- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2000

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam It was Halloween in the roof bar at the Caravelle Hotel and a Filipino band called SOX belted out rock standards and recent hits by Michael Jackson, Oasis and Sister Sledge.

The ceiling was hung with cutouts of bats, gauzy shrouds and a coffin over the bar, and the barmaids looked suitably spooky in thick black-and-white makeup. The patrons, a mix of expatriates and Vietnamese nouveau riche, were into the spirit with costumes and masks, and they danced late into the night.

Halloween in Vietnam? No tricks and no treats but Vietnam, after a decade of uneven economic and social reforms, is no longer just a communist land of hate-America slogans, of rice tillers and elderly women in cone-shaped hats. The women are still here, but they have to step quickly to avoid being run down by legions of smartly dressed young people on motorbikes who swarm 10 abreast though the streets of Ho Chi Minh City formerly Saigon on their way to work in gleaming new office towers.

In the countryside, where 80 percent of the population still lives, electric power lines and television antennas sprout from tin and bamboo shacks. And along coastal Route 1, bulldozers and cranes are building concrete bridges just yards from where farmers wade knee deep through the paddies behind their water buffaloes.

No question, this is still a one-party state where secret police watch anyone who dares criticize the government, where journalists are monitored and where the band at the Caravelle had to audition for government censors before being allowed to play.

But the limits on nonpolitical activity are disappearing, and the government and people seem united in a drive to achieve, through hard work and increasingly free markets, the kind of prosperity enjoyed by their Southeast Asian neighbors.

Clinton visit a big event

When President Clinton this week becomes the first sitting American president to visit Vietnam since the war, he will be met with open arms by a government that is seeking U.S. friendship and economic assistance by former South Vietnamese soldiers thrilled that the Americans are coming back, and by foreign investors who hope the trip will jump-start a faltering economy.

Mr. Clinton is delaying his departure for Asia by one day due to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's duties as New York senator-elect, a White House official said yesterday.

Mr. Clinton will leave today for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Wednesday and Thursday in Brunei, said spokesman P.J. Crowley. Mrs. Clinton will join her husband Thursday for the Vietnam visit.

U.S. officials avoid the word "reconciliation" to describe the purpose of the visit, saying rather that it is meant to symbolically cap a 5-year-old process of diplomatic and economic "normalization" and to open the door to a new era of closer relations.

But for many Americans, Mr. Clinton's trip will raise the question: Is it finally time, 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War, to put aside hard feelings and look at Vietnam as just another country?

Those Americans who have spent time in Vietnam in recent years, whether as businessmen, returned refugees or as war veterans doing charitable work, generally agree with C.E. Moore, a civilian anthropologist who has spent most of the past decade searching for remains of the 1,992 U.S. soldiers still listed as missing in action in Vietnam.

"Sure, why not?" he said. "The war is over. It's time to move on. The process of normalization started with President Bush."

For the Vietnamese, reconciliation has already happened. In the north and south alike, they display a warmth toward Americans that is missing in their attitudes toward Russians or Chinese.

That warmth was evident during a visit last week to the Trieu Le Primary School in Quang Tri Province. The school, with 430 students ages 6 to 11, was built in 1995 with contributions from American war veterans in fulfillment of a dream of Lewis B. Puller Jr., whose 1994 suicide was related to grievous war wounds he received nearby.

A reporter and photographer from The Washington Times who visited the school were mobbed by dozens of adoring, laughing children, whose delight at having visitors from America could not be mistaken.

U.S. Army Sgt. First Class John Kelley, in Quang Tri Province last week on his 15th mission seeking the remains of Americans still missing from the Vietnam War, recounted a similar experience while riding a rented bicycle near Hue.

"We came across a Catholic school run by Vietnamese nuns and stopped to have a look around," he said.

"They took us into a classroom and the kids gathered around us and sang to us. They turned it into something like a ceremony. It was pretty good, pretty good."

Letting go of the past

There are, no doubt, people who still nurse hostility over the war. But from the postwar generation of ambitious young Vietnamese who make up more than half the population, to the wounded veterans passing their last days in an ill-equipped hospital outside the capital of Hanoi, a common refrain is heard.

"The past is the past, and the future is the most important thing for our people," said one of some 40 students packed shoulder-to-shoulder on old wooden benches in a hot and airless classroom at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

More surprising was to hear the same thing from Nguyen Van Tong, 74, the war-deafened former commander of North Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta and now vice president of the Vietnam War Veterans Association of Ho Chi Minh City.

"Fighting against the American Army I think was inevitable," said the white-haired officer, who wore a Ho Chi Minh pin on his well-pressed shirt. "But I think now we should forget the past. I want to put the past aside."

There is a mantra-like quality to the answer, as though everyone is repeating a party line voiced frequently by the government. But foreigners with long experience in Vietnam say its Buddhist culture and its 1,000-year history of invasions from China have bred a willingness to forgive and forget.

"Every time they would defeat invaders from China, they would follow up almost immediately by sending a delegation to the Chinese emperor bearing gifts, almost apologizing for defeating them," said Chuck Searcy, for six years the director in Vietnam of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

The most tangible evidence of the government's eagerness for better relations with the United States is the high level of cooperation in the search for the remains of American MIAs.

"They have cooperated in a way that I doubt the American government would do if the positions were reversed," said Mr. Searcy, who will soon take up new duties as country director of the Washington-based Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

"They recognized that when the United States said we will base the pace of normalization on the cooperation we receive on the MIAs, that this was the best way for them to improve relations."

Helping U.S. MIA teams

That cooperation was also affirmed by members of Sgt. Kelley's MIA team, who look on their job as sort of a sacred honor.

Team leader Capt. James Becker said his wife put the mission in perspective for him when she reminded him of the death of their 3-month-old daughter two years ago.

"At least we got to hold her when she died. These families never even got a coffin back. If I can do anything to help these families have the same feeling I had, I will do it," he said.

If shared grief has helped bring the Vietnamese and Americans together the United States is now helping Vietnam to look for some of its own 300,000 MIAs reconciliation among the Vietnamese has been more difficult.

A 69-year-old pedicab driver in Ho Chi Minh City, whose wide grin exposes his last three yellowed teeth, said he would talk to a reporter about his postwar experiences, but not here.

"Security is everywhere. Come in my cyclo, I will drive you for half an hour, three dollars," he said.

The man, who asked that his name not be used, served as a lieutenant in the 1st Division of the South Vietnamese army. When the war ended in 1975, he spent five years in a re-education camp longer than most veterans and two additional years growing rice in a special economic zone.

When he returned to the city in 1982, he was denied a job with any state-owned company and turned to cyclo driving.

The security people no longer follow him and life has improved in recent years, he said. With the growth of tourism, which will draw more than 2 million visitors this year, he earns about $100 a month more than three times the national average and sends half of that home to his wife in the countryside.

"Everything is OK… . I have no problems any more," he said. But he still sleeps in his pedicab on the street and insisted that a reporter put his notebook away before he pedaled the cyclo back to a riverfront hotel.

Human rights improving

The U.S. State Department's 1999 report on human rights in Vietnam said there is a special investigative agency run by the Ministry of Public Security that keeps watch on dissidents and a system of household registration and block wardens to monitor the population.

But the report said the system has become less pervasive in recent years and other longtime residents agree.

One former boat refugee who returned six years ago to work with a large American firm said such returnees known as Viet Kieu were watched closely in 1993 and 1994, but it hardly ever happens any more.

It is mainly a matter of manpower as more and more people come back.

Another former South Vietnamese serviceman, working now as an unlicensed free-lance tour guide, said: "Many who fought on opposite sides have learned to live together, especially since so many families had members on both sides. The Viet Cong also loved the land, loved their country."

The guide, a former navy lieutenant who now earns $5 to $20 a day, said South Vietnamese veterans are not allowed to have clubs or organizations but they do help one another financially and get together to drink and talk among themselves.

Asked how he felt about this week's visit by Mr. Clinton a one-time opponent of U.S. support for South Vietnam the guide said he was delighted.

"For a long time America forgot us. We were the leftover people, the leftovers of the war… . [President] Clinton has normalized relations and day by day the economic relationship is growing," he said.

Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien last week called for more U.S. aid to deal with the consequences of the Vietnam War.

"Vietnam is still suffering very serious consequences from the war that's why Vietnam's needs are so large and we need bigger and speedier U.S. assistance," Mr. Nien said in an official interview obtained by the Agence France-Presse news service.

Mr. Nien acknowledged that Washington had started several humanitarian projects in Vietnam since the establishment of diplomatic relations five years ago, particularly in the field of flood relief.

He said U.S. and Vietnamese scientists were also working toward joint research into the U.S. wartime chemical defoliant Agent Orange, but he said that Vietnam still needed a bigger U.S. contribution to supplement its own efforts and those of other donors.

Southern vets find jobs

Some southern veterans have begun finding jobs in the government or with state enterprises, and even more are finding opportunities in the rapidly growing private sector, which is becoming significant after a decade of economic reform.

Dang Le Nguyen Vu, director and founder of a private chain of coffee houses with more than 200 outlets around the country, laughed and pointed across his office to his close aide, Le Non, when asked whether he would hire someone who had fought for the South.

"I had a difficult time for a couple of years after the war," said Mr. Non, who served in the South Vietnamese navy. "It was harder for certain troops to find employment, but it became less and less so, and now the discrimination has disappeared."

Still, those who fought for the South are systematically denied any special veterans' benefits and pre-1975 cemeteries for Southern war dead have been allowed to become overgrown with weeds.

Even in the northern provinces, the war cemeteries and monuments that mark every town seem a bit forlorn, overgrown with grass and peeling paint, as attention is lavished instead on the construction of roads, new schools and tourist hotels intended to spur economic growth.

The instruments of a repressive state remain in place. Outside organizations estimate there are from 40 to 150 political prisoners in the jails, and foreign journalists cannot leave Hanoi without permission or have bureaus outside the capital. Several photographs that were taken to accompany this article were confiscated by authorities.

Yet foreign newspapers are widely available. Westerners have been recruited to teach political subjects at the leading university, and citizens are encouraged to plug into the global information network via the Internet.

A paternalistic government

The government seems more paternalistic than oppressive, ruling like a stern but loving father who is convinced he knows what is best for his children.

Nguyen Van Trung, 21, has lived all his life in a decrepit squatter shack atop the crumbling wall of the 200-year-old citadel at Hue, along with his 77-year-old grandmother, his parents and an indeterminate number of children, chickens and dogs.

The government has never charged the family rent for the use of the land, he said. It does provide running water and electricity at the standard rates, and a small television is on inside the darkened hovel.

They will be expelled soon so that the citadel can be restored to its former glory as a tourist attraction, he said, but not until the government has built new housing for the estimated 14,000 people who live on the ruins.

No one can say their problems are the government's fault, said Mr. Trung, who has given up his work at a restaurant to care for his sick father. "The government cannot help everyone. You have to work. It's up to me."

Like Mr. Trung, most Vietnamese find the best way to enjoy and improve their lives is simply not to think about politics, particularly notions such as freedom and democracy.

"It is hard to talk to people here about politics," said one midlevel government employee. "Personally I am interested because I studied politics in school, but if I try to talk about it with my friends at night, sometimes they get angry with me."

With market reforms rapidly creating new economic opportunities, especially for the young, most Vietnamese seem to have accepted a tacit compact with the government in which they enjoy broad freedom to do as they please as long as they stay out of politics.

"Most people look pretty happy. Look at their faces in the street," said a Viet Kieu businessman who asked that his name not be used. "All they care about today is to make money, to support their families."

Opening the economy

As in China, the Communist Party is attempting to open its economy to market forces without losing political control, an especially delicate balancing act in what it understands is an information-driven world economy.

The leadership hopes to emulate India as a global source of computer engineers and programmers, recently announcing plans to train 25,000 programmers and software specialists by 2005.

That is a tall order, given that computers are available in only 30 percent of secondary schools and most students are learning programming skills on a theoretical basis. But foreign businessmen enthuse about the work habits and learning capacity of the Vietnamese, and young people are embracing the challenge.

When the privately owned Blue Sky Computer Superstore offered introductory tours of the Internet at the National University in Hanoi recently, students quickly filled up all available slots for the free 40-minute sessions.

Blue Sky marketing executive Duong Viet Tu, who aspires to be like Bill Gates in the future, said the students showed the most interest in sites dealing with fashion, sports and to a lesser extent news. A walk around the room showed computers opened to MSN, MTV, Yahoo and Vassar College, as well as several Vietnamese-language sites.

Diplomats say the only Web sites that have been blocked by the government are those put up by dissident overseas Vietnamese, mostly in the United States. But Mr. Tu said the government should do more to open the economy and encourage Internet use.

The economy is opening up in other ways as leaders absorb the lesson learned when Vietnam went overnight from a rice importer to the world's second-largest exporter simply by allowing rice farmers to keep and sell their own crops.

Playing the stock marke

An embryonic stock market has opened in Ho Chi Minh City, so far with just four state-owned companies listed and trading three days a week. But local newspapers report with enthusiasm on the daily volume and the relative merits of the companies.

The number of listings is expected to rise soon, given government plans to restructure 2,622 small or money-losing state-owned enterprises over the next five years. Most will be equitized, meaning shares will be sold to the public, while others will be sold, leased or contracted out to private companies.

Businessmen say restrictions on foreign-owned companies are also being loosened day by day, albeit through five-year plans and lugubriously titled directives like that with the title of Government Decree No. 9/2000/NQ-CP. Two major American firms were recently permitted to buy out their Vietnamese joint-venture partners.

"For Vietnamese-owned companies, there are not many restrictions left," said Don Lam, a returned refugee who says he was born in a wartime trench and now is director of management consulting services in Vietnam for Price Waterhouse Coopers.

"If a local company wants to open up, you just have to register your name and address. You don't even have to wait for a response," he said.

Still, the leadership is divided between hard-liners in the Communist Party, who would like to slow the pace of change, and reform-minded technocrats in the government, who enjoy the backing of Prime Minister Pham Van Khai.

Infighting between the factions has held up some reforms, contributing to a precipitous drop in foreign direct investment, from $8.3 billion in 1996 to less than $2 billion last year, and a slowing of economic growth from the blistering double-digit pace of the early 1990s to about 6 percent this year.

Indicative was the difficulty Vietnamese leaders had in deciding whether to sign a far-reaching new trade agreement with the United States. They finally signed in July, approving it too late to be ratified in the United States before the new Congress is seated next year.

If and when the pact is finally enacted, Western businessmen hope to cash in on a market of 78 million people that increasingly has the purchasing power and an appetite for motorbikes, cosmetics and stylish clothes.

An appetite for motorbikes

According to the government's General Department of Statistics, Vietnam will import some 1.4 million motorbikes this year, a statistic that is evident on jammed city streets where stoplights are rare and pedestrians cross the street by stepping in front of oncoming traffic.

"The trade pact represents a huge leap for Vietnam," said Tom Siebert, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City. "It is such a sweeping agreement … that it stands to improve things substantially."

Among the areas targeted are intellectual property, customs valuation and smuggling.

Corporate lawyer Sesto Vecchi, who came to Vietnam with the U.S. Navy in the mid-1960s and stayed on as a civilian all through the war, predicted the trade agreement would not only alter the economic picture but have profound social implications as well.

"The party's control has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and I think it is going to continue changing. A lot of things are going to be put in motion that [the Communist Party] cannot control. Information technology will take on a life of its own," he said.

Mr. Siebert attributed the downturn in foreign investment to the economic collapse across Asia in 1997, noting that most of the investment in Vietnam comes from Taiwan, Singapore and Korea.

"When things got tough for them, they went home," he said.

Despite the downturn in what was already one of the world's poorest countries, major effort is being put into infrastructure. Telephones work well, new schools are under construction and electricity is available to most citizens.

The government this month signed a $6.3 million contract with Cuba for assistance on a new highway following the old Ho Chi Minh Trail through the western mountains, and is working with its neighbors and $25 million from the Asian Development Bank to improve the main east-west route from the port at Da Nang through Laos to Bangkok.

A young country

With a staggering 55 percent of the population aged under 25, those young people hold the key not only to Vietnam's economic future but to its political destiny as well.

Many still are searching in the classroom, on the Internet and in their minds for an appropriate model for Vietnam's future.

"Economically, we would like to see our country develop like the United States or Japan," said Duong Quynh Hoa, 22, a student at the university. "Socially we would like to see it develop like Switzerland or Sweden."

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