On a recent trip to Vietnam I could not help think about the end of the war in 1975 with the rescue helicopters on the roof of the US Embassy and desperate Vietnamese trying to get out of the country before the Vietcong captured Saigon. The Vietnam War is often described as this country’s most serious military defeat with 58,000 dead, 1300 MIAs and the onset of self-doubt and reluctance to challenge communist insurgency. Despite the upbeat promises of victory by the generals ( “the light at the end of the tunnel”), the exaggerated daily body counts of the enemy, and the constant reminder about falling dominoes in South East Asia, the US was never able to master jungle warfare.
Thirty-five years later the war is not only a distant memory in Vietnam, but also we just may have won the hearts and minds ( and pocketbooks) of the Vietnamese people. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are booming examples of the capitalist ethic. In Hanoi I stayed in the Hanoi Hilton, not the prison where John McCain endured unbelievable torture, but the American hotel chain. Examples of United States corporate presence are everywhere – Chevrolet SUVs, Apple iPhones, Miller and Bud, and always the face of Colonel Sanders hawking Kentucky Fried Chicken. Looking up from my hotel in Ho Chi Minh City I turned and saw the Prudential Financial Center.
While the Vietnamese have been open to our products, we have also fostered a vibrant trade relationship with them. Since the beginning of diplomatic relations during the Clinton presidency, Vietnam has found the United States a welcome market for its goods – textiles, wood products, silk, shoes and low level computer components. I happened to glance at my Rockport shoes while in Hanoi and was surprised to see Made in Vietnam on the label. Since opening up Vietnam to the global economy, the United States has become a major trading partner with over $ 15 billion in trade annually.
I was most surprised to see little public display of the materials of warfare from the 1970s. Other than the war museum with rusted out US helicopter gun ships and jet fighters, the Vietnamese show little interest in discussing that period or shoving their victory in the faces of Americans. If there is any animosity about foreign intervention it is directed at the Chinese, who historically have invaded and dominated their neighbors to the south. In fact this year is the 1000 anniversary of the Vietnamese leader, Ly Thai To’s great victory over the Chinese. Parks in Hanoi were full of flowery celebrations recognizing the liberation of Vietnam from Chinese control.
Traveling through the country it is difficult not to run into American tourists. Last year over 300,000 visited Vietnam and more are expected in the coming years. Many from the Vietnam War generation want to return out of curiosity and the lure of lush highlands and beautiful beaches; others to perhaps purge those visions of napalmed children and massacres of unarmed villagers. But for whatever reason, there is a growing bond between Vietnam and the United States and the movement of people between both countries. Every morning outside the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City long lines of people with their papers in order enter the fortress-like compound hoping to get a visa to head to the states where areas such as Orange County, California have become “Little Saigons.”
But as I moved around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City I was constantly reminded that this remains a communist country. The hammer and sickle flag blows into the wind next to the Vietnamese flag with its gold star over a field of red. The picture of Ho Chi Minh is everywhere exhorting the populace to work hard, be ethical and take pride in the revolution. When I left the country, the US Embassy issued a report highly critical of human rights abuses by Vietnamese officials. Vietnam may be capitalistic in the Chinese mode, but it is a one party state which does not tolerate political dissent or opposition organization.
The Vietnam conflict has for years remained to many a disturbing military defeat. But Vietnam today is a far different country from what it was during the war. In fact to see Vietnam now it is possible to come to the conclusion that we just might have won the war.