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Vietnam revels in its future 30 years after war, much to celebrate

HO CHI MINH CITY -- Communist Vietnam marked the 30th anniversary of the war's end yesterday with a colorful parade of floats, some emblazoned with American business logos, down the same boulevard where North Vietnamese tanks in 1975 had rolled to victory against a US-backed government.

Hundreds of aging veterans, their chests decked with medals, watched from the sidelines as the soldiers headed toward the Presidential Palace. General Vo Nguyen Giap was among them, standing alongside the president.

Huge billboards of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's revolutionary leader, overlooked the parade route and adjoining streets, which had been blocked off to the public because of security concerns.

On April 30, 1975, communist tanks barreled through the palace gates in what was then Saigon, capital of South Vietnam. The city's fall marked the official end of the Vietnam War, and the decade-long US campaign against communism in Southeast Asia. The war claimed the lives of about 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.

''I was listening to the radio with my family and heard that Saigon had been liberated," said To Thanh Nghia, 51, a government worker marching in the parade. ''I was very happy because for many years we weren't free. After 30 years . . . our land is safe and secure, and I think the future will be better for my children."

The atmosphere in the country three decades later has been mostly festive, focusing on the recent economic rejuvenation. Memories of the war and its aftermath are little more than anecdotes in history books for most Vietnamese who were born after it ended.

''My father and grandfather fought in the war, but I was too young," said Nguyen Thanh Tung, an 18-year-old student. ''My future will be good because they created opportunities for my generation."

Along the grand boulevard where communist tanks once rolled, capitalism has taken solid root. Some parade floats, sponsored by Vietnamese banks, sported the logo of US credit card companies. One float featured women pushing shopping carts filled with supermarket goods.

These days, Le Duan Street is home to Diamond Plaza, a glittering, upscale department store where French perfumes and Italian shoes are sold to an emerging urban middle class. Along the same strip, a French-owned five-star hotel sits across the street from the US Consulate.

While Vietnam proudly recalled its victories over both the United States and colonial France, the focus was clearly on the future.

''Through our two resistance [wars] against foreign aggressors, the historical clashes in Saigon will always be in the forefront," President Tran Duc Luong said to cheers from the crowd. He called Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, the nation's ''economic locomotive."

With the president on the huge reviewing platform was a guest of honor, Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel Castro, Cuba's longtime leader, who stood by Vietnam's communist regime for decades. Also flanking the Vietnamese leader was Giap, the military mastermind behind the defeats of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and of the Americans.

Despite Vietnam's remarkable recovery from the devastation of war, most of its 82 million people, many of whom are farmers, remain poor. Per capita income hovers around $550 a year.

But Vietnam is on the crest of an economic wave, recording annual growth of 7.7 percent last year, second only to China in Asia. One of the biggest signs of the economic boost is the construction underway in much of Ho Chi Minh City.

Luu Quang Dong, 68, a veteran from northern Vinh Phuc Province, traveled for four days via bus to attend the ceremony yesterday.

Dressed in his olive uniform covered in red and gold medals, he said he made the trip to see the city he had stormed into three decades ago, arriving with his unit minutes after the tanks crashed through the palace gates. ''I wanted to come and see how much the city has changed," he said.

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