Forty years ago, on the morning of April 30, a T-54 tank rammed through the front gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace in Saigon, and North Vietnamese Army soldiers streamed into the grounds. A short while later their flag was raised over the palace, and the Vietnam War was over.
The tank was still on exhibit near the front gate 22 years later when I traveled to Vietnam. Inside the palace, the president’s office, the war room, the conference hall and other rooms were as the North Vietnamese troops had found them. It was as though they were stuck in time.
I’d expected to experience that wherever I went in Vietnam. Yet as I traveled the length of the country—from Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by many of those who lived there) to Hanoi and north to the Chinese border—I was surprised to find few reminders of the war. Not even many war memorials, though millions of Vietnamese died during the decades-long conflict.
Instead, I met people who were as friendly as they were eager to learn about life in the United States. Then, as now, Vietnam was ruled by the Communist Party, but I had seen more hammer-and-sickle emblems traveling in some Western European countries. Much more common sights in Vietnam were Coca-Cola kiosks, Kodak Express shops and Marlboro T-shirts. In the larger cities the presence of Western businesses—Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and Bausch & Lomb Inc. among them—also was evident.
Traveling solo, I had the opportunity to chat with a number of ordinary Vietnamese. A college student who was studying business and learning to use Microsoft Excel, a teenager in Hanoi who wanted to know all about jobs and the cost of products back home, a 28-year-old who worked in quality control for a seafood-processing company and was saving money to visit the United States one day (he’d managed to set aside $25)—all were focused on the future, not the past. Of course, most of the 78 million Vietnamese in 1997 had not been born when the war ended; today, the population has grown to more than 93 million, with more the 60 percent in the post-war generation.
That trip made it clear to me that we, not the Vietnamese, were having the harder time moving beyond the war. It took two decades for us to establish diplomatic ties with Vietnam and occurred finally only because Republican Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, took a courageous stand, urging our country to “relinquish its lingering resentments from the war.” Another five years passed before the first U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement was signed.
I haven’t had a chance to return to Vietnam in the last 18 years; if I did, I’m not sure I’d recognize it. The technology sector reportedly is surging, and with it online sales to consumers. The Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade estimates $120 in e-commerce sales per online buyer in 2013, or a total of $2.2 billion—which is expected to jump to $4 billion this year. Remember, this is a country with per-capita GDP of $5,600.
Vietnam also is on the rise as a U.S. trade partner. Census data shows U.S. trade in goods with Vietnam reached a record $36.3 billion last year, up from $29.7 billion in 2013 and $675 million the year I traveled there.
In March, McCain marked the 40th anniversary of his release as a POW with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “I’ve made friendships with people who were once my enemies,” he wrote. “I’ve become fond of a place I once detested. I am pleased that America and Vietnam have made so much progress in building a productive, mutually beneficial relationship in the wreckage of a war that was a tragedy for both our peoples.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that “when it comes to the values that Americans hold dear—freedom, human rights and the rule of law—our highest hopes for Vietnam still remain largely just hopes.”
Indeed, the Communist Party in Hanoi has not disbanded; while the Vietnamese may be free to order products online, dissident bloggers can land in prison.
Yet McCain ended his piece optimistically, noting that the United States and Vietnam “are now traveling the road from reconciliation to true friendship. This promising prospect is among the biggest and most satisfying surprises of my life.”
These days, the United States has started down a similar path with another country: Cuba. McCain has criticized the recent moves to normalize relations with the Castro regime, though in the past he was more supportive, pointing to the U.S.-Vietnam example.
I think he was right then. For the U.S. and Cuba, it’s time to travel the road not taken for more than 50 years.
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