HANOI—Although plenty of American bombs pulverized targets here during the Vietnam War, they never flattened the city the way they did Pyongyang during the Korean conflict almost two decades before. If they had, U.S. President Donald Trump might not have such a strong argument to present his friend Kim Jong Un as they meet here for their second summit.
Today Trump, who managed to slip out of the draft in the Vietnam War, can claim that this country is “thriving like few places on earth,” and suggest North Korea might do the same, making everyone happy, if it would just get rid of its nuclear weapons.
There’s no doubt this place is booming. With a growth rate of seven percent last year, Vietnam, torn by generations of war, has emerged as a Asian powerhouse in a way nobody would have anticipated when troops stormed into Saigon nearly half a century ago.
There’s just one thing: don’t say a word about the governing structure, and don’t breathe anything about serious political opposition.
When Trump called on Vietnam’s President Nguyen Phu Trong on Wednesday morning, he was full of praise and compliments but of course silent on political issues. Ditto when he sat down for lunch with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Surely, that was to be expected of the man who seems to have a personal fondness for dictators—China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin come to mind—as long as their records of success speak for themselves.
“The potential is AWESOME”—capital letters Trump’s—“a great opportunity, like almost none other in history for my friend Kim Jong Un.”
Giving the president a little leeway for poetic license on “none other in history,” a drive around this sprawling city reveals an extraordinary mixture of old and new, soaring skyscrapers and shops and cafes dating from the era when the French reigned supreme until their devastating defeat at Dienbienphu and division of the country between “North” and “South” in 1954.
Trump and his entourage enjoy nothing but views of high-rise modern buildings and a spacious museum and conference center from the digs at the J.W. Marriott, built just a few years ago. Kim and company, including omnipresent bodyguards garbed in black suits, white shirts and black ties, fill six floors of the Melia, a few years older, totally modern, a palatial structure fit for any national leader.
President Trump and Chairman Kim could look forward to still more beautiful surroundings dining their first evening together at the historic Metropole—a slightly seedy relic of French colonialism and harsh war-time Communist rule when I first stayed there ten years after the war was over.
Now the Metropole—officially the Sofitel Legend Metropole, run by a French hotel group—is spruced up with rooms going for $500 a night, the most expensive in town. Suites are named for former residents Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, and the hotel room where Joan Baez hid out during one of the American air raids is something of a tourist attraction, but Trump and Kim probably won’t be going down there.
The hotel, though, is definitely the place for Trump and Kim to chat a day before getting down to serious business.
On his way to and from the Marriott, Trump’s motorcade will be speeding right by the lovely little lake where John McCain’s plane was shot down in 1967—though he may not want to see the monument marking the spot where the late senator and presidential candidate was rescued at the outset of six years in captivity.
Judging from all Trump’s statements and tweets the Kim summit, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea’s Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol in attendance, is set to be a fun occasion with nary an unpleasant word to darken the ambience.
If the Americans had initially wanted to meet somewhere else, perhaps harboring memories of the terrible war U.S. forces fought in this country, Trump obviously loves Hanoi now almost as deeply he professes to have fallen “in love” with Kim when they met in Singapore.
As Trump told Vietnam’s President Trong, “We both felt very good about having this very important summit in Vietnam because you really are an example of what can happen with good thinking.”
On the crowded streets of this capital, where motorcycles and scooters are king, Vietnam flags fly everywhere. American, North Korean and Vietnam flags hang together on the approaches to the J.W. Marriott, the Melia and the Metropole, reminding the visitors of the potential for friendship among them.
You hear not a word about the Vietnam War, even though a drive past the military museum reveals the hulks of U.S. warplanes shot down over the North and tanks and armored personnel carriers captured in the South.
There seems to be no collective anger about the “Christmas bombing” in which U.S. warplanes, notably B52s, devastated factories and military installations in a final pyrotechnic display designed to get Vietnam’s negotiator Le Duc Tho to sign what became known as the “Paris peace” in January 1973. That was the deal under which the last U.S. troops left the South and more than 500 captured American pilots were freed from cells in the “Hanoi Hilton’’—not to be confused with a real latter-day Hilton right by the Opera House, across from the Metropole.
The Vietnamese here will tell you one reason for their rather generous memory of the conflict is that they won.
The American planes bombing Hanoi also assiduously avoided most of the capital, including the historic “old quarter” in which shops on numbered narrow streets purvey just about everything from antiques to traditional silken ao dai to the latest in modern fashions.
The record, of course, was far different in the Korean war when Air Force General Curtis LeMay planned and ordered the devastation not only of Pyongyang but just about every other city and town in the North. American pilots, amid all that bombing, were heard to complain, “We have no more targets.”
All of which may have something to do with Kim’s resolve to hold on to nukes and the long-range missiles for carrying them to distant targets. He may even want to note that if Hanoi had had nukes in that long-ago time, the Americans might never have dared got to war against it at all.
As it is, Kim can stick to his guns—nukes and missiles—as the final defense against repetition of the Korean holocaust that still burns in the mind of the Kim dynasty elite.