For the first time in nearly 30 years, a U.S. warship has docked in the port of Saigon in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.
The highly symbolic visit by the guided missile frigate USS Vandergrift is intended to mark a new chapter in relations between Vietnam and the United States, ending decades of suspicion that followed the Vietnam War.
The Vandergrift will spend four days in port, with its 200 sailors relaxing and shopping in the city and engaging in what officials describe as “community relations” activities.
The ship, flying the U.S. and Vietnamese flags, arrived in the city at about midday Wednesday under the escort of two Vietnamese navy vessels.
U.S. Ambassador Raymond Burghardt, who traveled aboard the USS Vandergrift on its final leg to the port, said the docking shows the growing relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam.
“We’ve developed a very sound commercial relationship, we have frank talks with each other about things we disagree on, like human rights and religious freedom, and now we’ve started to develop military to military ties,” Burghardt said.
“I think the next step beyond that is probably going to be developing good ties between our law enforcement agencies.”
CNN’s Mike Chinoy who is in Ho Chi Minh City says Vietnamese who fought on either side of the war, as well as those born after the conflict, have given universal support to the ship’s visit and the gesture of goodwill on the part of the U.S.
More than 60 percent of the country’s population was born after the war ended in 1975 with a communist victory over United States-backed South Vietnam
Government and military officials from both sides were on the dockside to welcome the ship’s arrival which is being seen as an important step in improving military relations between Vietnam and the U.S.
The one-time adversaries have already taken huge strides in bolstering diplomatic and economic ties.
“It’s a chance for the Vietnamese government to show its own people [and the world] that relations with the U.S. are truly normalized,” Burghardt, who served as a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War, said.
Officials say America is now the top importer of Vietnamese products with bilateral trade totaling above $3 billion a year.
The Vandergrift’s port call follows a landmark meeting at the Pentagon last week between Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The visit was the first time a senior Vietnamese military official has visited Washington since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
More than 58,000 U.S. troops died during the 20-year war, and more than three million soldiers died on the Vietnamese side.
In addition more than one million civilians across the divided country died during the war.
At the height of the war, American servicemen were a constant presence on the streets of Saigon, but they were withdrawn in 1973 after the Paris Peace Agreement was reached.
Two years later the final token U.S. force rushed to make a hasty and humiliating withdrawal as the American-backed South Vietnamese regime crumbled and Communist forces took over Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City.