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Good Morning, Vietnam

Thirty-three years after the fall of Saigon, a lot has changed--but not enough.

12:00 AM, May 15, 2008 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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"I just find the place alive," says Gillis. "Alive with innovation." The importance of demography can't be overlooked. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of Vietnam's 85 million people are below the age of 35. Such youthfulness "makes for a very dynamic country," says Raymond Burghardt, who served as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2001 to 2004.

The youth factor also helps explain why Vietnam has become so pro-American. Most Vietnamese have no real memory of the war. But they do recognize how U.S. investment has helped their country, and, as Malesky puts it, their "aspirational ethos" encourages a positive view of U.S. influence. Young Vietnamese also seem enamored of American popular culture.

"The admiration for the U.S. is on the soft-power side," says Thayer. "America has enormous appeal." When Microsoft founder Bill Gates visited the country in April 2006, he got a hero's welcome. In certain Hanoi bookstores, says Burghardt, "there's a whole section devoted to Bill Gates." Burghardt reckons that Vietnam is now among the most pro-American countries in Southeast Asia. "There are people who are bitter towards us," he admits, "but it is a remarkably small percentage."

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Hanoi made the pragmatic decision to bolster its diplomatic connections in Southeast Asia and normalize relations with the United States. The U.S. and Vietnam signed a bilateral trade agreement in 2000, and two-way trade has since ballooned. There has also been significant progress on bilateral security cooperation. The Vietnamese are worried about China's growing regional influence, says Burghardt. At the same time, they don't want to be seen as joining the U.S. in an "anti-China" alliance.

"They're definitely triangulating now," says Malesky, in hopes of maintaining close links with both Washington and Beijing. The issue of those Vietnamese who were harmed by the wartime defoliant Agent Orange (which Burghardt calls "the last ghost left over from the war") remains a sore point for Hanoi. Still, Burghardt says he is "basically optimistic" that U.S.-Vietnamese relations "will continue to improve."

Of course, as long as the Vietnamese government remains a one-party dictatorship that persecutes democracy advocates, independent journalists, religious worshippers, and ethnic minorities, the process of upgrading bilateral relations will be hampered. Hanoi recognizes this, and in recent years it has taken steps to assuage U.S. concerns. In November 2006, the State Department removed Vietnam from its list of the worst abusers of religious freedom. But many activists felt that was a mistake. Earlier this month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report arguing that, while Vietnam has made "noticeable progress," the Bush administration acted prematurely in changing the country's designation.

In its latest survey of freedom around the world, Freedom House gave Vietnam its lowest rating (a 7 out of 7) for "political rights" and its third-lowest rating (a 5 out of 7) for "civil liberties." The latter score put Vietnam ahead of China but behind Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Overall, Freedom House classified Vietnam as "not free."

"This is still a Leninist political system," says Burghardt. Though the country's dissident movement is courageous, its ranks are small. Vietnam has nothing approaching the "volatile intellectual atmosphere" that China had in the late 1980s (prior to the Tiananmen Square massacre). "People are quite proud of what the country's done," Burghardt explains, and they give the ruling party credit for overhauling the economy and improving living standards.

Interestingly, Malesky says that Vietnam has been more ambitious than China in experimenting with "intra-party democracy." He also says that the government bureaucracy is more independent of the Communist party in Vietnam than it is in China. However, China has done more to promote legal reform.

"There's a considerable group in Vietnam that still fears peaceful evolution," says Thayer. "There's still an ideological residue that hasn't gone away." He emphasizes that "the Communist party is not unified," with some members more sympathetic to liberalization than others. As the economy changes, more and more Vietnamese will enter the middle class and the ranks of private entrepreneurs will continue to swell. "These people are going to demand a say in political decision-making," Thayer argues. "The system cannot deny their voice."

Maybe--but how long will it take? In a recent report on Vietnam, Economist correspondent Peter Collins wrote that "even as the government tolerates a wide range of outside influences, it still tries to keep control over all things political and cultural." As Burghardt says regretfully, "real political reform is going to be very slow in Vietnam."

Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.