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The U.S. and Vietnam share a war, a hopeful future and a touch of skepticism.
A famous photograph from the war years shows the words "Giet My" — Kill America — carved into a tree along the Ho Chi Minh Trail like lovers' initials. Downed U.S. pilots were beaten by crowds of furious civilians. In Bao Ninh's celebrated novel, "The Sorrow of War," the former North Vietnamese soldier wrote of comrades haunted by visions of African-American GIs roaming the jungle, of female soldiers raped and killed by American troops, of civilians killed in B-52 bombing raids.
It has been 33 years since North Vietnam won the war, and Bao Ninh, now 57, said the hatred is long forgotten.
"Time is a miracle that heals all spiritual wounds," said Ninh.
Today, the U.S. is Vietnam's biggest export market. Nike and Intel are among the country's major employers. U.S. warships call at Vietnamese ports, and Vietnamese heads of state pay regular visits to Washington. USAID spends tens of millions of dollars a year to help Vietnam fight AIDS. Hollywood movies pack the multiplexes in Saigon's new shopping malls, and "Made in Vietnam" labels line the racks at chain stores in New York. At Hoan Kiem Lake in central Hanoi, the kindly faces of two white-bearded men gaze down from billboards: on one side, Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. On the other, Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders.
The U.S. and Vietnam are now wary friends, drawn together the past 15 years by a strange confluence of nostalgia, economics and strategic self-interest. But as Barack Obama takes office in Washington, the relationship will be tested.
On some issues — military cooperation, political liberalization — the U.S. wants Hanoi to move faster than the Vietnamese Communist Party is prepared to. On other issues — boosting demand for Vietnamese exports, offsetting growing Chinese power — Vietnam may want the U.S. to do more than a country weakened by recession and military overreach can.
"Vietnamese people think that we should lean to the U.S. side, to counterbalance China," said literary critic and gadfly Pham Xuan Nguyen, 53. But "the U.S. seems not to be as strong a country as it was in 2000. It seems the U.S. doesn't dare believe in its own strength."
The rapprochement between the two countries began in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. sought friends and commercial partners among former Soviet client states. U.S. leadership had passed to the baby boom generation, whose political identities were forged in the Vietnam War. Vietnam veterans such as Sens. John F. Kerry and John McCain, each with strong sentimental commitments to closing the book on the war, played key roles in lifting the longstanding commercial embargo of Vietnam and normalizing relations in 1995.
On the Vietnamese side, the fall of the Soviet Union meant the loss of its superpower patron. With the end of support from Moscow, the impoverished, isolated country was forced to open its economy. On the political side, dynamic new leaders like then-Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet spearheaded a broad effort to reconnect with the non-Communist world, but faced resistance from conservative factions. The successful American relationship, along with years of strong economic growth, helped Kiet win that argument.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton visited Hanoi and was met by throngs of spontaneous, cheering well-wishers. It was as if the American president symbolized the country's escape from the isolation and poverty of the 1980s.
The U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement Clinton signed that year kick-started eight years of spectacular economic growth. By 2004, Vietnamese seafood exports to the US had jumped from $50 million to over $2 billion a year. In garments, footwear and wood products, the story was the same, as U.S. consumers helped lift tens of millions of Vietnamese out of poverty.
But the very success of Vietnam's export-oriented economy — 70 percent of its GDP comes from exports — has exposed it to the shock of the economic recession in the U.S. In early January, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called for businesses to refocus on the domestic market.
"Vietnam's economy is very vulnerable," said Nguyen Quang A, one of the country's leading economists. "In the future Vietnam should emphasize exports to other markets like China, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia."
Besides being its largest export market, the U.S. has influenced Vietnamese economic thinking. A new generation of Vietnamese economists, many trained at American universities on grants from the Fulbright program or the Vietnam Education Fund, have pushed for a less state-centered economy and for reforms in commercial law and corporate governance.
But such influence has its limits, says Quang A.
"Vietnam can learn from the U.S'.s economic model in areas like transparency, competitiveness, reducing protectionism, corporate governance, and mechanisms to discover wrongdoing," the economist said. "The aspect Vietnam should avoid is that the government should have a better role in running the economy."
Vietnam's government intervenes heavily in its banking sector, and supports strategic industries with huge state-owned companies, like shipbuilding. Its model resembles the state-coordinated industrial policies that were successful in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The U.S. has generally stood for a more laissez-faire economic philosophy, but its own massive government interventions in recent months have muddied that image.
One area where Vietnamese respect for America has never wavered is military prowess. But their attitude towards that prowess has shifted with circumstances.
As a 10-year-old boy in 1965, literary critic Nguyen watched captured American pilots being paraded through his village in Ha Tinh province.
"The daily perception of the U.S. was one of bombs, killing, death, bleeding, extermination," Nguyen said.
More recently, the Vietnamese overwhelmingly opposed America's military intervention in Iraq, which they found uncomfortably familiar.
"I was surprised to find American administrations in fact had not changed their views at all, even after the Vietnam War," said Bao Ninh.
Like Ninh, most Vietnamese view the Bush administration negatively, despite the improvement in bilateral relations over the past eight years and Bush's support for Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization and its election to a rotating seat on the UN Security Council.
The election of Barack Obama has generated a modest level of enthusiasm in Vietnam, and some hope for a more multilateral U.S. foreign policy. But Vietnamese businesses also fear a Democratic administration may turn to protectionism to preserve American manufacturing jobs, hurting Vietnamese exports.
Most Vietnamese think an improving Vietnamese-American relationship is inevitable, regardless of who is in the White House. Both sides need each other to counterbalance China, and Vietnamese assume that the cheap sneakers they produce for Nike, and the Boeing 777s Vietnam Airlines buys, must benefit the U.S. as much as they do Vietnam.
As for those who are hoping for a dramatic shift in American policy, they, like Bao Ninh, are skeptical.
"We have heard Americans say lots of right and good things, especially in the presidential elections," Ninh said. "But let’s see what they are doing in 2009."