Old Foes, New Fans

On Nov. 8, 1967, U.S. air force Capt. Lawrence Evert was flying his F-105D Thunderchief bomber fast and low over a paddy field near the Vietnamese village of Tien Chau. As the 29-year-old Wyoming native approached his target, a railroad bridge 17 miles outside Hanoi, the plane was blasted by antiaircraft fire. "I'm hit hard!" Evert shouted in his final radio transmission before apparently crashing in a field. Last Saturday, almost exactly 33 years later, an American president and the pilot's two sons, Dan and David, gathered in the same paddy to help search for Evert's remains. For hours, Vietnamese peasants in conical straw hats lifted bucket after bucket of thick, dark mud, sifting through them for even the smallest scrap of metal or bone. Little was found, but the poignant exercise--and Vietnam's willingness to help--carried a deeper meaning: the past may still haunt, but it doesn't have to divide. Watching from a crude wood-and-bamboo platform, Bill Clinton praised the joint search effort. "Once we met here as adversaries," he said. "Today we work as partners."

Getting over the past--and making history--seem to be the two things on Clinton's agenda these days. When he touched down in Hanoi last Thursday night, he accomplished both. Clinton not only became the first American president to visit a united Vietnam; his trip also brought two nations closer together after a bitterly divisive war that defined an era and cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and nearly 3 million Vietnamese. Though a former antiwar activist, Clinton made no apologies during his four-day visit. "We cannot change the past," Clinton told students in Hanoi on Friday, quoting former POW and current U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Douglas (Pete) Peterson. "What we can change is the future." So Clinton focused on America's new relationship with a country that, while run by aging communists, is energized by a young, postwar generation that is fascinated by all things American.

Looking ahead wasn't easy--the present was very much on Clinton's mind. The visit was carefully scheduled to come after the fanfare of the U.S. election, when a lame-duck president could perhaps get a last moment in the spotlight. But few people saw Clinton's historic arrival last week. The American networks were too busy broadcasting the latest Florida court hearing on the never-ending election. The president sought frequent updates from aides. The Vietnamese authorities played down the visit--Hanoi newspapers made just a single-paragraph mention of the Clintons' arrival. Still, the Vietnamese people knew political superstars were in town, and mobbed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea everywhere they went. Young Vietnamese gathered in front of Hanoi's Temple of Literature on Friday and shouted "Hey Bill! Hey Bill!" as the smiling president strolled by.

How did the leader of Vietnam's erstwhile enemy become so popular? Clinton's antiwar background doesn't hurt in Hanoi. And his efforts to nudge Vietnam toward a more open economy are well noted: he dropped the U.S. trade embargo in 1994, established normal diplomatic relations in 1995 and signed a trade pact last July. But the main source of Clinton's popularity is Vietnam's demographic revolution. More than half of the country's 77 million people were born after the so-called American War ended in 1975, and they are wild about bowling alleys, Britney Spears, motorbikes and that ultimate status symbol, the U.S. visa. Some Vietnamese youth will do just about anything to get to America, even dyeing their hair and using skin lightener to pass as Amerasians, the visa-worthy children of American GIs.

Despite some lingering bitterness over the war, American culture has deeply penetrated Vietnam. "We all look to the United States as the world leader in technology, fashion, music and movies," says Dang Ngoc Thach, 23, sitting with friends at a Saigon coffee shop. They are listening to American pop music and sipping caffeine-laced "energy" drinks when another friend, Nguyen Ngoc Quy, pulls up in his Honda Dream motorcycle. Quy just landed a job at American Prudential Insurance Co., where he could get up to $1,000 a month in commissions--a virtual fortune in a poor country where the annual per capita income is less than $400.

Quy is still one of the lucky few. Six years ago, when the United States dropped its embargo and Vietnam adopted economic reforms, foreign firms rushed in. But last year investment in Vietnam fell to a seven-year low--$600 million--thanks mainly to red tape and rampant corruption. Many Vietnamese hoped that Clinton's visit would spur, once again, a surge in foreign investment. The president brought along top executives from 50 major American corporations ranging from Boeing and Coca-Cola to Nike (Vietnam's biggest private employer). Even more important: Clinton's meetings with Overseas Vietnamese--or Viet kieu--who have come back to start businesses (sidebar). And Clinton was careful not to offend his hosts, dancing delicately around the issue of human rights.

Why? Because the history of the Vietnam War complicates everything. "Maybe you don't lecture with quite as much self-righteousness," said one senior administration official, comparing Clinton's blunt dealings with China to his relative docility with Vietnam. Raising human-rights issues in Vietnam opens Washington to awkward charges that the Vietnam War was, in itself, a massive human-rights abuse. No matter how much Clinton wants to focus on the future, he--like American policy in general--is still bound, in part, by the past. Last week he handed over 350,000 documents on MIAs to the Vietnamese. Clinton hoped the gesture would fuel more searches like the one outside Hanoi last week.

For Dan and David Evert, that meant more than just the chance to visit the place where their father died. The brothers tearfully watched the young Vietnamese women--perhaps relatives of those who had seen their father plunge to the earth--digging through the thick clay for precious fragments of their past. "We need to heal," David said. "Everybody needs to heal." After 33 years, Vietnam has put the war behind it. Now, perhaps, it's America's turn.

Old Foes, New Fans | News