HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Vietnam’s Communist leaders commemorated the 40th anniversary of the end of their war against the United States Thursday with red-flag pageantry as the two countries forge closer economic and military ties against the backdrop of a more assertive China.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, was decked out in hammer-and-sickle banners as soldiers marched through the nation’s financial center. They passed by streets lined with American fast-food outlets where decades earlier Viet Cong tanks passed before crashing through the gates of the then-South Vietnamese presidential palace, ending the conflict.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a speech recalled the “glorious chapter” in the victory against “U.S. imperialists and its henchmen” in 1975, even as he said his government was “putting the past behind us and looking forward to the future.”
The comments underscore the complicated and evolving relationship between former enemies whose strategic interests are merging with the economic and military rise of China. The Vietnam conflict became a Cold War-era proxy war with the Soviet Union backing the Communists in the North and the U.S. sending more than 2 million soldiers to support the South during the course of the conflict.
“The government is aware that the past overshadows its relationship with the U.S.,” Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said by phone. “They don’t want to forget about the past. But they want to look to the future and that resonates with the general population.”
Bilateral trade between the U.S. and Vietnam soared to $36 billion last year from $451 million in 1995, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The countries are also cooperating more on the strategic front: The U.S. is providing Vietnam with six patrol boats, part of an $18 million military aid package.
Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang recently visited Washington and party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is expected to travel to the U.S. this year.
“America remembers the past and we honor it while we look to the future and build on it,” U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius said at a somber ceremony to remember two Marines killed in the closing hours of the war. “I believe our two peoples will continue to move forward together, to grow closer. And this region will be more safer and secure for it.”
For many Vietnamese in the south, April 30th is a date fraught with mixed emotions, Vuving said.
“From the Vietnamese perspective, it was always a war among Vietnamese,” he said. “You have both winners and losers in Vietnam.”
The war claimed the lives of as many as 3 million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans. Afterward, more than 1 million Vietnamese opposed to Communist forces were placed in re-education camps, where “many died, while tens of thousands were to languish in detention until the late 1980s,” according to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Decades later, patriotic songs with lyrics such as “kill the enemy” are still played at official events. A special double-issue of Vietnam News on April 26 celebrated the defeat of “imperialistic forces” with a feature about a tank crew that swept into Saigon 40 years ago.
“It’s a reaffirmation of the party and the military and their guidance that led to Vietnam being independent,” Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said by phone. “This is also a message to China: Vietnam defeated the most powerful country in the world and the people are united.”
The interests of the U.S. and Vietnam became more aligned when China placed an oil rig in waters near the contested Paracel Islands last May, triggering clashes between boats and anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, Le Hong Hiep, a lecturer at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, said by phone.
“The two countries now are working to build stronger ties, especially after the oil rig incident,” he said. “I think China is watching closely.”
A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found Vietnamese have a 76 percent favorable view of the U.S. and a 16 percent positive view of China.
“There is a forgiveness,” said Louis Andre, 68, who fought in Quang Tri province with the U.S. Army Special Forces and is visiting Vietnam for the first time since the war. “There are handshakes and warm hugs. If you want to have hope about the future, you have to stop wishing for a different past. That past is what it is.”
Boudreau reported from Hanoi.