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Us sends warship to vietnam first since war { November 19 2003 }

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First U.S. warship in Vietnam since war's end
Wed 19 November, 2003 11:42

By Christina Toh-Pantin

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (Reuters) - Flying the flag of its former enemy, a U.S. navy frigate has docked in Vietnam's biggest city, the first to visit the country since their bloody conflict ended nearly 30 years ago.

Watched by curious onlookers and a horde of media, the USS Vandegrift sailed into Saigon port on Wednesday, its crew smartly attired in navy whites and lining the deck, arms clasped behind their backs.

"We are showing the world that former foes can be friends," U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt told reporters as American sailors watched from the ship's upper deck.

In a further gesture of reconciliation, the ship's Commander Richard Rogers and the U.S. Embassy Defence and Army Attache Stephen Ball witnessed a floral wreath laying at a statue of Vietnam's first president Ho Chi Minh in a downtown square.

The "Bac Ho" or Uncle Ho statue in the square, surrounded by war-era hotels including the Continental, Rex and Caravelle, shows the resistance leader with a little girl.

The Americans saluted the wreath-laying before heading with Vietnamese military officials into a meeting with the city's local government leaders.

The frigate flew the flags of both countries, the stars and stripes of the U.S. alongside that of Vietnam -- red with a five-pointed yellow star in the centre.

"It's an important event for bilateral relations between the two countries," Nguyen Duc Hung, assistant to Vietnam's foreign minister, who led a low-key official delegation to greet the ship.

But for some Vietnamese, the sight of an American warship conjured up fears of closer ties at a time when Washington's policies are increasingly unpopular abroad.

"Not only in Vietnam, but in many other countries, people dislike the American flag," said Tang Dinh Toan, lazing on his motorbike under the hot afternoon sun.


Since the United States and Vietnam re-established diplomatic relations in 1995, ties and trade between the former foes have blossomed since a presidential visit in 2000 and a free trade deal the following year.

Now they are moving beyond trade and diplomacy into military contacts -- still a delicate area nearly 30 years after the end of the war that killed three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

"Both sides are fully aware of the past, but we are focused on the present and the future," Burghardt said, noting recent cooperation between the two countries on counter-terrorism.

The frigate, with a crew of 215, will spend four days of sight-seeing and community work in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon when it was the capital of Washingon-backed South Vietnam.

Groups of sailors in uniform began filtering onto the streets by late afternoon, drawing stares and in some cases friendly greetings. "Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!" shouted Chuong, 45, to one U.S. officer who walked by him into the Rex hotel.

While not as seedy as it was back in the 1975, Saigon still offers plenty of bars and girls.

But this crop of visitors appeared bent on tamer pursuits. Three went into a shop selling sunglasses. "How does this look?" asked one, trying on a pair of Calvin Klein shades.

A burly African-American sailor standing outside the shop was attracting curious glances. Asked about his first impressions of Saigon he said: "The people are so friendly."

The Vandegrift's commander Rogers, who is on his first visit to Vietnam, said his crew would be on their best behaviour. Just in case, there will be a midnight curfew.

More than half of Vietnam's population of 80 million were born after the war and so have few direct memories of the conflict.

But in a sign that Hanoi may still be sensitive about the conflict it calls the "American Resistance War", the film "We Were Soldiers" appeared to be blocked on cable television in Hanoi on Wednesday. Colour bars appeared instead of the film.

Don Duong, a Vietnamese actor, played the role of a North Vietnamese colonel on the losing side of a key battle against the Americans. Mel Gibson starred in the Hollywood production.

Duong left the country earlier this year after being denounced for taking the movie role.

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