"Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence." -- Ho Chi Minh
On this, the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, as we are bombarded with books, articles and TV specials about the war, I have good news to share with you, my fellow Americans, about Vietnam, the country.
Vietnam -- at which our military threw every weapon in its arsenal short of nuclear weapons, a country in which 3 million people died in a war that was ultimately about national liberation and not communist expansion, a poor, war-ravaged country that entered a new era of peace and unification with leaders who admitted that "waging a war is simple, but running a country is very difficult" -- is now widely viewed by the international development community as one of the developing world's great success stories.
Vietnam and the United States now are partners in a variety of arenas. Two-way trade in 2004 exceeded $6 billion, with over $5 billion in imports to the U.S. and over $1 billion in American exports to Vietnam. Last year, Vietnam welcomed over 2.5 million tourists, 272,473 of whom were Americans, a 25 percent increase over 2003.
President Bush selected Vietnam as the 15th priority country for his AIDS Relief initiative with an investment of $25 million. There are more than 3,000 young Vietnamese studying in the U.S., and our government spends more on educational exchange programs in Vietnam than any other country. The two governments are even cooperating in counterterrorism and law enforcement. The list goes on.
The Vietnam of today is full of promise and potential, pulsating with energy and steeped in dreams. Hoan Kiem Lake, one of the jewels of Hanoi and its main tourist area, is brimming with activity -- foreigners and Vietnamese alike making their rounds, young people whispering sweet nothings into each other's ears after sunset, the steady drone of traffic, restaurants and shops in every direction, people sitting in a cafe overlooking the city skyline sipping lime juice and eating coconut ice cream.
Walk around Hanoi on a sultry summer night and experience a celebration of life: horns honking, motorbikes flowing like water around pedestrians at breakneck speed, lovers sitting on park benches wrapped in each other's arms, older people exercising, children playing, vendors plying their trade -- the wars and colonial violence that beset this country for generations are now a distant and fading memory. There are few places in the world where so much has changed in so short a time.
The answer to the nagging question that many Americans ask me -- do they hate us? -- is simple. Americans are delighted, relieved and perhaps somewhat puzzled to discover that hatred and hostility directed toward them as individuals is virtually nonexistent in Vietnam. For more than half of Vietnam's population born after 1975, the American War belongs to the past, something they have heard about from their parents and grandparents, the stuff of history books and museum artifacts.
In his award-winning memoir "Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam," Andrew Pham tells the story of his visit to the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and a conversation with one of the tour guides, Cao.
Pham asks Cao why he thinks Vietnamese soldiers can forget more easily than American soldiers and gets this response: "He pulls a half-grin. It is a question he must have contemplated many times. 'We live here. They don't. It's like, say, you and me falling in love in with the same girl. We both had good and bad times courting her, maybe she hurt us both. I win and marry her. You go home to your country far away.
"After 20 years, all you have of her are memories, both the good and the bad. Me, I live with her for 20 years. I see her at her best and at her worse. We make peace with each other. We build our lives, have children, and make new history together. Twenty years and you have only memories. It is not the forgetting but the new history with the girl that is the difference between you and me.' "
Most Americans remain fixated on the image of the "girl" they knew in the 1960s and 1970s, and are ignorant of the seismic changes that have occurred in Vietnam, especially since the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Vietnam has entered the 21st century faced with a range of pressing political, social and economic problems, yet has much to celebrate, many successes to build upon, and reservoirs of potential to tap.
As the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Trai once said after a crushing defeat of the Chinese, long before the French and Americans had come and gone, "Henceforth our country is safe, Our mountains and rivers begin life afresh. Peace follows war as day follows night. We have purged our shame for a thousand centuries, we have regained our tranquility for ten thousand generations."
Mark Ashwill, Ph.D., is founder of the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation Inc. and author of "Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads (with Thai Ngoc Diep)," from which parts of this essay are excerpted. He is director of the World Languages Program, Fulbright adviser, and adjunct instructor in the General Education Program at the University at Buffalo.