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VIETNAM GROWING, THRIVING 30 YEARS AFTER WAR
NATION FOCUSES ON DEVELOPMENT

In the final days of the Vietnam War 30 years ago, a U.S.-trained South Vietnamese pilot named Nguyen Thanh Trung defected to the North mid-mission. Faking engine problems, he peeled off from his squadron and headed back to Saigon to bomb the presidential palace and the international airport.

Today, Trung flies a U.S.-made Boeing 777 for Vietnam Airlines and shuttles passengers from abroad into the same airport he once bombed. His son is studying aviation in Australia.

"My generation was raised to fight the war," Trung said, "but today's generation is here to capitalize on the peace."

To them, Saigon's fall to Communist forces 30 years ago today on April 30, 1975, is ancient history. Some Americans still might grapple with its legacy, but the Vietnamese have moved on, seldom speaking of what they call the American War. For them, there is only one focus now -- national development.

The United States' longest war had claimed the lives of 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

Half the nearly 83 million people in Vietnam were born after Saigon fell and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The other half has forgiven, if not forgotten, following Vietnam's long tradition of repairing relations with former foes and extracting lessons from the past. In 1426, Vietnam, after defeating China, provided it with boats and horses to carry its vanquished army home.

So what has 30 years of peace brought to a country that Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay once suggested the United States should bomb "back to the Stone Age"? Interestingly, if you took away the still-ruling Communist Party, and discounted the perilous decade after the war, the Vietnam of today is a country not much different from the one U.S. policy-makers wanted to create in the 1960s.

It is a peaceful, stable presence in the Pacific Basin, with an army that has been whittled down to 484,000 troops. Its economy, a mix of Karl Marx and Adam Smith, has the highest growth rate in Southeast Asia. Private enterprise is flourishing, a middle class is growing, poverty rates are falling. The United States is a major trading partner, and Americans are welcomed throughout the country with a warmth that belies the two countries' history.

Urban youth have opportunities undreamed of in their parents' time; they are studying English -- their grandparents learned French and their parents Russian or German -- and flocking to colleges, generally indifferent to the Communist Party unless they want a government job.

Among the 54 universities in Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's first foreign-run educational facility, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Its 1,400 students come from 20 countries, including the United States, and earn degrees in software engineering, commerce and marketing on a modern campus, wired for the Internet.

The party that has given its people economic and social freedom has not yielded on political freedom. Ultimate authority still rests with the Communist Party's Politburo in Hanoi, the capital. Its 15 members are not accountable to anyone but themselves, and criticizing their decisions would be considered a serious crime. No one expects real political reform to come quickly.

The so-called Dark Years of the postwar period ended in 1986. That's when Hanoi's aging leadership, facing famine, international isolation and national disillusionment, followed China's lead and adopted, without great enthusiasm, a policy known as "doi moi" (renovation) to move toward a more open economy. Nothing less than the survival of the Communist Party -- and perhaps that of Vietnam itself -- was at stake.

The results were dazzling. "It was as though the people knew just what do without missing a step," said Virginia Foote, president of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council.

Next year, Vietnam probably will achieve an important goal and be granted membership in the World Trade Organization.

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