Today, Vietnam is different from when the war started and ended

(EDITORS: Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He spent 22 years as a foreign and war correspondent and bureau chief for United Press International, and nearly 20 years as a senior editor and senior writer for U.S. News & World Report magazine. His overseas postings included four tours as a war correspondent in Vietnam. On May 1, 1998, Galloway was decorated with the Bronze Star with V for valor for rescuing wounded soldiers under fire in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. His is the only medal of valor the U.S. Army awarded to a civilian for actions during the Vietnam War. He is the co-author, with retired Lt. Gen. Hal G. Moore, of the national bestseller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," which was made into the movie "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson.)


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam—Never mind that dateline. It will always be Saigon to me, the place where I landed 40 years ago to cover a war that would eventually consume much of my youth and much of my country's innocence before it ended in bitter, bloody chaos three decades ago.

The old familiar streets are still here, but now they're lined with chic shops and boutiques instead of the seedy bars where delicate Vietnamese women once wheedled overpriced "Saigon Teas" out of big American GIs.

The traffic is, at once, both denser and calmer as motorcycles have replaced bicycles and the man-powered cyclo taxis have been banned from the center of town. Pedestrians seem to risk death just crossing a street full of speeding motorbikes, but it's a carefully choreographed dance. There are rules for the walker: Don't run. Don't try to dodge. Just walk slowly straight ahead and let the motorbikes adjust for you.

The Vietnamese are still the hardest-working people I have ever known, hustling and bustling and chasing a buck and a living with determination. The majority of them, 60-plus percent, are under the age of 30, and for them the war is something in the history books.

The country and the people are far different than they were when we came and when we left. In the cities, the old shabby yellow colonial buildings that survived have been spruced up and modernized. Office towers and high-rise hotels tower over their older neighbors. Cranes are everywhere in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as new construction sprouts on every available scrap of land.

Communists may still rule here, but business is still business, and business is good in Vietnam. The country's economy grew at a rate of 7.7 percent in 2004.

Two-way trade between Vietnam and the United States has reached $6 billion annually. Trade with neighboring China is also at $6 billion a year. A local Honda plant cranks out millions of the ubiquitous motorbikes that sell for the equivalent of $1,000 to $2,000.

On the outskirts of Hanoi, a huge gate modeled after the Brandenburg in Berlin, complete with sculpted horses, marks the entrance of a new subdivision for the very affluent. A planned but still unbuilt house there sold six months ago for $250,000. The same non-existent home has already changed hands twice. The last buyer paid $450,000 for it.

Yet in poorer rural areas such as Quang Tri province, the per capita income is still around $200.

What we call the Vietnam War the Vietnamese call the American War. "You see, we have fought so many wars over a thousand years that we could never call yours `the Vietnam War'—it would be meaningless to us," explained an earnest young guide in Hanoi.

The American War takes up only one paragraph in the history book taught in grade schools in Vietnam today. But a big, busy bookstore on what once was Tu Do Street in old Saigon carries shelves full of books about the war and biographies of some of the great North Vietnamese Army commanders, such as Gen. Nguyen Huu An, who did his best to kill all of us in the Ia Drang Valley during some terrible November days in 1965.

A friend and fellow scribbler, Phil Caputo, inscribed a copy of his book "A Rumor of War" to me: "As an old French general once told another, `The war, old boy, is our youth—secret and uninterred.'" By then, in the late 1970s, both of us knew exactly what that old French general meant.

It seemed so simple and straightforward when we began that march 40 years ago with the landing of the first American Marine battalion at the port city of Danang. We were a modern superpower blocking the spread of communism to a Third World country.

War has a way of looking simple going in—and generally turns out to be far more complex and costly than the architects ever thought possible. This one sure was.

The Vietnam War consumed the presidency of the brash Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, who sent the first combat troops there. It brought young American protesters into the streets and helped topple Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon. A third president, Gerald Ford, inherited an orphaned war that ended in chaos and defeat on his watch.

To those who fought it, mostly young draftees on both sides, the war was unavoidable, a duty their country demanded of them. To those caught in the middle, the peasant farm families, it was an unending and deadly disruption to their lives. One and a half million Vietnamese perished in those 10 years. On the black granite wall in Washington, D.C., the names of 58,249 Americans who died in Vietnam are engraved.

The war gave me the best friends of my life and took some of them away almost immediately. I can still see their faces as they were then.

There was Dickie Chapelle, with her horn-rimmed glasses and a boonie hat decorated with the jump wings she'd earned in some other war long before. She told me that the first rule of war corresponding was that you must survive in order to write the story and ship your film. A Marine walking in front of her set off a booby-trapped mortar shell and a tiny fragment nicked her carotid artery. She bled to death, her head in the lap of another reporter, Bob Poos, while a Catholic chaplain gave her the last rites.

And Henri Huet, half French, half Vietnamese, all heart, all smiles. He took me on my first combat operation, teaching me every step of the way how to do this insane work and stay alive. He went down in a South Vietnamese Huey helicopter inside Laos in 1971 with the finest photographer of the war, Larry Burrows of Life magazine, and another who might have inherited Burrows' mantle had he lived, Kent Potter of UPI.

I think of them all, all 66 who died in our war giving everything they had, telling the truth and showing the real face of war to America and the world.

I think, too, of the young American soldiers who died all around me in the Ia Drang Valley and elsewhere in a war that seemed like it would never end—and never really has in my memory and in my heart.

There were men such as Jim Nakayama of Rigby, Idaho, who had so much to live for. His wife, Cathy, gave birth to their baby girl, Nikki, a couple of days before he died on Nov. 15, 1965.

Then there were those on the other side, such as Gen. An who did his best to wipe us out in the Ia Drang and came damned close to it. Years later, in 1993, he and some of his officers went back to our old battlefield with us, walked that blood-stained ground and shed tears with us for all who died there, American and Vietnamese.

Gen. An died of a heart attack a year later.

In 1995 my good friend Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and I visited Gen. An's home in Hanoi to pay our respects to his widow and children. There, in a glass case of his most precious possessions, along with his uniform and medals and photographs of the young warrior, was a copy of our book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," which told the story of the battle.

I think, too, of Col. Vu Dinh Thuoc, who started his career as a private storming the French positions at Dienbienphu and progressed to lieutenant commanding a company at the Ia Drang and on to colonel commanding a division in the final attack on Saigon.

As we later walked the battlefield together, Thuoc tapped me on the chest and said:

"You have the heart of a soldier. It is the same as mine. I am glad I did not kill you."

So am I, colonel. So am I.

And I am glad that peace and a measure of prosperity have at last come to Vietnam and its people after a thousand years of war. There's no room left for anger or bitterness, only memories, and they, too, will vanish soon enough.