Vietnamese give little thought to `American War'

Current generation focuses on spectacular recovery from poverty

April 30, 2005|By David Lamb | David Lamb,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - In the final days of the Vietnam War 30 years ago, a U.S.-trained South Vietnamese pilot named Nguyen Thanh Trung defected to the North. Faking engine problems, he peeled off from his squadron and headed back to Saigon to bomb the presidential palace and the international airport.

Today, Trung flies a U.S.-made Boeing 777 for Vietnam Airlines and shuttles passengers from abroad into the same airport he once bombed. His son is studying aviation in Australia.

"My generation was raised to fight the war," Trung said, "but today's generation is here to capitalize on the peace."

To them, Saigon's fall to Communist forces on April 30, 1975, is ancient history. The Vietnamese have moved on, seldom speaking of what they call the American War. For them, there is only one focus now: national development.

Half the nearly 83 million people in Vietnam were born after Saigon fell and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The other half has forgiven, if not forgotten, following Vietnam's long tradition of repairing relations with former foes and extracting lessons from the past. In 1426, Vietnam, after defeating China, provided it with boats and horses to carry its vanquished army home.

So what has 30 years of peace brought? Interestingly, if you took away the still-ruling Communist Party and discounted the perilous decade after the war, the Vietnam of today is a country not much different from the one U.S. policy-makers wanted to create in the 1960s.

It is a peaceful, stable presence in the Pacific Basin, with an army whittled down to 484,000 troops. Its economy, a mix of Karl Marx and Adam Smith, has the highest growth rate in Southeast Asia. Private enterprise is flourishing, a middle class is growing, poverty rates are falling. The United States is a major trading partner. Americans are welcomed throughout the country with a warmth that belies history.

Urban youth have opportunities undreamed of in their parents' time; they are studying English - their grandparents learned French and their parents Russian or German - and flocking to colleges, generally indifferent to the Communist Party unless they want a government job.

Among the 54 universities in Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's first foreign-run educational facility, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Its 1,400 students come from 20 countries, including the United States, and earn degrees in software engineering, commerce and marketing on a modern campus, wired for the Internet.

When the institute's president, Michael Mann, visited Vietnam in 1984 as a young diplomat, the country was so poor and famished that he brought rice to ensure he would have something to eat.

"I looked around then and said: `There's no way these people can catch up. They're too far behind,'" said Mann, a former Australian ambassador to Vietnam. "Today, I believe they can. Vietnam deserves good marks for its development efforts in the last decade, and the students are very sharp, very eager to learn. They have the freedom to do just about anything they want except promote political change, and they don't appear interested in that."

The party that has given its people economic and social freedom has not yielded on political freedom. Ultimate authority still rests with the Politburo in Hanoi, the capital. Its 15 members are not accountable to anyone but themselves, and criticizing their decisions would be a serious crime. No one expects real political reform to come quickly.

In fact, ask a member of the postwar generation if he or she wants more democracy, with a multiparty system and media without state controls, and the response usually echoes that of Royal Melbourne student Pham Nguyen Hai, 20: "I feel we have enough freedom. We know what we can do."

In its revolutionary zeal, the party collectivized farms in the decade after the war. Without incentives, productivity declined and Vietnam became a rice importer. The party confiscated property and wealth. Overnight, millionaires became paupers. Children of South Vietnamese soldiers were denied entrance into the best colleges and the good jobs, and the spirit of reconciliation withered.

Newspapers disappeared, movie theaters closed, bank safety deposit boxes were sealed. Ordinary Vietnamese were forbidden to have any contact with foreigners. More than 400,000 South Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps, some to linger for years.

One of those was Maj. Gen. Nguyen Hu Co, who remembers raising vegetables, cutting firewood and enduring endless political lectures for 12 years.

Co, a Catholic who now lives in Ho Chi Minh City, says he attends church regularly and neither he nor his family faces any discrimination. His wife runs a small embroidery business, and four of his 12 children live in the United States, which he plans to visit this month.

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