In sign of improving relations, U.S. flights resume to Vietnam

First commercial landing in the renamed capital since final days of war

December 11, 2004|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - The lingering image of American air travel in this city once called Saigon is a Marine helicopter pulling away from the rooftop of an embattled U.S. Embassy.

This time, nearly 30 years after the last time, a United Airlines 747-400 was greeted by two dozen white-clad women holding electronic lotus flowers, a battery of smiling officials and businessmen, at least 40 photographers elbowing for a better position to expend megapixels on actor David Hasselhoff - and a red carpet.

United's Flight 869, out of San Francisco with a stop in Hong Kong, landed at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat Airport at 10:07 p.m. local time yesterday, 18 minutes ahead of schedule.

It was the first U.S. commercial carrier to land in Vietnam since a Pan American Airways jetliner flew in, and left, in April 1975, days before the city was overtaken by the North Vietnamese army.

"The Vietnamese people have been waiting for this flight," said Tran Tuan Anh, Vietnam's consul general, based in San Francisco, and son of the country's current president. "We want Americans to come back - but by American airliners, not American warplanes.

The arrival of the 347-seat United jumbo jet came after months of negotiations involving the airline and the governments of Vietnam and the United States and is the latest sign of the continuing thaw between the two countries.

"The normalization process has been a slow one," said Mark Schwab, Tokyo-based vice president of United's Pacific operations. "It picked up speed [in 2000] when President Bill Clinton visited the country, but there was this one missing element: No airlines were flying between the two countries."

Even before United's launch, people were making the trip. Schwab said 300,000 Americans are expected to travel to Vietnam this year (up 29 percent from a year ago, an increase inflated by the 2003 slowdown caused by SARS outbreaks) but via Japanese, Korean, Thai and other, primarily Asian, carriers.

Now, for the first time in more than a generation, Americans will be able to fly directly, albeit with a stop or two, to Ho Chi Minh City.

Much of the early business, certainly during the Christmas-New Year's season, will be expatriate Vietnamese and their offspring, United officials said. About 1.2 million Vietnamese live in the United States, according to Tran, with the heaviest concentrations in California.

"They still have relatives and friends in Vietnam," Tran said. "They can visit their homeland, visit their families. Once they come back to Vietnam, they'll want to visit again many times."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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