Coke and apple pie, but this Fourth of July is far from the real thing

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There was a real live Uncle Sam, a 20-ft-high inflatable Coca- Cola bottle, a painting of Mount Rushmore, and more apple pie than anyone could eat, but this was no ordinary Fourth of July party. For a start, it was several days late (something to do with the government licences, someone said). Secondly, the weather was tropically humid (instead of the traditional sharply creased trousers, Uncle Sam wore a pair of dinky starred-and-striped shorts). And thirdly, this was not the United States at all. Welcome to American Independence Day, in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Historical ironies don't come much sharper than this: a celebration of US bounty and democracy in Saigon, the city whose very name epitomises modern America's greatest humiliation. But 21 years after the communist victory, when helicopters carried the last of the expats from the roof of the US Embassy, here they were again. There were rock'n'roll bands, a tug-of-war, and the Dunk Tub into which luminaries of the local US-Vietnamese community could be plunged with a well-aimed rubber ball. Up on the stage, Uncle Sam silenced the band, and reeled off the list of sponsors: IBM, Chrysler, Jeep, Citibank, Mobil Oil, United Airlines, with special thanks to Baskin Robbins ice cream and Coke, "our beverage supplier". "You really never been to a Fourth of July party before?" I was asked by Linda, whose husband works for a management consultancy. "We better get a beer and a burger down you, right now."

Beverage in hand, I waited by the Dunk Tub for Michael Scown, attorney- at-law, and president of the American Chamber of Commerce of Vietnam. About this, as about much else, Vietnam's Americans have to be careful. The Communist Party, without whose approval no organisation can officially exist, has yet to give its final seal of approval to the Chamber - members cautiously refer to it as "AmCham proposed". "We're like the Hell's Angels," Mr Scown explained. "When we first started out we weren't allowed to meet, but we just stuck at it, pleaded a lot, and eventually the licences came through for this event." Licences are required for music, food, and dancing, and Michael had to give a personal undertaking that the festivities would contain no political content.

"So I want it to be on the record that this is not a speech, but a toast," he cautioned the crowd later in the evening. "In memory of that day in Philadelphia in 1726, and that small group of people who dedicated themselves to free trade, free religion and representative government."

Politics or not, these are still qualities noticeably lacking in Vietnamese society. Since Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994, 2,500 Americans have found their way to Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is now officially called. At the Fourth of July every one of the celebrants had their own story of corruption - the routine bribes and backhanders, the labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy. "We pre-censor rather than post- censor," said the Australian publisher of Vietnam's leading English language business journal, and even this does not always work. For the July issue, the magazine had prepared a celebratory pull-out bearing the names and photographs of the new politburo. Then, on the first day of the Congress, one of the nominees died. "We had to pulp the lot, orders of the Prime Minister's office - 28,500 copies, all because of that dead bastard."

Todd, a 55-year-old Vietnam War vet turned tractor executive, recounted the time he found himself in a Hanoi bar with nine Vietnamese contemporaries. "They ask me what I do," he said, "and I never lie about it. So it turned out that while I'd been flying F-4s off the aircraft carriers, these boys had all been MiG pilots. We got so drunk together, by the end of the evening I had them on stage singing the 'Star-Spangled Banner'. That's the thing about the Vietnamese: they love Americans."

"We wanted to have a firework display, because it's so much a part of the Fourth of July back in the States," said Mr Scown. "But they didn't like the symbolism - Americans firing rockets over Saigon. I guess you can see the point."