Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam The streets of what was once Saigon were again teeming with American sailors on Wednesday after the arrival of the first U.S. Navy ship since the Vietnam War.
The crew of the USS Vandegrift -- many of them sons and daughters of Vietnam veterans -- made a historic port call in Ho Chi Minh City during a symbolic visit aimed at boosting relations between the former foes.
"My father actually fought in the Vietnam War," said Ensign Esther "Mary" Alcantara, 23, of Northridge, Calif., one of about 200 sailors aboard the frigate. "This trip was actually very symbolic to me, and I know to the Navy as well."
The missile frigate, based in Yokosuka, Japan and part of the 7th Fleet, cruised Wednesday up the Saigon River with American and Vietnamese flags flapping before docking. A chain of white-uniformed sailors stood along the ship's railings as it came in, some holding video cameras and binoculars.
"I think one of the messages here today is that the ... U.S. and Vietnam are showing the world that former foes can become friends," said U.S. Ambassador Raymond Burghardt, who was on hand for the welcoming ceremony at Saigon Port. American commanders later attended a ceremony honoring Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
Burghardt added that the United States was not pushing to re-establish a military presence in Vietnam. Instead access to friendly nations' ports is sought.
The four-day port call follows a meeting last week by Defense Minister Pham Van Tra and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- the first time a senior Vietnamese military official has visited Washington.
Bilateral ties have been steadily expanding since diplomatic relations were established in 1995. Trade has risen to more than $3 billion annually with the passage of a landmark agreement in 2001, and Vietnam recently said it sends more goods to the United States than anywhere else.
However, the two countries have only begun working on the more sensitive area of military cooperation. As the U.S. and Vietnam find common ground on issues of counterterrorism and regional stability, future military ties will likely include more high-level exchanges as well as more ship visits.
As a first step, the frigate's arrival in Saigon Port is an important gesture, said Duong Trung Quoc, a Vietnamese historian and legislator.
"This is the first time in Vietnam history that a U.S. warship has come to Vietnam with a peaceful flag and friendly spirit," Quoc said. "It is the result of the normalization and development process of the ties between the two countries."
Many Vietnamese say the port call is welcome, demonstrating that old wounds have finally healed following the conflict that killed 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese.
"Since Vietnam is now at peace, it's normal for an American Navy ship to be in Vietnam," said Dang Van Hai, 49, a former South Vietnamese soldier who now drives a motorbike taxi.
"I've seen many American veterans who came back. Most of (today's sailors) were not involved in the war and they're visiting many countries and Vietnam is one of their destinations, so I think it's good for them to come back here," he said.