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30 years after Saigon”s fall, a reinvented nation

A worker installs a Pepsi machine along a parade route as recruits practice marching in Ho Chi Minh City on Friday before Vietnam's celebration of the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A worker installs a Pepsi machine along a parade route as recruits practice marching in Ho Chi Minh City on Friday before Vietnam's celebration of the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

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 mid-mission. 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 Boeing 777 for Vietnam Airlines. His son is studying aviation. “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. Some Americans still might grapple with its legacy, but 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 to a country that Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay once suggested the United States should bomb “back to the Stone Age”? 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 that has been 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, and Americans are welcomed throughout the country with a warmth that belies the two countries’ 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 Communist Party’s Politburo in Hanoi, the capital. Its 15 members are not accountable to anyone but themselves, and criticizing their decisions would be considered 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.”

Like Hai, young Vietnamese seem in no more of a hurry to reform the political structure than the Communist Party is to relinquish the reins of power – as long as the leadership continues to deliver political stability, opportunity and higher living standards.

“Looking back on our early revolutionary history, it was communists who led the successful campaign to reunite the country,” said Hoan Dung, 78, a retired North Vietnamese general. “I don’t see the reason for multiparties. I don’t think Vietnam needs an opposition, because the Communist Party has done it right.”

The same could not have been said of the decade that followed the war.

In its revolutionary zeal, the party collectivized farms. 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 in the process 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 off to re-education camps, some to linger for years.

The so-called dark years of the postwar period ended in 1986. That’s when Hanoi’s aging leadership, facing famine, international isolation and national disillusionment, followed China’s lead and adopted, without great enthusiasm, a policy known as “doi moi” (renovation) to move toward a more open economy. Nothing less than the survival of the Communist Party – and perhaps that of Vietnam itself – was at stake.

The results were dazzling. “It was as though the people knew just what do without missing a step,” said Virginia Foote, president of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council.

Thousands of shops and small businesses sprung up. Within a decade, Vietnam had become the world’s second-largest rice exporter, cut inflation from 700 percent a year to single digits, made plans for a stock exchange in Ho Chi Minh City and attracted foreign investors from as far the United States, Australia and Taiwan.

Next year, Vietnam probably will achieve an important goal and be granted membership in the World Trade Organization. But challenges lie ahead.

The bureaucracy is thick and the pace of economic reform frustratingly slow for foreign businesses. Vietnam’s human rights record has improved but still falls short of international standards. Education in the rural areas, where 80 percent of the population lives, is poor, and the government needs to create 1 million new jobs just to keep up with young Vietnamese entering the work force each year. Corruption is as pervasive as it was in the now-vanished South Vietnam.

The South’s collapse began on April 21, 1975, when a tearful Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s president and commander in chief, told his nation and his million-man army that he was stepping down. “I am resigning but I am not deserting,” he said. Then he flew off to Taiwan with a fortune in gold.

Saigon fell nine days later without the feared bloodbath – in fact, with hardly more than a stray shot fired. The United States’ longest war had claimed the lives of 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.


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