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In Vietnam, the first Fourth of July party

With a tinny version of The Star-Spangled Banner blaring over loudspeakers, Americans living here turned out Tuesday for an Independence Day barbecue on the site of the former consulate their government abandoned in 1954.

"It's our coming-out party," said James Rockwell, an American business consultant. "Nobody here is worried about any negative impacts of being in Vietnam anymore."

Now, with President Clinton expected to decide this month whether to normalize relations with Vietnam, the Americans in Vietnam feel more confident about acting like, well, Americans.

So Tuesday, about 500 people, in Bermuda shorts and red-white-and-blue T-shirts, grilled hamburgers (with imported beef) and Oscar Mayer franks, drank Budweiser, listened to Whitney Houston and Willie Nelson, and pitched horseshoes. Major League Baseball, apparently desperate for fans, flew in 500 caps for the Yankees, Mets, and other teams. Organizers decorated pedicabs with stars and stripes to ferry Americans to the party in downtown Hanoi.

Around the world, American expatriates gathered at Fourth of July parties. But Tuesday's was the first in postwar Vietnam, where many Americans feel beaten down by everything from the heat and humidity to bureaucratic intransigence to the absence of diplomatic relations.

The party gave the beleaguered Americans a psychological pickup. There was a buzz in the air that normalized relations, regarded optimistically as an elixir for all their business woes, are just around the corner.

Even a typically dour Hanoi summer day, with gray skies and drizzle, did not dampen gung-ho spirits.

"We Americans are here to stay," said Al DeMatteis, a Long Island real-estate developer trying to build a resort outside Da Nang.

People like DeMatteis were not always so boisterous. Many American companies had been fearful that veterans' groups and families of servicemen still missing from the Vietnam War would boycott them if they knew they had set up shop in Vietnam.

The State Department, which in January opened a diplomatic office without embassy status, has shied away from publicly talking about its presence here. Officials avoided raising the American flag in front of television cameras. Before Tuesday's party, they debated whether they should play the national anthem.

Inside and outside the party, Americans and Vietnamese talked of relationships that will remain complicated even after normalization.

"I feel in between the two countries," said Huynh Minh Tri, who escaped by boat at age 12 in 1980, settled in New York with an aunt, studied at Harvard Business School, and returned to Vietnam this summer for a three-month job with Citibank.

Others, like Earl Casner, have different ties to this country.

"It's absolutely astounding to be standing in Hanoi and listening to the national anthem," said Casner, a 66-year-old Army veteran and schoolteacher from Alexandria, Va. He served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 and is visiting this month.

"It doesn't bother me that this is the home of the enemy," he said. "I have a strong feeling communism will fall here like it has everywhere else and good-old democracy will ultimately take over."

And there were Vietnamese whose families fought against the Americans, like Nguyen Thi Nhu Hoa.

Until January, Mrs. Hoa and her family lived on the site where the Americans celebrated Tuesday. They and about 30 other people were evicted by the Vietnamese government when the property was returned to the U.S. government, which has demolished a villa and other buildings on the site and plans to build offices and housing for about 20 families who will eventually be stationed here.

Mrs. Hoa and the other displaced residents were given new homes and money for resettling. But they were not all happy about moving.

Mrs. Hoa, who echoed the government's official line that "we forget about the past," added a reminder that the relationship between the two countries is too complex for old wounds to be healed by warm words of reconciliation alone. Mrs. Hoa, like others here, expects compensation for damage suffered during the war.

"The U.S. is always demanding information about MIAs in Vietnam," she said. "But what about us? You came and fought here and put all kinds of poisonous things in our country. . . .

"You spent a great deal of money making us poorer. It is only fair that you have to compensate us for it now."

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