Vietnam awaits economic boost from the U.S. Capitalism ready to explode there

February 01, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The Dan Sinh black market still sells purloined Pentagon paraphernalia, from flak jackets to canteens to military timepieces labeled "Watch, Wrist, General Purpose."

Out on the busy street, vendors sell U.S. dog tags, each stamped with a soldier's name, serial number, blood type and religion. Others peddle fake Zippo cigarette lighters, each marked with a soldier's slogan. "Let me win your heart and mind, or I'll burn your goddam hut down," says one, attributed to John D., Airborne, Tuy Hoa, Vietnam '66-'67.

And near the Apocalypse Now bar, where '60s rock and foreign tourists spill into the street, a jeweler shows his most expensive ring. The stone is gone, but ornate gold letters around the hole read, "A.E. Beach H.S., Savannah, Ga., 1967." The name "Carl" is carved inside. Asking price: $200.

"People like it," says the jeweler, Nguyen Van Huong, "because it's from America."

Such small mysteries and mementos -- some comical, some grisly -- still abound in Vietnam nearly 18 years after the war ended and 25 years after the start of the war's most famous battle: the 1968 Tet Offensive. Today, the strange, sad bits of Americana are the most poignant reminders of the nearly 3 million Americans who fought, worked and died here during the war.

That may soon change. Two American consulting firms have been granted licenses to open offices in Hanoi, the first since former President Bush eased the long-standing economic embargo in December. Major American oil, banking and industrial companies are expected to follow if and when President Clinton fully lifts the trade ban.

"Business here will explode," a Los Angeles businessman said at "Q," an upscale jazz bar under the French-built opera house here. "The only people who don't want us in Vietnam are other foreigners. They're afraid we'll put a McDonald's on every corner."

Vietnamese government officials alternately plead and bluster for an end to the embargo against their impoverished country. Held up until the embargo ends are billions of dollars in desperately needed loans for roads, electricity and other infrastructure from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other donors.

"We have repeatedly told American officials the prolonging of the embargo causes great hardship to the Vietnamese people," said Nguyen Xuan Phong, acting director of the Americas Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi.

"The lifting of the embargo should have been done long ago," he added. "It's irrational to delay lifting the embargo. It's not from lack of our goodwill."

Such sentiment is common in a country where nearly half the population was born after the last U.S. helicopter lifted off in 1975. Many say Washington is punishing them for a war fought by their fathers a generation ago.

"It's an economic war now," said Loong Tong, 31, manager of the cozy Piano Bar and Cafe, one of Hanoi's few privately run restaurants. "It's not a weapons war anymore."

And this year, for the first time, no celebration or announcement was planned to mark the Tet Offensive, a watershed battle of the Vietnam War.

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