Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to fly to Vietnam since the war ended nearly 30 years ago, marking a new milestone in relations between the former enemies as VIPs were greeted at the airport with lotus blossoms and silk lanterns.
Flight 869, carrying 260 passengers, touched down at 10:06 p.m. at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. The last U.S. commercial carrier to leave Vietnam was a Pan American flight that took off from this city, the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, just before it fell to the communists in 1975.
"I love it," said Bernard Lang, 62, of Falls Church, Va., who said he fled South Vietnam on one of the last flights out. "I wanted to be on the first flight to be part of history."
The blue-and-white Boeing 747-400's arrival was filled with hoopla as dozens of Vietnamese women dressed in white traditional tunic-style dresses, or ao dais, welcomed VIPs off the plane with blossoms and lanterns.
American actor David Hasselhoff and his wife, Pamela, videotaped the reception and took pictures with Vietnamese at the airport. The couple celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary aboard the flight on which Hasselhoff was bringing 36 wheelchairs to Vietnam from a U.S.-based charity.
"It was really fantastic. It's really about bringing the world back together through people," he said. "There was a big buzz on the airplane coming here."
The flight comes as Vietnam and the United States expand relations that have been growing over the past decade. The former foes signed a landmark bilateral trade agreement in 2001 and celebrated another symbolic milestone last year when the first U.S. Navy ship arrived since the war.
"Today's historic flight from the United States to Vietnam -- the first direct flight in almost 30 years -- represents a new beginning of strengthened relations and closer ties that will reunite families and open new doors for businesses in both countries," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said.