A U.S. warship has docked in Vietnam for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War nearly 30 years ago. The visit is seen as signaling a new era in military relations between the two former enemies.
The U.S. Navy guided-missile frigate, USS Vandergrift, Wednesday sailed up the Saigon River and docked at the port of Ho Chi Minh City. The ship flew flags of the United States and Vietnam and its crew of about 200 sailors stood at attention as it docked. The ship is to call for four days at what once was the capital of South Vietnam, and officials said some of the crew would be granted shore leave.
It was the first U.S. military ship to dock in Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. More than 58,000 Americans and as many as three-million Vietnamese died in the lengthy conflict. The war began as a bid to block the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia, but ended with scenes of U.S. helicopters evacuating supporters of the collapsed South Vietnamese government while victorious North Vietnamese tanks rolled into town.
The United States and Vietnam established diplomatic ties in 1995, but relations were initially difficult as the two governments negotiated a variety of disputes left over from the war. Nevertheless, efforts to determine the fate of thousands of soldiers who were missing in action during the conflict - both Americans and Vietnamese - encouraged bilateral cooperation and brought about emotional meetings between former battlefield foes.
The U.S. government recently indicated that Vietnam was one of several Asian countries with which it was seeking military facilities arrangements. Vietnam's Defense Minister Pham Van Tra last week became the first senior Vietnamese military official since the war to visit Washington, and met with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
A major agreement two years ago caused trade between the two countries to boom to $3 billion a year.
Nevertheless, there are still irritants in the relationship, including criticism in the United States of Vietnam's human rights record, and warnings by Vietnamese officials against unwarranted interference in their country's internal affairs.