The patrons at Shake's bar, on the top floor of the old Bank of America Building near the Saigon River, think the Americans may be missing out on a good thing here. "You blokes are going to lose out on all the business," warns one of the bar's owners, a veteran of the small military force that Australia sent to Vietnam in the late 1960s. "You're cutting off your nose to spite your face. Everybody else is getting in here."
To someone who spent years covering Southeast Asia through most of the war, the transformation in attitudes toward the onetime "imperialist aggressor" appears downright revolutionary. The irony is that the Vietnamese, those in and out of power, for or against the small clique of aging men who somehow remain at the top through party congresses and "reforms," expect the United States to pour in the dollars and advice needed to rescue them. The betting is that the United States will gradually lift the embargo banning all U.S. trade and investment here once Vietnam meets two White House conditions --full cooperation in the search for the dead and missing from the war and non-interference in Cambodia.
The United States could declare that Vietnam has complied with these demands any time it seemed politically expedient to do so. A casuist could argue that the Vietnamese government has already lived up to the first condition by admitting, on a quasi-permanent basis, a team of U.S. military experts into Hanoi. The Americans have even been escorted to some crash sites.
True, the U.S. team has much more work to do. But the point is to find a face-saving way of certifying the search as successful and giving Hanoi a clean bill of MIA health in the interests of joining the crowd already doing business here.
As for the Cambodia stipulation, the recent signing, in Paris, of the deal demanded by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council--with the indestructible Norodom Sihanouk returning to Phnom Penh as president of a Supreme National Council, including former members of the Khmer Rouge--may just be enough. At least the Vietnamese will be able to pull out the last of their "advisers," hoping the regime they have propped up since driving out the Khmer Rouge at the end of 1978 will survive the tricky electoral process called for in the agreement.
"Every Vietnamese hopes (the United States) lifts the embargo," says Nguyen Van Nghiem, who learned his English while training as a Vietnamese navy petty officer at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center on Lake Michigan during the war. Nghiem manages the Top 10 Restaurant for a Singaporean company. The restaurant, which opened a year ago and caters to foreigners, is nearly empty. "Life here will be better," Nghiem predicts, when the Americans are back.
Nghiem's hopes, in part, are tied to the influence of a man who once ran the city from a mysterious warren of musty offices in a rococo building a few feet from the Top 10. The man is Vo Van Kiet, a top leader of the Viet Cong during the war and then secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Central Committee--in other words, mayor of Saigon. "People in the south like Vo Van Kiet," says Nghiem.
Members of the national central committee in Hanoi are equally aware of the respect that Kiet commands in the south. It was partly for this reason that Kiet was named prime minister in August. During the '80s, he was responsible for state planning and economic reform. The shake-up in leadership was not exactly revolutionary, though. Kiet's record as a hard-core cadre dates from his days in the Viet Minh fighting the French. He succeeded Do Muoi, 74, who was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party in June.
The markets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City--and lesser centers in between--are brimming with motorcycles and spare parts, radios and VCR's, cans of beer and bottles of mineral water. Shops and awash with linens and silk. The streets are jammed, as much as they were at the height of the Vietnam War, with small cars and trucks and darting scooters.
"You hear things are tough," says an American bureaucrat in an office in Ho Chi Minh City processing the flood of applications of would-be immigrants to the United States under the Orderly Departure Program. "What you see is things are doing pretty well. This is an entrepreneurial people. They work like hell."
Gleaming-new name plates all over town reflect the national drive both to increase exports and attract foreign investment. Acronyms are in vogue, with state trading firms now flaunting names like "Getronimex," for "General Electronics Import Export Company," and "Transimex," for "Transport-Delivery Import-Export Enterprise."
Nguyen Xuan Oanh, "Jack Owqen" in his Harvard days in the early 1950s, receives callers in his office around the corner from the old central bank building, which he ran in the 1960s before serving briefly as prime minister. Oanh, long out of power when the forces from the north drove out the Saigon regime in April, 1975, was placed under house arrest for a time. Since then, he has enjoyed a renaissance as adviser on economic problems to the leaders in Hanoi. "I have proposed a switch from a central planned economy to a market economy," he says. "Hundreds of American businessmen are coming in" asking him for the same counsel.
Trouble is, says Oanh, potential American operators can't do more than ask questions as long as the embargo remains in place--even though a few Vietnamese with U.S. passports are opening up offices through local contacts. One of them, Alain Tan, a 1976 graduate of San Francisco State University, runs a restaurant.
For Vietnam to begin thriving again, though, the Americans, in large numbers, have to come back. "Everything hinges on the lifting of the embargo," says Oanh, repeating a sentiment heard from government official and to government foe.
If Vietnam remains divided in hatred, it seems united as never before in the welcome it is prepared to give to the Americans. It is a chance for a second coming that Washington should not turn down--if only to make up for some of the wrongs and disappointments of the war and capitalize on a mood that no one ever would have dreamed possible in the hours of our worst military failure.