A sweet landing

As hard as it may be for many Americans and Vietnamese Americans who have felt the battering hand of the Vietnam War for so many years, consider for a moment the small incandescence of last week's United Airlines Flight 869 from San Francisco to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the first American commercial airliner to arrive at Tan Son Nhat airport since 1975.  The last American jet that felt land in Vietnam was the final Pan Am jet as it departed during the fall of Saigon.
 
I know it's asking a lot.
 
Communists "won" that terrible war while American troops were reviled by some at home, abused abroad and left in the killing fields of war's hell. Their missing were abandoned, and they watched as other countries around the world were sucked into the Soviet orbit. Amid liberal political mismanagement of the war, all of their sacrifices seemed to be for nothing.
 
But years pass and green shoots of life appear with little regard for the conditions they grow in. So it seems with this resumption, after 29 long years, of commercial airline flights between America and Vietnam. It was greeted with fanfare by the Vietnamese, whose lovely young women greeted the arriving flight decked out in their best ao dai national costumes, holding huge symbolic lotus blossoms in their hands as a gesture of peace.
 
Given the kind of treachery we saw in that war, it might be natural to suspect this flight and greeting is just more communist propaganda, but some understanding of the country since the war's end suggests it's not. The warm sentiment of the Vietnamese welcome is quite real.
 
How do I know this? Because this flight is no empty symbolic peace gesture. It's the crowning glory of ten years of sustained actions, all of which underline the Vietnamese nation's seriousness of purpose on becoming a capitalist, and credible, state.
 
We've been trading with Vietnam for ten years. Each and every year, that trade has grown. Trade is up more than 1000% since 1997. It was $3 billion in 2002 and $4.6 billion in 2003. It will hit $5 billion this year, according to U.S.—Vietnam Trade Council president Virginia Foote, who is an authoritative expert on trade with Vietnam. Remember that trade was zero ten years ago, the last full year before the trade embargo was lifted in February 1993. Vietnam is our 35th largest trade partner among 246 nations. And this trade growth is not merely in one or a few commodities, it's got breadth. The Vietnamese aren't just peddling baby clothes anymore, they're moving into cashews and rattan and shrimp and coffee and electronics and shoes. Something happened over the last ten years that made many more businessmen want to participate than in each previous year.
 
A lot has happened. Vietnam's market reforms are real. To get a grasp of them, it's important to look at what neighborhood it lives in. It's surrounded by Asian Tiger states who have demonstrated to the world that begging bowl poverty need not last beyond anyone's single generation. These are economies which recovered from even the horror of the Asian Currency Crisis that caused so much pain in the past six years. The strikingly good economies of countries like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore today demonstrate the robustness of honest capitalism. That's Vietnam's neighborhood.

More significantly still, there is its great de—communizing neighbor to the north, mighty China, which is growing in such a powerful way that it's almost leaving the rest of region in the dust. Being Asians, the Vietnamese have no intention of failing to keep up with the Jiangs, Jurangs and Joneses. Nor of being taken over. China has loomed large, and not always benevolently, for well over a thousand years.
 
Vietnam's seriousness was driven home to me one night in the autumn of 1996. The president of Vietnam came to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. During these times, there are many parties, receptions and assemblies for a president of any country to address. The Vietnamese president was no different. In his case, he was asked to address some old supporters, U.S. 'friends' from the Vietnam War days. Through an old acquaintance of that ideological ilk, I got invited, too. It was a room full of aging war protestors.
 
The president outlined his reform plans, which sounded abstractly nice. The 60s—retreads nodded politely, confident that the communist system they had supported would remain in place. But I threw out a question for him about the coming Vietnamese stock market. "It's on track, and oh yes, it's going to be a good one," he said confidently
 
The aging leftist war protestors gasped.
 
The president of Vietnam looked straight into their bitter, disbelieving eyes, and defiantly repeated that capitalist reforms like stock exchanges would go forward and they would be good. And they had big plans for this and intended to make it succeed.
 
The Vietnamese president said this to his own supporters, at a time when not everyone on Wall Street and in the U.S. government believed that Vietnam's de—communization intentions were real. And he said it to a roomful of people who came to him worshipfully, people who liked Vietnam precisely because they liked communism. They were his supporters. He could have lied to them to make them feel good. But he wouldn't do it. Furthermore, he had no expectation that anyone on Wall Street or in the government would hear him saying this. The only explanation for his defiance to that roomful of leftist hippies is that his intention to end communism and install capitalism was the truth.
 
Vietnam scrapped its espionage operations against the U.S. They didn't get involved in the John Kerry issues during the U.S. election, being one of the rare nations that stayed out of our politics completely, despite the fact that they were quite central to the controversies. For the Vietnamese government, trade with the U.S. was more important than anything else. They wanted trade that badly.
 
There was another interesting shift few people know about. While Vietnam's American war protestor supporters are incorrigible and haven't changed their views since the 1960s, Vietnam's ethnic Vietnamese supporters in the U.S. — and there is a small but significant network of them — felt the effect of life in the U.S. over the years and lost their revolutionary ardor. They are highly educated people who arrived in America mostly during the 1960s, and in the end found great lives in America's universities, investment banks, Silicon Valley and business. With their direct lines to Hanoi, they quietly became some of the most effective internal critics of the Vietnamese government and led the effort to force Vietnam to reform. The leftist American war protestors didn't have a clue.
 
I caught a hint of this once, when a small child of one of these Vietnamese—American supporters asked Vietnam's Central Committee chief of ideology why there was so much oppression in Vietnam — a profoundly embarrassing question from a small child — but perfectly reflective of what kind of talk went on in her parents' home. The girl's mother wasn't an Orange County Vietnamese—American dissident, but someone considered a loyalist to the regime. But the truth got through.
 
I went to Vietnam and saw more that convinced me. I made friends with Vietnamese people who were government officials when I was at university about ten years ago. When I visited Hanoi in 1998, I visited them. One was a POW hunter, one was a 'liberator' of Cambodia turned state journalist, one was a foreign ministry functionary. All three of them were open and candid about the need for reform in their country. They told me they hated bureaucracy and despised communism. 'Our country is worse than China,' one of them told me. I also noticed that far from being hardcore communists, they were devout Buddhists who practiced their faith with seriousness. That impressed me. These people weren't angry dissidents complaining from the outside — they were the Vietnamese government itself, and not only that, some of them experienced the long—ago war with the Americans firsthand. From them, these statements were stunning. 
 
Are Vietnam's economic reforms real? There is still another reason to think so. Vietnam has 80 million people, over half of whom were born after the Vietnam War and have no memory at all of hating the Americans. They are a young country, and for the young, there are always some events that are defining moments. Just as the older generation was shaped by the war in the 1960s, these young people are likely to be shaped by events like the rise of China and the Tiger states, and the Asian crisis. The Iraq war of liberation and the internet must have an effect, too All of these events underline the direction the country is headed in. Make no mistake, the country is not much of a democracy and there are still oppressive actions going on, against religious minorities in the hills, against dissident monks, and against Internet activists.  But the direction from Vietnam's youth is unmistakable, given what they are influenced by. Vietnam's leaders know this just as they recognized the other trends that propelled them to end communism in all but name and move to capitalism.
 
And now that the first commercial jet from America since the war has landed in Vietnam, there are some things that made its landing a little sweeter. One is its normalcy. The flight wasn't loaded with many of the usual junketing functionaries who always go on these landmark events. It was just people who bought plane tickets, some of whom weren't even aware of the flight's great returning significance. One was a San Jose businessman who needed to return to Vietnam for a family wedding. He realized, only a little later, not immediately, that he had once been a refugee who fled communism on one of the last panicked chaotic flights out of Vietnam. And it was at long last safe to return to the old country for a family wedding without any thought of the once—feared regime.
 
It's the absence of politics and triumph of trade that drive home more than anything that Vietnam is becoming a normal country and joining the community of prospering nations. That flight's landing is sweet.

As hard as it may be for many Americans and Vietnamese Americans who have felt the battering hand of the Vietnam War for so many years, consider for a moment the small incandescence of last week's United Airlines Flight 869 from San Francisco to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the first American commercial airliner to arrive at Tan Son Nhat airport since 1975.  The last American jet that felt land in Vietnam was the final Pan Am jet as it departed during the fall of Saigon.
 
I know it's asking a lot.
 
Communists "won" that terrible war while American troops were reviled by some at home, abused abroad and left in the killing fields of war's hell. Their missing were abandoned, and they watched as other countries around the world were sucked into the Soviet orbit. Amid liberal political mismanagement of the war, all of their sacrifices seemed to be for nothing.
 
But years pass and green shoots of life appear with little regard for the conditions they grow in. So it seems with this resumption, after 29 long years, of commercial airline flights between America and Vietnam. It was greeted with fanfare by the Vietnamese, whose lovely young women greeted the arriving flight decked out in their best ao dai national costumes, holding huge symbolic lotus blossoms in their hands as a gesture of peace.
 
Given the kind of treachery we saw in that war, it might be natural to suspect this flight and greeting is just more communist propaganda, but some understanding of the country since the war's end suggests it's not. The warm sentiment of the Vietnamese welcome is quite real.
 
How do I know this? Because this flight is no empty symbolic peace gesture. It's the crowning glory of ten years of sustained actions, all of which underline the Vietnamese nation's seriousness of purpose on becoming a capitalist, and credible, state.
 
We've been trading with Vietnam for ten years. Each and every year, that trade has grown. Trade is up more than 1000% since 1997. It was $3 billion in 2002 and $4.6 billion in 2003. It will hit $5 billion this year, according to U.S.—Vietnam Trade Council president Virginia Foote, who is an authoritative expert on trade with Vietnam. Remember that trade was zero ten years ago, the last full year before the trade embargo was lifted in February 1993. Vietnam is our 35th largest trade partner among 246 nations. And this trade growth is not merely in one or a few commodities, it's got breadth. The Vietnamese aren't just peddling baby clothes anymore, they're moving into cashews and rattan and shrimp and coffee and electronics and shoes. Something happened over the last ten years that made many more businessmen want to participate than in each previous year.
 
A lot has happened. Vietnam's market reforms are real. To get a grasp of them, it's important to look at what neighborhood it lives in. It's surrounded by Asian Tiger states who have demonstrated to the world that begging bowl poverty need not last beyond anyone's single generation. These are economies which recovered from even the horror of the Asian Currency Crisis that caused so much pain in the past six years. The strikingly good economies of countries like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore today demonstrate the robustness of honest capitalism. That's Vietnam's neighborhood.

More significantly still, there is its great de—communizing neighbor to the north, mighty China, which is growing in such a powerful way that it's almost leaving the rest of region in the dust. Being Asians, the Vietnamese have no intention of failing to keep up with the Jiangs, Jurangs and Joneses. Nor of being taken over. China has loomed large, and not always benevolently, for well over a thousand years.
 
Vietnam's seriousness was driven home to me one night in the autumn of 1996. The president of Vietnam came to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. During these times, there are many parties, receptions and assemblies for a president of any country to address. The Vietnamese president was no different. In his case, he was asked to address some old supporters, U.S. 'friends' from the Vietnam War days. Through an old acquaintance of that ideological ilk, I got invited, too. It was a room full of aging war protestors.
 
The president outlined his reform plans, which sounded abstractly nice. The 60s—retreads nodded politely, confident that the communist system they had supported would remain in place. But I threw out a question for him about the coming Vietnamese stock market. "It's on track, and oh yes, it's going to be a good one," he said confidently
 
The aging leftist war protestors gasped.
 
The president of Vietnam looked straight into their bitter, disbelieving eyes, and defiantly repeated that capitalist reforms like stock exchanges would go forward and they would be good. And they had big plans for this and intended to make it succeed.
 
The Vietnamese president said this to his own supporters, at a time when not everyone on Wall Street and in the U.S. government believed that Vietnam's de—communization intentions were real. And he said it to a roomful of people who came to him worshipfully, people who liked Vietnam precisely because they liked communism. They were his supporters. He could have lied to them to make them feel good. But he wouldn't do it. Furthermore, he had no expectation that anyone on Wall Street or in the government would hear him saying this. The only explanation for his defiance to that roomful of leftist hippies is that his intention to end communism and install capitalism was the truth.
 
Vietnam scrapped its espionage operations against the U.S. They didn't get involved in the John Kerry issues during the U.S. election, being one of the rare nations that stayed out of our politics completely, despite the fact that they were quite central to the controversies. For the Vietnamese government, trade with the U.S. was more important than anything else. They wanted trade that badly.
 
There was another interesting shift few people know about. While Vietnam's American war protestor supporters are incorrigible and haven't changed their views since the 1960s, Vietnam's ethnic Vietnamese supporters in the U.S. — and there is a small but significant network of them — felt the effect of life in the U.S. over the years and lost their revolutionary ardor. They are highly educated people who arrived in America mostly during the 1960s, and in the end found great lives in America's universities, investment banks, Silicon Valley and business. With their direct lines to Hanoi, they quietly became some of the most effective internal critics of the Vietnamese government and led the effort to force Vietnam to reform. The leftist American war protestors didn't have a clue.
 
I caught a hint of this once, when a small child of one of these Vietnamese—American supporters asked Vietnam's Central Committee chief of ideology why there was so much oppression in Vietnam — a profoundly embarrassing question from a small child — but perfectly reflective of what kind of talk went on in her parents' home. The girl's mother wasn't an Orange County Vietnamese—American dissident, but someone considered a loyalist to the regime. But the truth got through.
 
I went to Vietnam and saw more that convinced me. I made friends with Vietnamese people who were government officials when I was at university about ten years ago. When I visited Hanoi in 1998, I visited them. One was a POW hunter, one was a 'liberator' of Cambodia turned state journalist, one was a foreign ministry functionary. All three of them were open and candid about the need for reform in their country. They told me they hated bureaucracy and despised communism. 'Our country is worse than China,' one of them told me. I also noticed that far from being hardcore communists, they were devout Buddhists who practiced their faith with seriousness. That impressed me. These people weren't angry dissidents complaining from the outside — they were the Vietnamese government itself, and not only that, some of them experienced the long—ago war with the Americans firsthand. From them, these statements were stunning. 
 
Are Vietnam's economic reforms real? There is still another reason to think so. Vietnam has 80 million people, over half of whom were born after the Vietnam War and have no memory at all of hating the Americans. They are a young country, and for the young, there are always some events that are defining moments. Just as the older generation was shaped by the war in the 1960s, these young people are likely to be shaped by events like the rise of China and the Tiger states, and the Asian crisis. The Iraq war of liberation and the internet must have an effect, too All of these events underline the direction the country is headed in. Make no mistake, the country is not much of a democracy and there are still oppressive actions going on, against religious minorities in the hills, against dissident monks, and against Internet activists.  But the direction from Vietnam's youth is unmistakable, given what they are influenced by. Vietnam's leaders know this just as they recognized the other trends that propelled them to end communism in all but name and move to capitalism.
 
And now that the first commercial jet from America since the war has landed in Vietnam, there are some things that made its landing a little sweeter. One is its normalcy. The flight wasn't loaded with many of the usual junketing functionaries who always go on these landmark events. It was just people who bought plane tickets, some of whom weren't even aware of the flight's great returning significance. One was a San Jose businessman who needed to return to Vietnam for a family wedding. He realized, only a little later, not immediately, that he had once been a refugee who fled communism on one of the last panicked chaotic flights out of Vietnam. And it was at long last safe to return to the old country for a family wedding without any thought of the once—feared regime.
 
It's the absence of politics and triumph of trade that drive home more than anything that Vietnam is becoming a normal country and joining the community of prospering nations. That flight's landing is sweet.