HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — In the final days of the Vietnam War, as communist troops closed in on Saigon, 14-year-old Jocelyn Tran stood on the deck of a U.S. Navy ship and took what she thought would be her last look at her homeland.
She and her family were on their way to the Philippines, where they officially became refugees — sprayed with DDT, issued I-94 cards and sent to the United States. They arrived on July 4, 1975.
"You'll never set foot in Vietnam again," her father, a former South Vietnamese army officer, told her as they began life anew in California. "You'll never see that place again."
In fact, Tran would see a lot of Vietnam again. She now lives and works here as country manager for MAST Vietnam, part of the giant U.S. retailer Limited Brands (Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works). It is among the nearly 200 American companies making apparel, shoes and computers in a place where 40 years ago the United States was fighting a seemingly endless war.
"To have the privilege to come back and live here again is very surreal to me,'' Tran says.
"Surreal" could also describe Vietnam's transformation and the near total turnaround in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
Army of tourists
Apart from museums and monuments, there are few signs of the war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and 3-million to 5-million Vietnamese, and led to brutal captivity for hundreds of downed U.S. pilots, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
Towering over the "Hanoi Hilton," the prison were McCain was held from 1967 to 1973, is a luxury apartment building. In Ho Chi Minh City — or Saigon, as everyone still calls it — legions of tourists browse boutiques with Gucci purses and Fendi footwear.
Young Vietnamese watch Wheel of Fortune and vote on their cell phones for their favorite singers on Vietnam Idol. The country's beaches are flush with stunning new resorts, including that at Nha Trang. Thousands of U.S. troops were once based there; next month it will host the Miss Universe pageant.
Among the more than 4-million annual visitors are growing numbers of Americans, nearly 30,000 in May alone, including many who fought in the war. In contrast to the dim view of the United States in much of the world, the Vietnamese attitude toward Americans is surprisingly warm, as delighted members of Congress tell U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak:
"They say, 'You know, these people really seem to like us.' "
A surprising 'savior'
That would have been hard to imagine in April 1975, as U.S. helicopters ferried out the last Americans and some of their South Vietnamese colleagues. Left behind were millions of South Vietnamese who had unsuccessfully opposed the communist forces of Ho Chi Minh, the late revolutionary leader.
Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon had seen U.S. military involvement in Vietnam as key to preventing it and the rest of Southeast Asia from falling domino-style to communism. But like the French, who long occupied Vietnam, Americans were doomed to lose what was always more of a nationalist than ideological struggle, many scholars say.
Ho Chi Minh's "only ambition was reconquering Vietnam so it would be independent and no longer a colony," says Huu Ngoc, a leading Vietnamese historian. "If the French had accepted Ho in '46, Vietnam would have become a capitalist country in the French union, not the communist country it is today."
After declaring independence and reunifying North and South Vietnam, the new communist government banned most private enterprise in the south, causing an economic crisis aggravated by a U.S. trade embargo. The government introduced free-market reforms in the mid 1980s, President Bill Clinton lifted the embargo in 1994 and a year later the two countries normalized relations.
For the United States, a major goal was to account for nearly 2,000 missing American service members, a process that continues to this day. For the Vietnamese, it was to mimic American economic success.
"They wanted all the products that came out of the United States, all the movies," says Douglas "Pete" Peterson, who in 1997 became the first postwar American ambassador to Vietnam. "What the Vietnamese were really shooting for was a way of life they saw on the screen, and they very quickly began to look at the United States as the potential savior."
In 2000 the two countries signed a trade agreement, and last year Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization. That has led to a rush of investment as foreign companies take advantage of cheap labor — at least 30 percent less expensive than China — and position themselves for when Vietnamese can buy many of the items they now make.
With 86-million people, "this is the 13th most populous nation in the world and people are looking to get on board early because it's definitely going to grow," Peterson says.
"It has a literacy rate of roughly 95 percent, which you won't find in many emerging countries. It is incredibly stable, the crime rate is very low, there's no terrorist threat, no ethnic problems of any major magnitude. The country is full of resources that have not even been touched for development."
The embrace of Americans has been helped by the fact that 60 percent of Vietnamese weren't born until after the war. And those who were alive tend to suppress bad memories.
During the communists' 1968 Tet offensive, Truong Thi Cuc saw her beloved city of Hue, once home to Vietnam's emperors, ravaged by fighting. Today she runs a popular restaurant for tourists in the garden of her French colonial style home.
"Life is going on," Truong says. "There is no reason to dig in the past."
Problem of success
For all of its pluses, Vietnam remains a one-party, authoritarian state.
There are no free elections, no public gatherings without government approval, no moving from one province to another without a government permit (though many people illegally migrate to cities in search of work).
Political dissidents often find themselves in prison. The government blocks access to political and religious Web sites deemed "offensive." Press freedom is limited, and foreign journalists must be accompanied by government guides who also act as interpreters.
"We have significant issues on human rights, but we at least have been able to engage with them," Michalak, the U.S. ambassador, says of the communist government.
For businesses, there are daunting problems. In a culture that values personal ties and gift-giving, corruption is rampant. Transparency International, a global network that opposes corruption, ranks Vietnam in the bottom third of countries on its Corruption Perception Index.
Moving goods and supplies can also be a headache. Highway 1 — the main route between Hanoi and Saigon — often narrows to two lanes clogged with motorbikes, trucks and even water buffalo that wander out of nearby rice paddies.
"It's the problem of success," says Herb Cochran, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Saigon. "Vietnam is suffering from all these companies coming here to invest and produce and ship, and there's just general congestion in the roads and ports."
By and large, though, Vietnam is doing remarkably well after a long, devastating war. Might Iraq also turn out as good?
Though there are parallels between the two wars — critics say neither should have been fought in the first place — there are substantial differences between the two countries.
"The Vietnamese won, so that changes their attitude (toward the United States) a little bit," Peterson says. "They weren't subject to some humiliating defeat."
Moreover, "we've caused so much damage in Iraq and demoralized that whole region so severely it's going to be very difficult for that kind of recovery to take place," adds Peterson, a former Democratic member of Congress from Florida. "And then you have the almost tribal resentments that Vietnam didn't have. I don't see a comparison between Iraq and Vietnam at all."
When she returned to Saigon in 2002, Tran of MAST Vietnam felt like a stranger in her own land.
She spoke Vietnamese, but at times needed help translating jokes. She was bemused that what Americans call "the Fall of Saigon," April 30, 1975, is known to Vietnamese as the "Liberation Day of the South."
She also got the occasional guilt trip from taxi drivers and others who remained in Vietnam while nearly 1-million Vietnamese resettled in America.
"They would love to use the war and 'poor me — I got left behind, my life is still hard,' to get a bigger tip," she says.
But while Tran likely will move on, she will always feel a kinship with Vietnam and the staff she has helped build.
"For many of our colleagues, the first time to ride in a car was when they came to work for us. Then to see them buying houses and cars — working on their Vietnamese dream just like many of us Americans working on ours."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.