Sept. 2 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Colonial rule by Japan and China of Indochina goes back centuries. More recent was the French colonization but the end of World War II signaled a new era for Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh sought to unify the Vietnamese people and the Geneva accord set the framework for that to happen. However, there were two nations who wouldn’t abide by that – the U.S. and France, and so we saw the creation of a Demilitarized Zone and the formation of a southern puppet regime that would protect western colonial interests.

When you say the word Vietnam, it conjures up different images from different people, based in large part on demographics and politics. For baby boomers it will always to some degree be stuck in time in the 1960s and 1970s as we engaged in what was up till then our longest and most costly military engagement. For younger generations, less-defined imagery emerges of a developing country in Southeast Asia with an eye on modernization and a burgeoning population.

Time heals wounds, so the divisiveness that war engendered has diminished some. Veterans here are venerated and still huge numbers suffer from the real and lingering emotional scars and debilitating illnesses that resulted from our body count and scorched-earth polices of that era. Opponents of the war still haven’t been given their due for helping accelerate our ultimate withdrawal from an unwinnable military engagement.

Modern-day Vietnam has witnessed unbridled growth. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have witnessed rural relocation with annual growth of 30 to 40 percent. The population of 93 million-plus people, 70 percent of whom are younger than 30, is eager to find its place in the modern world. Construction cranes proliferate in these urban centers at the same moment that rural fishing and farming villages largely are stuck in time and tradition.

Vietnam remains a land with considerable ethnic diversity – some 15 distinct ethnic minorities scattered among the nation’s numerous provinces. It is a place with numerous religious influences coexisting.

It is one of a diminishing number of socialist republics that is gradually coming to grips with the fact that strict economic models have failed in the past and embracing new hybrid economics is essential to the country’s future. Still, officially there are two sectors to society – government and business. Government leadership remains skeptical of the role civil society organizations can play in identifying the people’s needs and finding answers to their problems.

As Vietnam celebrates its 70th year as a nation, I encourage everyone to learn from the Vietnamese people. They seem to have found a way to put the past behind them – mindfully and forgivingly. They look forward to a future when they can continue to emerge as a regional and global force. A peaceful future requires mutual respect, understanding and compassion.

Scott Crichton of Missoula is the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. He recently traveled to Vietnam as part of the State Department's Young Southeast Asian Leader's Initiative Professional Fellows Program, managed by the Maureen & Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.

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