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U.S. Aircraft Carrier Visits Vietnam For The First Time Since The War


This month, a U.S. aircraft carrier is visiting Vietnam, making it the first one to do so since the Vietnam War. We'll look at the visit from two perspectives. First, we join NPR's Anthony Kuhn, aboard the USS Carl Vinson as it travels to Vietnam.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A Navy F/A-18 Hornet swoops in for a landing on the deck. The carrier is heading through the South China Sea, where China, its neighbors, including Vietnam, and the U.S. are locked in a contest to control resource-rich waters and islands. China has built reefs into fortified islands and ignored an international court ruling that rejected its territorial claims. But this visit is not just about geopolitics. I found that out when I met Hien Trinh. He heads the ship's dental clinic, which he says serves 70 or 80 people a day. Trinh was born in Vietnam during the war.

HIEN TRINH: My family fled in 1975 from Saigon.

KUHN: Trinh's family, he says, initially traveled by boat to Singapore.

TRINH: But they weren't accepted refugees at the time. So they gave us food, water and, you know, basically said good luck.

KUHN: And indeed, good luck is what he found.

TRINH: A Navy ship picked us up. And that's one of the reasons why I'm actually in the Navy. United States of America has been great to me and my family. And I couldn't imagine a better life for myself right now. I'm giving back to a country that's given me so much.

KUHN: Trinh arrived in the U.S. at age 2 and grew up in Michigan. He now lives in San Diego. He says he was too young to remember the war and being a refugee.

TRINH: I think we're over it. I mean, it's just one of those things where America - I mean, not just America. But we, as Vietnamese-Americans are - we're just excited to be - to take part in the new Vietnam.

KUHN: Trinh says his wife is coming to join him in Da Nang, where the ship will dock for a few days next week, and that he's especially looking forward to some good food.

TRINH: I travel on my stomach. And that's why it's important that we have really good teeth.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, aboard the USS Carl Vinson.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: And I'm Michael Sullivan in Da Nang, where 77-year-old Nuen Tin (ph) remembers the day the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam. In March 1965, he was there on the beach, watching, spying for the Viet Cong. He didn't like what he saw.

NUEN TIN: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: As he watched, he says, he worried the Americans and all their weapons would make his people bleed for a long time. They did. But fast forward 53 years. And the two countries are now friends, Nuen says. And this time, he says...

TIN: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "The U.S. guns aren't pointed at Vietnam," he says. "They're pointed at our 1,000-year-old enemy - the thug, China."

He may be a little overexcited. But his hopes for this visit are shared by many Vietnamese. Their antipathy toward China grows as it continues its aggressive expansion in the South China Sea. For 61-year-old Do Van No (ph), the carrier's presence is more than a simple goodwill visit.

DO VAN NO: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "It's a way to tell China, you cannot unilaterally take our islands," he says, "or continue to be aggressive."

He's one of several former Viet Cong I've arranged to speak with at a coffee shop near the old U.S. airbase.

VOKA LOY: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "The U.S. military is the most powerful and most advanced in the world," the coffee shop's owner, 67-year-old Voka Loy (ph), says. "And Vietnam is still militarily small. So we need the U.S. to help us."

Everyone around him agrees. And they also agree that President Trump is showing Vietnam more love than President Obama.

LOY: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "In the past, U.S. presidents talked a lot. But there was little action," Voka Loy says. "I think Trump wants to change things." And this carrier visit, Voka Loy and his friends say, shows he's serious about helping Vietnam. They're not looking for a fight, the men insist. They just want China to back off. But none of them believe that'll happen. And they launch into what's a familiar refrain - we beat the French and became friends. We beat the Americans and became friends. But with the Chinese, our war will never be over, they say. But your government is also careful not to antagonize China too much, I say. Usually, a U.S. ship visit is followed by one from China. So you think you'll see China's aircraft carrier here in Da Nang anytime soon?


SULLIVAN: Not a chance, they say. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Da Nang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.