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DA NANG, Vietnam — The American and Vietnamese war veterans, former enemies, sat together at wooden picnic tables eating hamburgers and chili while Creedence Clearwater Revival played in the background.
Do Hung Luan, a former Viet Cong fighter who was imprisoned and tortured for nine years by America’s South Vietnamese allies, ate a burger and chicken wings with chopsticks.
Next to him was Nguyen Tien, whose wooden leg replaces the one he lost to U.S. artillery during the war.
“I can feel the friendship,” a smiling Tien said, surrounded by U.S. veterans who seemed three times his size. “We have closed the door on the past.”
The Fourth of July party, steps away from what U.S. soldiers used to call China Beach, was organized by Larry Vetter, a Texan and retired Marine who moved here three years ago to live among some of the people he was once supposed to kill.
“Everybody is so friendly,” Vetter said. “It’s almost mind-boggling how much they accept Americans.”
Over the past several years, Vietnam and the United States have come together so quickly that even the architects of the reconciliation call it breathtaking. That will be highlighted Tuesday when Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of Vietnam’s Communist Party, the symbol of what America was fighting, visits the White House for the first time.
“It’s really the exclamation point on the establishment of diplomatic relations,” said Antony Blinken, the deputy U.S. secretary of state. “One Vietnamese senior official said to me, ‘With this visit there is no going back on the relationship.’”
Vietnamese officials describe the visit, which comes four decades after the fall of Saigon, as America’s acceptance of the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s rule. U.S. officials have a different interpretation, saying it is significant because Trong, who will also be signing a deal with Boeing, was considered a leading skeptic of the United States among Vietnamese leaders.
The geopolitics driving the countries together, 20 years after they normalized relations, is China’s rising power and a desire by the U.S. and Vietnam to cultivate alliances that counterbalance it, according to officials.
Vietnam is pushing the United States to officially recognize it as a market economy and lift its embargo on the sale of lethal weapons to the country. An agreement to lift a ban on nonlethal weapons was approved last year.
The Vietnamese are also urging the United States to have a greater military presence in Asia.
“Among all the choices, Vietnam chooses Pax Americana,” said Le Van Cuong, a retired general who five decades ago was fighting America.
Like many other Vietnamese officials, he is outspoken in his mistrust of China, which he calls a common enemy of the United States and Vietnam. There has been a longstanding antipathy in Vietnam toward China, with which it fought a border war in 1979 and has clashed over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“The main goal of the Chinese is to kick out the United States from the geopolitical stage and to become the No. 1 power,” he said.
Vietnam and the United States are two of a dozen countries negotiating a wide-ranging free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The agreement does not include China. The Vietnamese see the agreement as a way, among other things, of having more direct trade with the United States that is not routed through China.
In the years after the war, there was great mistrust between the United States and Vietnam, but the two countries have overcome a number of thorny issues.
Vietnam is now an enthusiastically capitalist society, having abandoned most remnants of central economic planning decades ago. The Vietnamese have cooperated in the search and repatriation of the remains of Americans killed or missing in the war.
Three years ago the United States began a program to mitigate the effects of Agent Orange, the defoliant that is believed to have caused birth defects and other illnesses, although critics say the United States has not done enough.
The United States, for its part, says Vietnam should allow more freedom of expression and counts around 100 people who are political prisoners.
Beyond politics the friendship between the two countries has been partly propelled by the interaction of its peoples: U.S. investors, war veterans and tourists have come to Vietnam; Vietnamese who fled to the United States after the war have returned home to start businesses; and Vietnamese students are now traveling to the United States in droves.
The number of Vietnamese students at U.S. universities has gone from less than 800 two decades ago to more than 16,000 last year. The foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, who is also deputy prime minister, was educated in the United States, as were an increasing number of the country’s diplomats and business executives.
Americans living in Vietnam say they are always surprised by how warmly they are welcomed.
Seventy-eight percent of Vietnamese said they had a favorable opinion of the United States in a poll published this year by the Pew Research Center. Among those under 30 years old, it was 88 percent.
“What’s really strange here, and I have had a hard time putting my finger on it, is that for some reason they really like Americans,” said David Clark, a retired Marine in Vietnam who moved to Da Nang in 2007. “And when they find out you are a veteran they invite you over for supper. The whole village shows up — and you are the guest of honor.”
Some of the veterans who returned to live in Da Nang — Vetter says there are around a dozen — are active in charitable causes. Vetter gives $300 a month to two paraplegic brothers in Da Nang whose condition he believes was brought on by their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange.
Chuck Palazzo, also a retired Marine, moved to Vietnam eight years ago and runs a software company here; he is leading an effort to build a rest home for 5,000 victims of Agent Orange. He is holding a charity auction July 25 to raise money for the project. The Da Nang city government has donated the land.
“I’ve learned how to forgive from the Vietnamese,” Palazzo said. “I’ve learned from them to keep looking forward.”
Perhaps the most famous veteran to return to Vietnam is Pete Peterson, who was appointed by President Clinton as the first U.S. ambassador after the normalization of ties in 1995.
Peterson, a former Air Force pilot, was shot down over Hanoi and spent 6½ years in the prison that Americans know as the Hanoi Hilton.
Last week, during a trip back to Hanoi, he went to a barber shop in a building that happened to have been constructed on the spot where his old cell block once stood.
“I’m sitting in the chair and the girl, who was quite young, said, ‘Have you ever been here before?’
“I said, ‘Actually, yes, I have. I used to live right here — under this chair.’ ”
Vietnam and the United States have so much in common now, Peterson said. He believes they are destined to be strong allies. But when he thinks of the war and the death and devastation that it brought, he feels disappointment.
If the United States and Vietnam are such natural allies, why did they have to fight in the first place?
“I have thought about this for a long time,” Peterson said. “I’m convinced that the war could have been averted had we made the effort to understand the politics of the place.”