Soviet military, short of money and shorn of imperialist visions, is slowly drifting out of Vietnam.

No Soviet ships are docked at the base, merchants said, and the thousands of Russians who once wandered openly around town have been reduced to fewer than 400, who come to shop only in supervised groups.

A tour through the rutted dirt roads and weather-beaten facades of Cam Ranh also suggests how in Vietnam, as in the United States, the end of the Cold War is leading officials to dream up new, non-military schemes to create jobs and economic development for people.

Nguyen Chien Thang, economic specialist for Khach Hoa province, said Cam Ranh Bay could be transformed into a very attractive zone for export manufacturing.

"Many foreign investors say they want to make an investment in the Cam Ranh base and make it into a commercial port," Mr.

Thang said.

Others think the base airport would make a good hub for sunseekers setting out for the nearby beach resort of Nha Trang.

With the American military pulling out of Subic Bay in the Philippines, some have suggested a U.S. return to Cam Ranh Bay.

But Giang Nam, vice chairman of the province's People's Committee and a former Viet Cong guerrilla, remains cautious. "We don't want to have any military forces back in Vietnam. We welcome commercial vessels from all over the world, but not military ships."

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