HANOI, Vietnam -- It has been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. "advisers" to South Vietnam to help battle the communist North and 37 years since the end of that divisive war and the country's unification under Communism.
Today, Vietnam is fighting a war with itself.
A local TV program reminds a visitor of Chinese propaganda "operas" circa 1970. Performers, some wearing military garb with a backdrop of missiles and an American B-52 bomber going down in flames, commemorate the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong ordered by President Richard Nixon. Banners and posters in the streets reinforce the government's history lesson.
Younger people, who substantially outnumber the old guard, seem mostly indifferent to these messages, because few lived through the war. An American official tells me just 4 percent of the population belongs to the Communist Party.
While there are large pockets of poverty between and even within major cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi, prosperity is making inroads. The 1-year-old Da Nang airport is more modern than some U.S. airports. Luxury hotels, clothing stores and restaurants abound. While many cater to foreign travelers, many locals wear stylish Western clothes and transport themselves on motorbikes and in cars. Twenty years ago, the primary mode of transportation was the bicycle.
Vietnam eagerly wants to conclude a trade agreement with the United States known as TPP. Among other things, it would allow for more capital investment here and more Vietnamese goods to be sold in the United States. Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Phuong Nga tells me that since normalization of relations in 1995, the U.S. has become the "eighth-biggest foreign investor in Vietnam," totaling $10 billion.
U.S. officials say human rights issues, including more religious freedom, are holding up American approval of the new trade deal. I asked Madame Nga about this and the recent sentencing of three bloggers to between four and 12 years in prison for criticizing the government.
She deflects the question by noting press criticism of government corruption (true) and claims people have freedom of speech so long as they do not cause "harm," a word open to interpretation in a one-party state.