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As US, Vietnam Prepare to Cement Friendship at APEC, Some War Wounds Remain


President Bush will visit Vietnam this month for the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, which is in Hanoi this year. More than three decades after fighting a brutal war, the United States now enjoys warm relations with its communist former foe. But, while some of the issues dividing the two countries have been resolved, others remain.

Last month, more than 20 veterans of Vietnamese Army Construction Company 814, men and women, got together for a reunion.

They sang old war songs, and talked about their days as volunteers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the late 1960s.

Much has changed since the war ended in 1975. On November 17, President Bush will be welcomed to Hanoi with open arms. The Vietnamese and American governments now have warm relations, and both would prefer to let bygones be bygones.

But for many older Vietnamese, that is not so easy.

American Karen Turner and Vietnamese journalist Phan Thanh Hao wrote a book about the women of Company 814 and others who fought on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Turner says while they do not want to dwell on the past, they have not forgotten.

"Many of them are still angry, and ask me, 'Why did the Americans come to bomb my village?' Because they really still don't understand," Turner says.

Such confusion may be understandable, given how much things have changed.

The shift began in the early 1990s, as Professor Do Son Hai of Vietnam's Institute of International Relations explains.

Hai says Vietnam had long been interested in cooperation with the U.S., but the turning point was the collapse of the communist giant, the Soviet Union, in 1991, ending the Cold War. Then came the 1994 decision by former President Clinton to lift the U.S. economic embargo on Vietnam.

Mr. Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, and the two countries signed a free trade agreement, which has turned the U.S. into Vietnam's number one trading partner.

Today, Vietnam sells billions of dollars a year in seafood, shoes and furniture to America. Newly wealthy Vietnamese consumers are buying American products - such as Ford cars - while Vietnam Airlines flies Boeing jets.

The Bush administration has continued the Clinton administration's pro-Vietnam policies, pushing hard for an agreement to allow Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization. Now it is pressing Congress to approve a bill that would grant Vietnam permanent normal trade relations with the U.S.

But sore points remain in the relationship. One of these is the issue of human rights. The U.S. State Department considers Vietnam a "country of particular concern" for religious freedom issues, due to Hanoi's restrictions on some Christian and Buddhist denominations.

And Washington has pressed Vietnam to release dissidents imprisoned for expressing pro-democracy views on the Internet.

Former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, says America does not have to abandon its support of human rights to maintain good relations with
Vietnam.

"I think the U.S. needs to continue what it's always done, and stand firmly on the side of the free press and free expression. And I have actually spoken to Vietnamese leaders over the many years, insisting that they need to have that expression, because that strengthens them," Peterson says.

Peterson is a living symbol of the two countries' history. The former U.S. Air Force pilot spent more than six grueling years in Hanoi as a prisoner of war, after his fighter jet was shot down.

He returned as the U.S.'s first ambassador to Vietnam in 1997, and now runs a welfare organization for Vietnamese children.

Some former Vietnamese soldiers have had a similar experience of reconciliation. Nguyen Thanh Son served in the artillery division from 1970 to 1975. He says he has since met and bonded with many American veterans of the Vietnam War.

Son says he shared a common cause with some U.S. vets: Agent Orange. Son fought in some of the areas most contaminated by the American military's use of the chemical defoliant.

His 31-year-old daughter is blind, deaf, and severely retarded. His 27-year-old son is blind. Son blames the chemicals.

Agent Orange is one of the main points of disagreement between the two countries. Vietnam claims between one and two million people have suffered serious health effects due to the defoliant.

U.S. veterans exposed to Agent Orange have received compensation, while Vietnamese citizens have not. And U.S. courts have so far rejected suits brought by Vietnamese plaintiffs against the manufacturers of Agent Orange.

Son hopes this will change.

Son says if the U.S. never compensates victims of Agent Orange, he will be disappointed in America.

While the U.S. and Vietnam celebrate their close relations at the APEC summit, the Agent Orange issue is a reminder that for some Vietnamese, the war has never gone away.

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