US opens Hanoi embassy as memories of war fade away

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

The United States has finally joined the international community in Vietnam by reopening its embassy, 20 years after the retreat from Saigon at the close of the Vietnam war.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, presided over a modest ceremony opening the embassy in Hanoi yesterday, only three weeks after President Bill Clinton announced the restoration of diplomatic relations. A Vietnamese embassy was also opened in Washington yesterday, but without a ceremony.

In another symbolic gesture, Vietnam has let it be known it will hand back the former US embassy in Saigon for use as a consulate. The building was immortalised in pictures showing the helicopter evacuations of Americans from the rooftop when Saigon fell in 1975.

The upgrading of ties with Vietnam comes as US relations with China hit a new low. In 1972 the Vietnamese felt China betrayed them when President Nixon visited Peking to establish diplomatic ties at a crucial juncture in the Vietnam war. Today's warming of relations between Hanoi and Washington worries the Chinese.

The impetus for the restoration of diplomatic ties with Vietnam came from the business community in the US, which was worried about the loss of opportunities in South-east Asia's second most populous country. At the beginning of the year the US ranked 13th among foreign investors in Vietnam, although American companies were only allowed in after the relaxation of the US embargo two years ago.

As Vietnam emerges from a centrally-planned economy, it is seeking new sources of investment, and now that the US has withdrawn its objections, the country needs loans from institutions such as the World Bank, to repair its battered infrastructure.

Vietnam remains on the small list of countries to which the US denies Most Favoured Nation trading-status. Nguyen Manh Cam, Vietnam's Foreign Minister, has made it clear that his country expects normal trading relations.

Reflecting the preoccupation of many at home with the fate of US servicemen still missing in action from the Vietnam War, Mr Christopher attended another ceremony the day before the embassy was opened, at which Americans' remains were shipped home.

James Fenton, page 13