In cities as in the jungle, vigorous new growth is creeping over the scars VIETNAM: A COUNTRY REBORN

April 22, 1995|By Brigid Schulte and Tom Bowman | Brigid Schulte and Tom Bowman,Special to The Sun

Hanoi -- In the evening, the tree-lined city is quiet. Gliding past the ornate and brightly lit Opera House, the only sound is the creaking wheels of a sole bicycle cab and the labored breathing of its driver. Gone is the incessant crash of beeping motorcycles, ringing bike bells and honking new four-wheel drives that dodge and weave through chaotic, crowded streets.

Down a darkened side street, clusters of people sitting on their haunches surround charcoal cooking fires. A muted yellow light filters from the doorways of moss- and water-stained French buildings.

This is Hanoi at night, 20 years after the end of a grisly and confusing war that defined a generation -- both here and in the United States. At dawn, on April 30, 1975, the last American helicopter hung in the air over the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon before it churned toward the South China Sea and away from Vietnam.

For most Americans, the specter of Vietnam lingers still: a lost cause, lost lives and lost innocence.

But Vietnam is a country. And while all of Hanoi still gathers at first light in the rising mist around the Lake of the Restored Sword to practice tai chi, just about everything else is changing.

In the new Vietnam, Phil Collins' greatest hits provide the in-flight music on Vietnam Airlines' old Soviet planes. Everyone takes American dollars. And Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" plays in Hanoi's new Peartree Cafe, where five workers gather around the city's first cappuccino machine and giggle as they try to make the milk foam.

Street vendors still specialize in Pho, a spicy noodle dish eaten for breakfast. But their carts are also filling up with Coke, Juicy Fruit and M&Ms.

Skeletons of newly constructed buildings line every street. Even in the countryside, modern three-story townhouses emerge abruptly from surrounding huts. At the airport, a huge neon sign announces the first "Vietnamerica" trade show.

Long-neglected hotels like the Metropole in Hanoi and the Majestic in old Saigon have been restored to their former splendor. Their refurbished bars are filled with Western lawyers and tax attorneys who munch cashews and golden raisins and talk of the latest multi-national investment deals.

The old cathedral

Hanoi's old Catholic Cathedral, St. Joseph's, is again filling for dawn services. Old men, who have waited their whole lives to be ordained, are finally becoming priests, with the Communist Party's grudging blessing. The new fashion for young people, when they are not sipping cafe au lait and eating French pastries, is to join a Buddhist temple.

The white traditional culottes, called aoi dai, billow as flocks of high school girls ride their bikes. But they are quickly overtaken by women on $2,000 Honda Dream motorcycles, who wear elegant white gloves up to their elbows.

While the napalmed jungles are again lush, the war is never far from view. Buildings in Hue are pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1968 Tet Offensive. Limbless, tattered beggars -- many of them former South Vietnamese soldiers -- fill the streets in Saigon. A trail of perfectly round fish ponds that dot the air approach into Hanoi are actually craters from B-52 carpet bombing runs. The violently twisted remains of one crashed American B-52 is on display, along with other heavy weapons and tanks of the "American puppets" at the Army Museum in Hanoi. The War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh (formerly the American War Crimes Museum) is much more graphic, with gruesome photographs of the brutal war.

Though anti-American sloganism is still pervasive, the Vietnamese are eager for American currency and an official American presence to serve as a counterweight to China, their ancient enemy. An American mission has reopened in Hanoi. Russian teachers are out of work. Nearly everyone is studying English and is eager to practice. Children scream "Hello!" to passers-by on country roads, hours from the nearest city.

Talk of war -- fathers who died fighting for the Viet Cong or who contracted malaria in post-war re-education camps -- comes grudgingly. Some refuse to give their names. Most recite what is becoming a national mantra: "The war is over. We are hoping for a better life." Indeed, questions revolve around the price of airline tickets, how much foreigners earn and what it costs to own a home in America.

In Halong Bay, where thousands of rock monoliths jut from the blue green water, Tran Anh Dung, a guide, said he was 3 when his father, a Viet Cong fighter, was killed by Americans in 1967.

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