Shadowed by the ghosts of the past, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright formally dedicated a new $3.3-million U.S. Consulate building here Tuesday, just a few paces from the site of the embassy where U.S. diplomats scrambled into helicopters in a chaotic retreat 24 years ago.
"The United States and Vietnam will forever be linked by history," Albright said at the consulate ceremony. "But by continuing to work together to transcend that tragic legacy, we can add to our shared history bright new chapters of hope and mutual prosperity."
Winding up a two-day visit to Vietnam, Albright also talked to U.S. businesspeople about the troubles facing foreign enterprises in a country making a hesitant transition to a market economy.
The new consulate gives Washington a diplomatic foothold in this city, formerly known as Saigon, for the first time since 1975, when American diplomats fled the advancing North Vietnamese forces that overran the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army in the last stage of the war.
The Saigon embassy building is gone now, torn down last year. State Department officials said it was unusable after standing vacant for the 20 years during which the United States and Vietnam had no diplomatic relationship. The new consulate was built on the same tract of land that the embassy once occupied.
"This consulate general marks another important step forward in the relationship between the United States and Vietnam," Albright said. "For in this place--surrounded by reminders of the past--our two countries will be moving resolutely toward the future."
The United States has maintained an embassy in Hanoi since diplomatic relations were established in 1995. But officials said the embassy has only a limited consular section for issuing visas and providing assistance to American businesspeople and tourists.
Virtually no non-immigrant visas are being issued by the embassy, officials said, and the processing of immigrant visas has been sluggish.
One embassy official said most Vietnamese who want to enter the United States have to go to Bangkok, Thailand, to apply for a visa.
At the new consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, diplomats expect to process as many as 1,000 requests a day for immigrant, business and tourist visas. Officials said they expect to receive between 20,000 and 25,000 requests each year for permission to live permanently in the United States.
"Within a year, we expect this consulate to be one of our busiest visa-issuing posts in the world," Albright said.
"It will help us better serve the American business community, which is concentrated here in the south," she said. "It will enhance our capacity to follow up concerns on human rights, labor rights and religious freedoms."
Although many foreign businesses have pulled out of Vietnam, complaining that they are blocked by a stultifying bureaucracy, most of the 15 U.S. executives who met with Albright said they are here for the long haul.
"I feel a little bit of optimism," Mark Webster of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency said. "Some companies have had to scale down or pull out. But there are companies that are doing very well."
Erwin Elechion of Procter & Gamble said the businesspeople were encouraged by Albright's prediction that a U.S.-Vietnamese trade pact, negotiated in July, will be signed and ratified soon.
"Things are getting better," Elechion said.
The painful past was on display earlier Tuesday in Hanoi when Albright watched an elaborate military ceremony in which four small wooden boxes containing human remains found in Vietnam's Central Highlands were loaded onto an Air Force C-17 transport plane bound for Hawaii, where they will be identified if possible. They are thought to be the remains of four of the 2,054 service personnel still listed as missing in action.
In brief remarks, Albright said: "America is always proud of its fighting men and women. When they die in battle, no matter how difficult or how long it takes, we will bring them home."
Albright arrived in New Zealand today for this weekend's summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.