(AsiaLIFE cover, November 2015)
Twenty years ago the US and Vietnam agreed to normalise relations. Lorcan Lovett looks at the extraordinary partnership formed by the two countries since then. Photos by Vinh Dao.
There was a time when former US Marine Reginald Carnes, 66, and former Viet Cong fighter Be Tu, 67, were sworn enemies. Both paid immense personal costs during the American War that were followed by decades of reflection and healing.
Now the two live in the same city, building a friendship that has defied the odds.
Their countries have shared a similar journey. Almost 25 years ago senator John Kerry led efforts with fellow veteran John McCain to make a full accounting of US prisoners of war and those missing in action.
The politicians visited Vietnam more than a dozen times in the early 90s, talking with diplomats, veterans and intelligence officials.
It was an exhaustive investigation that alleviated the suffering of many families and essentially built trust between the two nations, creating the consensus needed to lift the trade embargo in 1994.
A year later President Bill Clinton announced the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam.
What initially was a tentative start has now flourished into a key bilateral relationship in the Asia-Pacific, not only in the major fields of education, the economy and the military, but among the young Vietnamese who are firmly embracing US culture and ambition.
Tu sits in her living room in District 7, pouring water for those around her. She has piercing eyes, high cheekbones and, as the medals show, was a formidable soldier.
“Right after the war I did not think about (the US as an ally) but year after year I saw the situation and slowly I could see about the future,” she says in Vietnamese.
“The two countries can be good friends and partners. Vietnam after the war was a very poor country and so we had to open many doors for development.”
Tu was captured in 1968 and incarcerated on Con Dao island, surviving the infamous tiger cages (small spaces with ceiling roofs through which guards would prod and sprinkle quicklime on prisoners) for six years until a prisoner exchange.
Although she appears nimble, Tu admits her health is finally beginning to falter because of the torture, specifically the electric shocks that she endured. Tu who is also known as Phan Thi Dinh became a manager at Ben Thanh market after the war, using the knowledge gained from her fellow prisoners to help her thrive in the job.
“The US (veteran) groups come here in good will. They are friendly and say they are really sorry about the past.
“They are all nice people, not aggressive like they were in the past. I feel totally forgiving and not uncomfortable. I understand and I’m ready to be their friends.
“Through the TV news and other media, I know that America plays a positive role in Vietnam, especially in economics.”
Sitting in Kim’s Café, a small bar in District 1, Carnes, aka Chu Rik, shows old photos of the Viet Cong women who fought against him.
His hair is scraped back in to a double ponytail and on his right arm is a self-designed tattoo of his country’s flag blended with the Vietnamese one.
“The biggest step was realising they don’t hate us,” he says. “They’re happy because they won the war. They kicked our ass and they won, and I’m glad they did because of what I’ve learnt here now digging deep into history.
“The Vietnamese men and women were brave, courageous people. We should not have been here.”
Carnes says he has suffered bullet and shrapnel wounds, malaria, PTSD, and has had four cancers “cut out” of him because of Agent Orange.
He found life in his home city Miami increasingly difficult and returned to Vietnam in 2007 after a friend suggested he go, saying ‘what do you have to lose except your nightmares?’
In a quest for spiritual healing he has taken up several charitable endeavours including contributing funds to veterans’ housing and launching a GoFundMe webpage called ‘Hands for Thuong’.
The campaign is for a little girl who was born without hands because of Agent Orange. He says the same poison caused his son to die at childbirth.
“I’m just happy that I’m here now and my former enemies are my best friends whom I love dearly.
“I still love America. In a way I have two countries: Vietnam and America. I’m blessed.”
Uncle Sam’s trademark brands were a rare sight on the streets of Saigon just before 1994.
And companies were slow to invest once the 19-year-old trade embargo was ended, with bilateral trade floating at around $451 million annually in the first few years.
But two of US capitalism’s most fervent disciples, Coke and Pepsi, didn’t waste a second.
Within hours of President Clinton’s announcement, Pepsi was churning out the fizzy stuff as Coke desperately pointed all of its Asian suppliers toward Vietnam, hoping to hold off its rival until it could open its own factory.
Then came the fast food chains: KFC, Burger King, Subway and finally McDonalds, which opened in Saigon last year.
City folk unsurprisingly lapped up the burger juggernaut, and Vietnam McDonalds swiftly expanded from one to three branches.
Americans have also become familiar with Vietnamese products. The booming country became the US’s biggest exporter in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014.
It made about $30.6 billion in shipments according to the US Census Bureau, up 24 percent year on year.
Herb Cochran, executive director o f the American Chambers of Commerce (AmCham) in Saigon arrived in Vietnam on January 15, 1997, as commercial attaché at the US embassy.
“Business was pretty quiet then,” he says, “since the level of Vietnam-US trade was very low. But we were laying the foundations of the growth after 2000.”
A string of deals sped growth, such as the Bilateral Trade Agreement in 2001, the Bilateral Textile Agreement in 2004, and Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2007.
They all lead toward the biggest trade agreement ever proposed for Asia-Pacific region, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), due for approval before the end of this year.
A 2015 Pew Research Centre study revealed that 89 percent of Vietnamese welcome the TPP, showing the strongest support out of all 12 countries involved.
“By 2014, total bilateral trade had reached $36 billion,” says Cochran, who is preparing for his group of 650 companies to swell in numbers.
“We expect it to reach $72 billion by 2020, if present trends continue.”
He says normalisation allowed both countries to trade as well as boosting tourism, modernisation, and social development.
“Normalisation had a lot to do with the increase in the standard of living in Vietnam from 1995.
“But normalisation was only one important milestone in the steady implementation of Vietnam’s policy of Doi Moi (economic reforms that allowed international trade) since 1986.”
Twenty years ago there were 800 Vietnamese students studying in the US. Today that number has soared to around 16,500.
This puts it first among Southeast Asian countries and eighth globally, cementing higher education as a keystone in the development of US-Vietnam relations.
Vietnam most definitely has the supply of students, with 25 percent of the population aged between 10 and 24; the median age is 29.
US students are attracted to Hanoi and Saigon because of universities like the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology while Ho Chi Minh City International University has a twinning programme with three US institutions.
There’s also a major, new project on the horizon: the Fulbright Economic Teaching Programme (FETP) will transition into Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) in Saigon by September 2016.
The programme, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, has 1,100 graduates serving in national and provincial leadership positions.
“Strong Congressional support for an independent FUV has inspired US and Vietnamese companies to consider major contributions,” wrote US ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, this spring.
“FUV will be the first private, not-for-profit university in Vietnam, and, building on the work begun by FETP, will create a transparently run, academic meritocracy and a platform for thoughtful policy recommendations.
“We recently announced major new funding for higher education partnerships, and we continue to expand our nationwide alumni network and improve English language teaching capabilities.
“We must ensure that this student exchange, in both directions, continues to grow.”
The US has expanded its focus to lecturers too, training people who will oversee the country’s mushrooming construction and high tech industries.
Osius says the Higher Engineering Education Alliance Partnership (HEEAP) has attracted millions of dollars from six corporate partners along with engineering equipment and expertise.
Ties that Bind
Commentators have described the transformation of relations between the two countries as ‘astonishing’ and ‘dramatic’.
It’s hard to disagree, considering the damage dealt to the Vietnamese last century by US hands.
But the lucrative friendship (or ‘comprehensive partnership, as the US has dubbed it) is also a necessary one because of current events in the region.
This has been exemplified in a flurry of high-level visits; Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hanoi in August, and Vietnam’s Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong made the first visit of a Vietnamese leader to the White House since normalization in July.
President Barack Obama has pledged to return the favour. In fact he is expected to drop by on the way to the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila this month.
Both countries want to ensure that China resolves its claims in the East Sea in line with international law. Defence co-operation has been increased, with Washington strengthening the Vietnamese coast guard with the supply of five patrol vessels. It also eased a lethal arms embargo last year.
Like any relationship, the countries will not see eye-to-eye on everything. Confucian principles of harmony and peace clash with outspoken politics in a country where people are encouraged to share their two cents. Yet despite the challenges, US-Vietnam relations are at an unprecedented height and only look to be getting stronger.