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40 years after end of Vietnam War: Let bygones be bygones

Damage from war runs deep, but many have embraced the nation’s progress

Charlie Ta’s parents were boat people who fled Vietnam at the end of the war, when the economy was in a shambles.

They fetched up in the Philippines as refugees and eventually settled down in California in the United States.

Now, their son, a restaurant consultant in his mid-30s, is back in Vietnam and part of its booming economy.

He takes orders on his iPad and flips meat for the young Vietnamese professionals who visit his wife’s restaurant in central Ho Chi Minh City. The couple opened it in 2013. Business is so good that another branch might be feasible.

On Thursday, the city still referred to by many as Saigon, will hold a big parade to mark the day 40 years ago that the war that took the lives of 3 million Vietnamese and around 58,000 Americans came to an end.

An old tank at an army museum in Da Nang. (The Straits Times)
An old tank at an army museum in Da Nang. (The Straits Times)

A large swathe of downtown Ho Chi Minh City has already been blocked off to cars.

On April 30, 1975, the U.S. completed the evacuation of embassy staff to waiting American aircraft carriers.

For the second time in a generation, Vietnam had defeated a superpower; in 1958, it had thrown out colonial French troops.

Big banners celebrating the anniversary have been unfurled in major Vietnamese cities. Music concerts, exhibitions of old war propaganda art, gatherings of veterans and official ceremonies will mark the anniversary.

Despite the official celebrations and ceremonies, most Vietnamese have moved on.

Vietnam’s population is nearing 100 million, of whom more than 60 percent were born after 1975. This young, postwar generation is powering the 6.5 percent growth expected this year, driven by foreign investment and fuelled by a rising middle class.

For Ta, the war does not matter anymore, despite his family’s history. “Bygones are bygones here,” he said, laughing.

“I don’t think anybody really cares about it anymore.”

His parents, both in their 70s, moved back to Vietnam eight years ago. They do not talk about the war years much either, he said. “It’s all in the past. I guess Vietnamese culture is ― if it’s in the past, let it go.”

Hanoi adopted a market economy after 1986, discarding the disastrous state-run model that had reduced Vietnam to an aid-dependent food importer.

The country’s trade relations with the U.S. were normalized by 2006 and its accession to the World Trade Organization followed in 2007.

U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade has grown from $451 million in 1995 to nearly $35 billion last year. U.S. direct investment in Vietnam rose from $126 million in 2000 to $1.1 billion in 2013.

With the energy of the private sector unleashed and a stable political environment ― albeit in a one-party communist state that stifles any dissent ― foreign investment has flooded in.

In February this year, Vietnam’s Foreign Investment Department said total foreign direct investment in January reached $663.44 million ― a 67.1 percent increase from the figure in the same month last year.

The increase is not that unusual in Vietnam’s context. Between 1991 and 2010, economic growth averaged 7.5 percent.

Growth has slowed but is still far outstripping that of Thailand ― the other, much more industrialized regional economy, which is in the doldrums.

On March 31, consultancy CBRE said in a report that in the first quarter of this year, Vietnam’s economy grew 6.03 percent ― the highest rate in the past three years.

“The country’s growth model continues to be driven by increasing industrial production and foreign investment,” it said.

Eighty percent of FDI was in manufacturing and processing, mostly from South Korea.

With average wages still well below those of some South-East Asian neighbors, companies have been shifting factories to Vietnam.

Mobile phones have become Vietnam’s main export, contributing 14 percent of total export value.

Domestic demand is vigorous. In conversations with analysts and investors, the Vietnamese consumer is a constant refrain.

“Everyone is chasing the domestic consumer, because that’s where the growth is,” Chad Ovel, a partner at private equity firm Mekong Capital, told the Sunday Times.

Pham Hong Hai, the first Vietnamese chief executive officer of HSBC in Ho Chi Minh City, said in an interview there were clear concerns in the medium term ― for instance, about the quality of education and how long Vietnam’s labor costs will remain cheap relative to the rest of the region.

But in general, the country is on the right track, he said. “We are on a third wave of reform today. This will reform state-owned enterprises and the financial sector.

“The government does not want to go back to a high-growth, high-inflation model. It wants to focus on quality growth. It is asking state-owned enterprises to divest from non-core activities, and it is closing down weak banks.”

This month is also the 20th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S.

The damage that the war did in Vietnam still runs deep. Unexploded ordnance left behind has killed more than 10,000 mostly rural people since the war ended, ruining lives and hampering livelihoods.

The terrible legacy of the Agent Orange defoliant used by American forces lives on in the ruined families ― more than 3 million people ― left with sickness and deformities, again mostly in rural Vietnam.

These tragedies apart, across the country’s cities the refrain from the Vietnamese is remarkably similar: The war memorabilia and paraphernalia, from propaganda posters to old tanks on display at military museums, are seen almost as relics ― more for tourists than the Vietnamese themselves.

“Young people today are more interested in their personal lives,” said Vu Thi Thuy Hang, 31, an executive at Japanese consultancy Dream Incubator Vietnam. “Especially people born in the 1990s ― they don’t know much about history and don’t care.”

The view from the U.S. is different. The scars of the disastrous war in Indochina still run deep.

In 1980, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan coined the term “Vietnam syndrome” ― meaning an aversion to going to war overseas, coupled with uncertainty that the U.S. could win such wars. Many U.S. veterans still feel compelled to make the journey back to Vietnam, in a combination of pilgrimage and closure, to old battlefields where they lost their best friends.

The diplomatic and business relationship with the U.S. has overcome the war years. There has been a series of mutual high-level visits. This year, Vietnam’s powerful Communist Party chief is due to visit Washington.

A convergence of U.S. and Vietnamese strategic interests ― essentially over containing China, which has potentially volatile territorial disputes with Vietnam in the South China Sea ― has led to a rapid improvement in bilateral security relations, wrote Professor Emeritus of Government and International Affairs Hung Nguyen of George Mason University in Washington in the East Asia Forum magazine earlier this month.

In a phone interview, the professor, who is also a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said: “Those born after 1975 did not experience the trauma of the war. And because of the Internet and basically the wider distribution of information, Vietnamese know more about America.”

There is still some distrust of American intentions among the older generation of Vietnamese, he said. But younger people have a more positive impression of America. “Some of my friends call it Vietnam’s ‘America syndrome.’ Going to America is the dream of every Vietnamese kid.”

By Nirmal Ghosh

(The Straits Times)