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15 Years Later, US-Vietnam Relations on Fast Track

As the United States and Vietnam marked the 15th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations Monday, most signs point to rapidly improving ties.

One American has made Vietnam his life's work.

Anthony Salzman was part of the young U.S. population during the Vietnam War that could have volunteered, or have been drafted, into the U.S. military to go fight there. But, he didn't volunteer and he just missed being drafted.

"We've come a long way since the time when you and I worried about serving, and our parents and ourselves saw the helicopter gunships on TV, " said Salzman.

The ensuing years saw him develop into an entrepreneur seeking investment opportunities overseas. He chose Vietnam.

"At the time I went to Vietnam for the first visit at the end of '92, you could say that there was absolutely nothing there and, therefore, there was no market whatsoever. Or, you could say that there was everything to do and the country needed everything," he said. "So, I took the latter, optimistic approach."

To say the least, Salzman was successful.

Recognizing Vietnam's need to build its infrastructure, and the fact that the Communist-led government owned the companies that would establish most of that, he decided to provide the machinery to carry that out. His company brought that equipment in and his business venture was set. He is now known in his adopted home town of Hanoi as "Mr. Vietnam" and, on May 14 of this year, Vietnam's president bestowed on him the prestigious Friendship Medal.

Salzman said his journey has not been easy.

"It's a difficult place to do business, to be balanced and fair about it. It's extremely difficult. I've been there for a very long time and relationships and local know-how count for an awful lot. So, I think, for a newcomer to Vietnam, it's not easy and it certainly is not familiar," he said. "The attractiveness is that most of the population, truly the majority, was born after this war that impacted you and me so heavily. They have no recollection of it and they are simply aggressively, upwardly mobile capitalists. So, they need everything, they want everything but, on the other hand, they can do almost everything given a certain amount of training and time for experience. So, somebody seeking to do business in Vietnam really needs to soul-search and figure out what value he or she is bringing."

Although business relations continue their acceleration, there may be some detours ahead, said Loretta Sanchez of California, a U.S. congresswoman who represents the largest community of Vietnamese in the United States.

"It's pretty clear that the Vietnamese government is really a bad player when it comes to human rights," said Sanchez. "It's a very very repressed place, with respect to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of political parties, freedom of religion, freedom of collective bargaining."

Representative Sanchez would like Vietnam placed on a list of countries of so-called particular concern that could impact business dealings with the United States.

During a visit to Vietnam last week, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin said the issue of labor rights, worker rights, freedom of organization is an essential part of any future liberalization of trade agreements with the United States.

Salzman says that issue is being overblown.

"From my point of view, worker rights are excessively well-protected in Vietnam, extremely well protected; in fact, the whole legal system insofar as labor is slanted toward the laborer. It's a difficult environment for employers from a legal point of view," Salzman added. "In fact, trade unions are a mandatory component of every business, albeit to be balanced about it, a trade union must have a representative of the Communist Party in the union. But, that's not a particularly big bugaboo, so I'm not really sure what the issue is."

That issue may very well come under discussion when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Vietnam next month to attend the regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.