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Vietnam Tries to Create New Image 30 Years After End of War

On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. It meant the defeat of the United States-backed South Vietnamese regime.

Approximately two million Vietnamese and 58,000 U.S. troops died in the conflict. While many Americans remember this as a low point in U.S. history, Vietnamese celebrate this date as their "Liberation Day". But much has changed in 30 years, and former enemies are now welcomed as friends.

Some images are indelibly etched into America's collective consciousness - one is that of South Vietnamese begging and clawing their way into the U.S. Embassy in what was then Saigon, or onto helicopters and boats, as they tried to escape the oncoming Communist troops.

Vietnamese Colonel Bui Van Tung remembers vividly the chaos of the fall of Saigon. He says, “when I was inside, [South Vietnamese President] Duong Van Minh knew that I was the top officer. He told me, 'we are waiting to hand over the cabinet.' I said, 'You have nothing to hand over but your unconditional surrender to us.' "

It was the end of the decade-long Vietnam War - or, as the Vietnamese remember it, the "American War".

Vietnam struggled through years of post-war isolation and extreme poverty before it opened its economy to the world in the mid-1980's. Today, the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, are alive with young people chatting on cell phones, riding motorbikes, and foreign tourists taking photos of old tanks and planes. It's still a communist regime in power, but the economy is more open, and the nation's leanings are towards capitalism, and the West.

Anne Luong, a 15-year-old student says, "All students in Vietnam, they are always interested in studying about America, everything about America."

Approximately 56 percent of Vietnam's 82 million people were born after communist forces captured South Vietnam.

Factory worker Nguyen Thi Thuy Phuong says, "in my opinion, we are the generation born after the war. We, young people, should always study to perfect ourselves."

This open-mindedness is reflected in current foreign policy. In 2003, the USS Vandergrift docked at Ho Chi Minh City - the first American warship to do so since the war. Diplomatic relations were re-established in 1995.

International business and trade is making a comeback too. United Airlines recently became the first U.S. air carrier in decades to offer flights to Vietnam. For some, it's a chance to forge new personal ties, while others seek to heal old wounds.

Vietnamese-American Courtney Pham and war veteran John Philip returned to Vietnam recently.

"As a Vietnamese-American, I grew up in the years of peace time and now I want to go back to Vietnam just to get to know the people, get to know my roots and history of it," says Courtney Pham.

"... There’s sort of a pilgrimage almost, that you want to go back in the memory of those that you served with. On the other hand, you want to see it again in a less confrontational situation because it's truly a beautiful country," adds John Philip.

For almost 30 years, the Vietnamese knew only war - against the French, against the Americans, against China, Cambodia, against each other. Now, its ambitious, educated youth are trying to lead Vietnam to a more prominent role on the international stage, and create a new image of the country.