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As Memories of War Fade, Vietnamese Looking  Forward to Better Relations with US

  • Kay Johnson

Vietnamese commuters make their way through a traffic jam in Ho Chi Minh City
Thirty years after North Vietnam defeated the U.S.-backed regime in the South and ended the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese view of the United States - even among those who fought the Americans - is generally favorable.

For many people outside Vietnam, the fall of Saigon in April 1975 was a dark day. The enduring image of the day for most of the world was a line of South Vietnamese on the roof of a Saigon school, clamoring to board a helicopter that would fly them to American ships waiting off shore, and to safety.

But Vietnamese grandmother Huynh Kim Vinh remembers that April 30 as an occasion for joy.

As a young woman working on the communist side during the war, Mrs. Vinh helped build the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese supply route that snaked through Laos and into South Vietnam. Her unit endured months of American bomb attacks in the jungles, and her hometown of Hanoi was devastated during the 1972 "Christmas bombing" ordered by President Richard Nixon.

When she heard that Saigon had fallen, she was overjoyed that her side had won what the Vietnamese call the American War.

"At that time, everyone I knew had an intense hatred for America," she said. "We worked day and night to finish the roads so that trucks of weapons and food could pass into the South to liberate the South and to annihilate the American soldiers."

Thirty years later, on what is officially celebrated here as "Liberation Day," the attitudes of people towards the one-time enemy have changed. Even Huynh Kim Vinh, who is now 67, says she no longer hates America, despite losing her soldier husband in the war. Here in Hanoi, almost everyone says they can forgive the war, if not forget.

Washington and Hanoi finally established diplomatic relations 10 years ago, and dealings are mostly cordial. When then-President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, he was greeted like a rock star. There is talk that Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai might visit the United States later this year - he would be the highest-ranking Vietnamese official to do so since the end of the war.

There are occasional flashes of disagreement. Hanoi accuses Washington of setting up trade barriers that hurt Vietnam's exports, and Washington criticizes Vietnam's human rights record.

But the battles are now based in the present, not the past. Vietnamese government spokesman Le Dung says the war itself is no longer an obstacle to relations.

"I think that the war has been over for 30 years and it is high time to open a new page in the relations of Vietnam and the U.S.," he said.

Most ordinary Vietnamese have already turned the page on history - if they remember the war at all. More than 60 percent of Vietnam's population was born after the war ended, and the younger generations hold no bitterness toward America.

Thousands of Vietnamese students now study in American universities and young people are more eager to buy newly available iPod music players than to dwell on the past.

Nguyen Thu Ha, a 22-year-old student of international relations, says the war is ancient history to her.

"Of course, we have to remember that America attacked Vietnam, but we don't judge the American people. It is history," she said. "We should not forget the past, but what matters is moving to the future. That's what we learn in school."

Huynh Kim Vinh says the war years were hard, and she lost many friends along with her husband. She is glad Vietnam achieved a "historic victory," as she puts it, by forcing the United States, a world superpower, into retreat.

But as Vietnam observes the 30th anniversary this week, memories of battles are fading, and former combatants are forgiving each other - a hopeful legacy for a conflict that ravaged a generation in both countries.

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