Vietnam's Complicated Relationship with the US

Cheap facsimiles of $100 bills waft in the tropical breeze, littering Ho Chi Minh City's sidewalks with Benjamin Franklin's face. Elsewhere in Vietnam, US President Richard M. Nixon has become a gritty fashion icon, giving politicized street cred to "urban wear" clothes.

Thirty-five years ago, victorious Communist North Vietnam's troops fought their way into South Vietnam's southern port of Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City to honor their dead, charismatic, wispy-bearded leader. Ho's ubiquitous portrait, however, now competes with symbols of America, one of his worst enemies. Today, on the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh City and the northern capital Hanoi, virtually anything linked to the US is prized, including iPhones, Pepsi, and made-in-Vietnam Converse shoes.

In short, it appeared during a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City, on Vietnam's streets as well as its ministries, it is engaged in a forked relationship with the United States that can't just be described as love-hate. It appears more complicated than that. Three and a half decades years after the war ended, both countries are still trying to come to terms with the other. Despite Vietnam's feverish adoption of the US's cultural symbols, other American political landmarks – a free and unfettered press, universal suffrage – remain too difficult for the one-time Communist regime.

London-based Amnesty International and other organizations criticize Vietnam for an array of human rights violations. Last September, the Committee to Protect Journalists cited Vietnam for continuing interference and arrests of Web-based journalists and political bloggers. Reporters remain in jail for reporting on corruption and political harassment. Wary of allowing too much American-style freedom, the one-party government heavily censors the Internet and is now targeting online games.

"Game designers will be instructed to produce healthy online games relating to history and cultural traditions," the Vietnam News Service reported in August, outlining new measures issued by the Information and Communications Ministry.

Since diplomatic relations were established in 1995, “bilateral ties have expanded to the point where leaders on both sides describe each other as partners on a number of issues,” according to a study for the US Congressional Research Service by Mark E. Manyin that was published in July, eclipsing the horrors meted out by the Americans from 1965 to 1975. Those are now enshrined in museums that display grim evidence, weaponry, and portraits of devastated Vietnamese from a time when US soldiers called their burnt napalm victims "crispy critters."

"They decide on a water torture," says the caption of a black-and-white news photograph in The War Remnants Museum which documents five American soldiers, including one pouring a canteen onto a horizontal victim's cloth-covered head. "A rag is placed over the man's face and water is poured on it, making breathing impossible. Members of the 1st Air Cavalry use water torture on a prisoner in 1968."

Outdoors sit captured U.S. weaponry including an F-5A jet fighter, A-37 light attack aircraft, M-41 tank, a UH-1H Huey and a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, alongside other pieces. The museum's gift shop sells what looks like US soldiers' metal identification "dog tags" including one issued to B. P. McKenna, serial number B407854 USN, a Protestant with A-Positive blood.

Vietnamese forgers have made a fortune reproducing the tags and selling them to tourists since the 1990s, so it is difficult to determine their authenticity. Genuine or not, their sale at The War Remnants Museum, and at the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum, symbolizes how Vietnam regards booty linked to the US military's defeat.

Around the corner from The War Remnants Museum, however, a shop boldly calls itself The Death, and showcases Goth-themed shoes, dresses and handbags, indicating a younger generation's different attitude toward the West. The Death shop's sign on Le Quy Don street, in inexplicable broken English, reads: "bitchy me passion over you."

Within sight of Death's door is the former South Vietnamese President's Palace – now Reunification Palace – where the war's final showdown occurred. But that U.S. failure to protect an ally is largely ignored by today's Vietnamese who eagerly watch Hollywood's newest films, subtitled in Vietnamese, including "Inception" at the MegaStar Cineplex in Hanoi, and "Salt" playing at Ho Chi Minh City's Dong Da theater.

While an increasing number of Americans now refer to "Vietnam" as shorthand for the US military's confusion, quagmire and countless killing of innocent people in Afghanistan, the one-party regime in Hanoi is looking toward Washington to improve commercial, cultural and military ties. Today, the US buys most of Vietnam's exports, and Americans are the biggest investors in the country. In 2009, two-way trade topped more than US$15 billion.

Whatever the rhetoric emanating from the war museum, Vietnam continues to seek a closer embrace, having applied for acceptance into the US General System of Preferences, participating in negotiations for a bilateral investment treaty with the US and working towards membership in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, a trade group the US is also considering joining.

And, 15 years after the two countries normalized relations, they conducted joint naval exercises in the strategic South China Sea for a week during August. In what has to be considered a symbolic gesture for both countries the destroyer USS John S. McCain, named for the father of the 2008 Presidential candidate who spent five-and-a-half years in a Hanoi prison after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam, was also allowed to dock in central Vietnam's former US-occupied port of Danang.

America is influencing Vietnam in other ways.

"Many students like to learn English, and it is the number one foreign language which we want to know, so that we can get a good job and progress," said Tu, a young waitress at a new but empty middle-class restaurant. "The second favorite language for young Vietnamese is Japanese, but it is too difficult," she said.

Many Vietnamese, meanwhile, worship dead ancestors by performing a Chinese-influenced ritual of burning small, paper, look-alike items – such as tissue-thin dollhouses, clothing patterns and other symbolic necessities. Believers say the smoke rises to heaven, where deceased family members can grab the goods to make life easier in the afterworld.

In recent years, many Vietnamese have chosen locally-printed facsimiles of $100 U.S. currency notes, sold in funeral shops. The practice is so popular that unburnt fake $100 bills, apparently blown away during spontaneous curbside rituals, occasionally appear underfoot on sidewalks, amid other debris.

The late, disgraced President Nixon is also wedged into modern Vietnam's pop culture. Step inside Mai's, a trendy gallery on Dong Khoi street – which links the colonial French-built Catholic Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Opera House. Designer Mai Lam offered a new, bulky, olive green U.S. army overcoat with a large embroidered American flag on its back, partially obscured by the vividly stitched face of Mr. Nixon wearing a black suit and tie while speaking into a microphone, angry and defiant. Price: $3,500.

"Her much celebrated vintage US army flak jackets, beautified for urban wear with embroidered Buddhas and embellished with precious stones [are] a poignant healing symbolism for someone who has suffered during the war," Mai's Facebook page said. Other distressed fashions bear a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com