HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM
'I believe enemies can one day become friends," says Xuan, a young Vietnamese executive. Then she pauses, somewhat uneasy with discussing the Vietnam War with an American. Sitting at a rooftop restaurant and dressed in a dark blue business suit, she peers over Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where office towers are rising like mushrooms.
The scene is a stark contrast to 30 years ago this week, when Saigon and the US Embassy were attacked by Communist guerrillas. The shock of the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in American attitudes toward the Vietnam War and eventually led to a US withdrawal.
For Xuan, the 1968 battle is only a history lesson in school rather than a memory. Professional and ambitious, she is the new face of urban Vietnam, transformed by the Communists' reluctant embrace of capitalism a dozen years ago. Her generation - young, educated, and eager - looks to the West, the rest of Asia, and capitalism for a better quality of life.
Xuan is part of a select class of individuals, many of whom work for foreign companies. They have grown accustomed to the renewed presence of Westerners in their previously isolated country, and are taking full advantage of the situation.
While the Vietnamese government has allowed some freedom of expression in recent years, it has never fully embraced free speech, and fear still prevents many from talking openly. About a third of the two-dozen people who were asked to discuss their views on US-Vietnam relations refused, and those who agreed asked that their identities be disguised.
Nonetheless, for the first time in decades, private citizens like Xuan are willing to discuss their views with outsiders.
For Americans, this is an unprecedented opportunity to ask the question that Xuan is struggling to answer: What do Vietnamese people think of Americans and the war? After a long pause, she poses the same question I hear from others in her generation: "Why do you want to talk about the war? That happened so long ago."
But it was fewer than four years ago that the US government forbade Americans from trading with Vietnam, and even more recently that diplomatic relations were reestablished. And with a proud history of resistance to foreign invaders and a strong Confucian tradition of ancestor worship, the Vietnamese have certainly not forgotten about their more than 2 million brothers and sisters who died in the war.
Finally, Xuan looks straight in my eye and responds, "The Vietnamese people are very generous. During the war you did bad things in Vietnam. As long as you realize your mistakes and you regret them, why should we remain angry?"
Spirit of forgiveness
Others agree. Hung, a graduate student in Ho Chi Minh City, says, "The past is finished. We can't do anything about it. For the future, it's better to have America as a friend than an enemy."
Putting this in perspective, Duc, an elderly businessman, explains that the Confucian and Buddhist traditions of Vietnamese culture preach forgiveness. "So unlike in Iran, where there is still a strong anti-American sentiment 20 years after the revolution, here in Vietnam people put the past behind them."
Beyond simply forgiving the past, the Vietnamese, for the most part, look favorably on the renewed Western presence in Vietnam. Like many, Tuyet, who works for a European bank, thinks that foreign business know-how will help improve the quality of life in Vietnam. She's also grateful for her job. As a child, Tuyet was so poor that she remembers breaking her shoe and walking around a whole winter in the North with one bare foot. Now an adult, she and her sister, who works for an American company, have been able to pool their money to purchase a house in the suburbs for their family.
Even Duc, a staunch Communist who aligned himself with the Viet Cong during the war, is in favor of investment from the West. The competition it has brought to Vietnam, he argues, is keeping the local companies on their toes, and is helping to make them more viable in the global market. He also sees foreign companies as a step toward providing the level of income that will enable managers to avoid corruption, which he says is inevitable in state-run firms where salaries are insufficient.
But despite the benefits of foreign investment, Vietnamese also voice concerns about their new guests, and particularly Americans, whom some feel are still guilty of meddling in Vietnam's internal affairs.
To be sure, the emerging voice is largely that of the war's victors. Many of those who sided with the US have been pushed from the mainstream of Vietnamese society. About 1.5 million fled the country in the years following the war, and many others spent long years in "re-education camps." Their families were often denied access to good education and jobs, and many have fallen into poverty or have otherwise been isolated.
Even in recent years, many who have challenged the Communist Party have been imprisoned. Xuan, who was born in the Mekong Delta where her family had moved to support the Viet Cong rebels, says, "I'm not sure if the Vietnamese really trust the Americans; we're still suspicious of what your intentions are."
Above all, she and others feel that Americans "are trying to control Vietnam," just like during the war.
Hung, the graduate student, says, "We're not interested in the democracy that America is pushing," which he sees as too divisive for such an underdeveloped country. "We choose to be Communist, and if Americans don't like that, well then you're not welcome here."
Duc fears the US, seeing little change over the decades in its policy toward Vietnam. "America's objective has always been to wipe out communism. First you tried to do this through the war. After that failed, you tried the embargo," which backfired, he says, as it provided the Vietnamese government with an excuse for slow economic progress, and it made America seem vengeful, rallying popular support behind Hanoi.
More recently, Duc says, America decided to come back to Vietnam, partly due to commercial interests, but also because "you realize that you need to have a presence here in order to influence the country's politics."
This approach, he asserts, is working. "Before there was a foreign presence in Vietnam, we were able to easily suppress the government's opponents. Now, we feel like the whole world is watching and so we have to be much more careful."
Of the people interviewed, most insisted that no matter how difficult life may seem, the Vietnamese would prefer to tend to their own affairs. Like their government in Hanoi, the people dread the specter of protracted overseas interference, which has appeared this century in the form not only of Americans, but also Soviets, French, and Japanese.
"We realize that we're not free in our country." explains a student, "But that's OK, we accept that and it's our business. We're not looking for help from ... other countries."
Hiep, an elderly intellectual, adds, "What you Americans never understood during the war and what you still don't understand is that Vietnam was best off ruled by the Vietnamese, not by the Yankees or any other foreigners."