On the streets of Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hue - cities whose names evoke unpleasant memories of America's earlier intervention there - shops and stalls and sidewalk vendors offer everything from lacquerware to VCRs to Zippo lighters bearing the familiar crests of the 82d Airborne, the 4th Infantry Division or the 1st Air Cavalry.
Among Vietnam's re-emerging mercantile class, there is an excitement arising out of renewed commerce and a common article of faith: Their inventories will grow, and their business will boom, as soon as the embargo is lifted.
At a small table in the corner of the Bac Nam Restaurant in Hanoi sits Nguyen Minh Tuong, a "technical consultant" to the member nations of the European Community. These nations, he says, are keenly interested in exploring business opportunities in Vietnam, now that the country is no longer an economic satellite of the former Soviet Union. Upon learning that he is sharing his table with Americans, Tuong asks anxiously: "When do you think the embargo will be lifted?"
The embargo is not merely a topic of conversation in Vietnam these days. It is the topic of virtually all economic and political discussion taking place
from the Chinese border to the Mekong Delta. For as surely as Vietnam's communists won political control of this country in 1975, Vietnam-style communism has lost economic control 17 years later. In today's Vietnam, socialistic collectivism is all but dead, capitalistic free enterprise is very much alive, and all eyes are once again turned to the United States of America.
Once again, it seems altogether possible that the United States will make the wrong choice in Vietnam. In the 1960s, we took on a military commitment that we should have been smart enough to avoid.
In the 1990s, we have so far spurned an economic opportunity that we should enthusiastically seize. Vietnam's abundant natural resources - its industrious, resilient, ingenious, inventive, creative, hard-working people - offer America and its businesses and industries what may be the most promising investment opportunity in the world today.
The only thing standing in the way is the embargo.
The embargo has been in place since April 30, 1975, the day the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Since then, all trade between the United States and the People's Republic of Vietnam has been prohibited.
The ostensible purpose of the embargo is to punish the Vietnamese government for sending troops into neighboring Cambodia, and for failing to participate in the effort to determine the fate of American soldiers still listed as missing in action in Vietnam.
But the Vietnamese government is now actively involved in trying to end the Cambodian civil war, and an American task force, now permanently established in Hanoi, is working closely with Vietnamese authorities in the search for MIAs.
Yet the embargo remains in effect, suggesting that its real purpose may not be to punish Vietnam for its recent behavior but to exact for America a long- sought pound of Indochinese flesh, to damage Vietnam's economy as thoroughly and painfully as Vietnam once damaged America's psyche.
Meanwhile, other nations are quick to capitalize on Vietnam's new-found capitalism. Saigon's Floating Hotel, an Australian monstrosity charging $200 a night for a small, cabin-like room overlooking the polluted Saigon River, is filled nightly with Japanese businessmen. Thai Airways Flight 680 is booked solid five days a week with men in business suits transiting through Bangkok
from Bombay, Karachi and Jakarta. Even the Chinese, mortal and eternal enemies of the Vietnamese, see in today's Vietnam an opportunity to expand their decidedly capitalistic economic enterprises.
And Nguyen Minh Tuong sits in a Hanoi restaurant, waiting for American policy to change. "The European Community will not make any significant investment in Vietnam," he says, "until the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund commit to major infrastructure investment here. And that will not happen," he adds, "until the United States takes the lead, lifts the embargo and opens the door to investment."
In Saigon, the T-shirt saleswoman also waits for American policy to change. "When America lift embargo," she predicts, her eyes shining, "many Americans come back Vietnam, bring money, buy T-shirt."
If such expectations are unrealistically high, they are nevertheless common. Talk of the return of Americans, and American money, to Vietnam is on the lips of every shop owner in Da Nang, every cycle driver in Hue. Even in Hanoi, where neither Americans nor their money would have been considered welcome until very recently, the language of commerce is English, hotel bills are paid in dollars, and Western investment is heralded in the local newspapers. If the southern half of Vietnam saw America as its military savior 30 years ago, it seems that all of Vietnam sees America as its economic savior today.
Vietnam will never be a tourist mecca for Americans. It is, and will likely remain for a long time to come, a poor, underdeveloped country, beset by disease, malnutrition and poverty that is too wrenching, and all too evident, for the typical American tourist to endure. Some of the four million Americans who served in Vietnam may be curious enough to return, but many more will always be bitter enough not to. The T-shirt business in Saigon will almost certainly pick up in the years to come, but retail sales of clothing, handicrafts, trinkets and other memorabilia - even in American dollars - will not rebuild Vietnam's economy.
Investment will. Investment by American businesses in Vietnam's huge, productive labor market. Investment by American industries in Vietnam's growing, dynamic manufacturing sector. Investment by American corporations in
Vietnam's abundant, still untapped human resources. Investment not by American taxpayers in the tools of mass destruction but by America's private sector in the tools of economic growth.
It is up to America's government, however, to signal to the World Bank, the IMF and Western Europe that America is ready to do business with Vietnam and to let corporate America start competing with the Japanese, the Koreans, the Taiwanese, the Singaporeans and the Chinese for the lucrative investment opportunities that still abound in this fertile country.
We have already lost a tragic war in Vietnam. Nothing would be more foolish than to deny ourselves this fleeting opportunity to win the peace.