Vietnam marks 30 years since war's end
Vietnam marked the 30th anniversary of the war's end with a colorful parade of floats ¡ª some emblazoned with American business logos ¡ª down the same boulevard where North Vietnamese tanks rolled to victory against a U.S.-backed government.
Hundreds of aging veterans, their chests decked with medals, watched from the sidelines as uniformed soldiers and costumed dancers waving red national flags marched toward the Reunification Palace. The legendary Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, military architect of the war, was among them, standing alongside Vietnam's President Tran Duc Luong.
Giant billboards of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's late revolutionary leader, overlooked the parade route and adjoining streets, which had been blocked to the public for security concerns.
Familiar themes of national unity and sacrifice were sounded but the commemoration was striking for its focus on the country's economic development in the former South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, was the country's "economic locomotive," attracting the bulk of the country's foreign investment, the president proclaimed to cheers from the crowd.
"Over the past 30 years the city's people ... have overcome the challenges and difficulties of war. The city has recorded huge achievements in all fields," he said.
Along the grand boulevard, capitalism has taken solid root. Downplaying the military's role, this year's commemoration featured corporate sponsorship. Some floats, sponsored by Vietnamese banks, sported the logo of American credit card companies. One by a local supermarket featured women pushing shopping carts filled with goods.
These days, Le Duan Street also is home to Diamond Plaza, a glittering, upscale department store where French perfumes and Italian shoes are sold to an urban, middle class. Along the same strip, a French-owned five-star hotel sits across the street from the U.S. consulate.
The changes are remarkable given what the country has undergone in the three decades since the war ended.
On April 30, 1975, tanks barreled through the gates of the former Presidential Palace and the fall of Saigon marked the official end of the Vietnam War, and the decade-long U.S. campaign against communism in Southeast Asia. The war claimed some 58,000 American lives and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.
"I was listening to the radio with my family and heard that Saigon had been liberated. I was very happy because for many years we weren't free. After 30 years we have rebuilt our country. Our land is safe and secure and I think the future will be better for my children," said To Thanh Nghia, 51, a government worker marching in the parade.
The atmosphere in the country surrounding the anniversary has been mostly festive, focusing on Vietnam's recent economic rejuvenation. Memories of the war and its aftermath are little more than anecdotes in history books for most Vietnamese who were born after it ended.
"My father and grandfather fought in the war but I was too young. I think my future will be good because they created opportunities for my generation," said Nguyen Thanh Tung, an 18-year-old student.
Despite Vietnam's remarkable recovery from the devastation of war, most of its largely agrarian population of 82 million remains poor with per capita income hovering around $550 a year.
But Vietnam is on the crest of an economic wave, recording an annual growth of 7.7 percent last year ¡ª second only to China in Asia. One of the biggest signs of that is the construction under way in much of Ho Chi Minh City, which has posted economic growth of more than 10 percent a year.
Luu Quang Dong, a 68-year-old veteran from northern Vinh Phuc province, traveled by bus for four days to attend Saturday's ceremony. Dressed in his olive uniform covered in red and gold medals, he said he wanted to see the city he had stormed into in 1975, arriving with his unit just minutes after the tanks crashed through the palace gates.
"I wanted to come and see how much the city has changed," he said.
Though the North and South reunified three decades ago, the task of reconciliation still looms large. On Friday, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai reached out to Vietnam's former enemies, urging them to "close the past, look to the future."
The United States has become Vietnam's single-largest trading partner. But relations with overseas Vietnamese, who sent back nearly $4 billion in remittances last year, remain more sensitive.
Despite the government's message of reconciliation, lingering mistrust continues. Earlier this week, the government banned a book of love songs from the pre-1975 era.
"Thirty years after the war, the country is really reconciled now. Maybe some people still feel bitter about the liberation of Saigon but that number is very small," said Han Van Minh, 65, who was a sergeant in the Saigon army and now runs a small business.
For the majority of people in Vietnam, life is better and the bitterness from the war and struggle for survival has given way to a race toward prosperity.
"Many people from the north came down to Saigon to do business and most of them have adapted to the new life here," said Nguyen Van Triet, 50, a schoolteacher from the Mekong Delta province of Long An. "Now people don't care about politics ¡ª what they care about is how to get rich."