HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Waving red flags, troops marched Saturday down the boulevard along which North Vietnamese tanks rolled into this city 30 years ago in a victory ending the Vietnam War (search).
Hundreds of aging veterans, their chests decked with medals, watched from the sidelines as the soldiers headed toward the Presidential Palace. The legendary Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (search) was among them, standing alongside the president.
Giant billboards of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's revolutionary leader, overlooked the parade route and adjoining streets, which had been blocked off to the public due to security concerns.
On April 30, 1975, Communist tanks barreled through the palace gates in what was then Saigon (search), capital of South Vietnam (search). The city's fall marked the official end of the Vietnam War, and the United States' decade-long campaign against communism in Southeast Asia. The war claimed some 58,000 American lives and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.
"I was listening to the radio with my family and heard that Saigon had been liberated. I was very happy because for many years we weren't free. After 30 years we have rebuilt our country. Our land is safe and secure and I think the future will be better for my children," said To Thanh Nghia, 51, a government worker marching in the parade.
The atmosphere in the country three decades later has been mostly festive, focusing on Vietnam's recent economic rejuvenation. Memories of the war and its aftermath are little more than anecdotes in history books for most Vietnamese who were born after it ended.
"My father and grandfather fought in the war but I was too young. I think my future will be good because they created opportunities for my generation," said Nguyen Thanh Tung, an 18-year-old student.
Along the grand boulevard where communist tanks once rolled, capitalism has taken solid root. Some parade floats, sponsored by Vietnamese banks, sported the logo of American credit card companies. One float featured women pushing shopping carts filled with supermarket goods.
These days, Le Duan Street is home to Diamond Plaza, a glittering, upscale department store where French perfumes and Italian shoes are sold to an emerging urban, middle class. Along the same strip, a French-owned five-star hotel sits across the street from the U.S. consulate.
While Vietnam proudly recalled its victories over both the United States and colonial France, the focus was clearly on the future.
"Through our two resistance (wars) against foreign aggressors, the historical clashes in Saigon will always be in the forefront," President Tran Duc Luong said to cheers from the crowd. He called Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, the country's "economic locomotive."
With the president on the giant reviewing platform was a guest of honor, Raul Castro, the brother of Cuba's longtime leader Fidel Castro who stood by Vietnam's communist regime for decades. Also flanking the leader was Giap, the military mastermind behind the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu and later, ousting the Americans.
Despite Vietnam's remarkable recovery from the devastation of war, most of its largely agrarian population of 82 million remains poor with per capita income hovering around $550 a year.
But Vietnam is on the crest of an economic wave, recording an annual growth of 7.7 percent last year -- second only to China in Asia. One of the biggest signs of that is the construction under way in much of Ho Chi Minh City.
Luu Quang Dong, a 68-year-old veteran from northern Vinh Phuc province, traveled for four days via bus to attend Saturday's ceremony.
Dressed in his olive uniform covered in red and gold medals, he said he made the trip to see the city he had stormed into three decades ago, arriving with his unit just minutes after the tanks crashed through the palace gates.
"I wanted to come and see how much the city has changed," he said.
Though the North and South reunified three decades ago, the task of reconciliation still looms large.
On Friday, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai reached out to Vietnam's former enemies, urging them to "close the past, look to the future."
The United States has become Vietnam's single-largest trading partner. But relations with overseas Vietnamese, who sent back nearly $4 billion in remittances last year, remain more sensitive.
Despite the government's message of reconciliation, lingering mistrust continues. Earlier this week, the government banned a book of love songs from the pre-1975 era.
"Thirty years after the war, the country is really reconciled now. Maybe some people still feel bitter about the liberation of Saigon but that number is very small," said Han Van Minh, 65, who was a sergeant in the Saigon army and now runs a small business.