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The rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel, the most famous watering hole of wartime Saigon, the American veterans marked the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam War's end by watching a Vietnamese pop singer giving a note-perfect rendition of Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World.

On the street below, thousands of young Vietnamese were celebrating the anniversary with a concert of pan-Asian music and dance. But while they sang of peace and reconciliation, the U.S. veterans were still trying to come to grips with the war that bedevils America's memory.

Just a few days earlier, 60-year-old veteran Phillip Hough had met a Vietnamese mushroom farmer whose leg had been blown off by a U.S. land mine that exploded as he walked through a farm field, many years after the war had ended.

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"I just couldn't look at him," the former U.S. naval officer said. "I had to leave because I was weeping too much."

Mr. Hough, who specialized in explosives disposal during the war, still agonizes over whether the United States served any useful purpose with the military intervention that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese.

At a war museum in Hanoi last week, he winced at the triumphal tone of the Communist propaganda, but later he conceded that some of the propaganda was true. "We proved that you cannot bomb a country into oblivion," he said. "The tenacity of the Vietnamese people is incredible."

Mr. Hough is among a group of two dozen U.S. veterans who have returned to Vietnam to help remove the thousands of tonnes of unexploded weapons that continue to kill and maim Vietnamese civilians.

In interviews this weekend on the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon -- now Ho Chi Minh City -- many veterans were unable to say whether their wartime sacrifices were justified. But they were united in their astonishment at Vietnam's dramatic transformation into an Asian economic tiger.

"This is the most capitalist Communist country I've ever seen," Mr. Hough said. "Most of the population is under the age of 30, and they don't really give a damn about the war. They care about getting an education and getting a Honda motorbike. These people might beat us in the end, because they work their butts off. And they don't hold any animosity toward us."

Three decades after the war ended, Vietnam remains an obsession for many Americans. It was a hot-button issue in the U.S. presidential election last fall, and a veteran spat tobacco juice last week at actress Jane Fonda in protest against the visit she made to Hanoi during the war.

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Yet here in Vietnam, the emotions have faded and the military themes are losing ground to economic pragmatism. Aside from a wooden tank, there was almost no military equipment at an anniversary parade on Saturday in Ho Chi Minh City. Marching soldiers were overshadowed by corporate floats, some sponsored by Vietnamese banks, featuring the logos of U.S. credit-card companies.

Christos Cotsakos, who served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, said it was "a little surreal" to be hearing a Vietnamese rendition of a Louis Armstrong song on the rooftop of the Rex. But he observed that with the rapid development of the Internet and cellphones Vietnam is quickly joining the global village.

"They're very entrepreneurial, they're very wired, and they're on the Internet all the time," he said. "The war didn't stifle their creativity, it enhanced it. Now they have a chance to fulfill their destiny. They have a very bright future."

Francis Whitebird, a medic in a U.S. infantry regiment during the war, was making his first trip back to Vietnam since the war ended. When he visited the remote site of the battle where he was injured by shrapnel in 1969, he was amazed to see a paved highway, lined with bustling shops.

"I expected that, being a Communist country, there would be a guard at the end of every street," he said. "Instead it's all commercialized. It's supposed to be state-controlled, but everything seems to be private enterprise. It absolutely blew my mind. In a strange way, we won."

Mr. Whitebird, a Lakota from an Indian reservation in South Dakota, was impressed by his meeting with a former North Vietnamese soldier last week.

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"He came up and shook my hand, and now we're friends," he said. "Everyone has been very accepting and helpful to us. Without the high-powered politicians, people can just get along as human beings."

Jan Scruggs, who fought in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, said he thought the North Vietnamese were "fanatical madmen" when he first went to the country in 1969. Now he sees Vietnam as a peaceful society where the policemen don't even carry weapons.

"Ironically, Vietnam is behaving in the way we'd like other countries to behave," said Mr. Scruggs, who is president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and a key leader in the creation of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

"They're not a threat to anyone. They're not developing chemical or biological weapons or nuclear bombs. They're not supporting Islamic terrorism. They're not arms merchants. They're a good neighbour in the region."

In meetings in Hanoi last week, government officials gave one overwhelming message to the U.S. veterans: Help Vietnam in its bid to enter the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Scruggs said he supports the request. "This is a nice place, so let's make it better. Get them into WTO and make them a part of the world community and the world will be a better place."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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