Symbol of reconciliation

Sunday, November 23, 2003

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The USS Vandegrift weighed anchor Saturday and departed Ho Chi Minh City, ending the first port call by an American Navy ship to the communist country since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

The frigate's four-day visit came as the United States and Vietnam seek to expand cooperation beyond diplomatic and trade relations.

Visiting crew members helped improve cultural understanding as part of a reconciliation process between the countries, said the ship's captain, Cmdr. Richard Rogers.

"It's gone a long way in establishing better relations," Rogers said.

Vietnam and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1995 and bilateral ties have evolved, but military issues remain sensitive.

On Nov. 10, Vietnam's Defense Minister Pham Van Tra met with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in Washington, becoming the first senior military official of Hanoi's government to visit the United States.

Both sides have said they are eager to work together to fight terrorism and promote regional stability. Lt. Col. Steve Ball, the U.S. Embassy's military attache in Hanoi, said he expects an increase in future military cooperation.

The ship's crew of 200, based in Yokosuka, Japan, received four days of shore leave and swarmed the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, evoking memories of the war years when the city was still called Saigon and American military personnel were everywhere.

Becoming friends

In their white uniforms, the sailors and officers drew curious stares and friendly greetings as they shopped for souvenirs, visited war museums and filled the bars.

"When you think of Vietnam, you see the old war movies," said Christopher Burns, a 22-year-old signalman on the ship from Luray, Va. "This is nothing like that. It's very cultural. I loved it. It's by far the best port visit I've ever had."

Wearing a sweater emblazoned with the stars and stripes, Marianne Woodside of Portland, Ore., joined dozens of Americans and Vietnamese to watch the Vandegrift leave port.

"It's real historic to have the U.S. in Vietnam after so many years. It's great to see our two countries becoming friends," Woodside said.

In a farewell ceremony, Rogers saluted a line of Vietnamese military officials before striding up the red-carpeted ramp to the guided missile frigate.

"This visit brings a new image of the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S.," Vietnamese Lt. Col. Phan Liem said at the pier. "This is a symbol of our new friendly relations."

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