Commercial Flights Return to Vietnam

For the first time since the war ended nearly 30 years ago, a U.S. passenger jet was on its way to Vietnam (search) on Friday.

United Flight 869 took off from San Francisco on Thursday and was scheduled to land in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, at 10:25 p.m. Friday local time.

It will be the first U.S. commercial plane to touch down at Tan Son Nhat International Airport since the wartime capital of South Vietnam (search) fell to the communists in 1975.

U.S. relations with Vietnam have improved considerably in recent years. The two countries established diplomatic ties in 1995, and in 2001 they signed a landmark trade agreement, followed by an aviation pact last year.

In November 2003, the first U.S. Navy ship since the Vietnam War docked on the Saigon River.

United Airlines (search), which filed for bankruptcy two years ago, is betting the daily flight to Vietnam will be a big moneymaker. The carrier says it expects air travel to Vietnam to grow 10.5 percent a year in the next decade.

Among the 347 people on the flight was 48-year-old Van Trinh, one of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese who fled the country in boats after the war.

"I'm excited to see Vietnam now because 30 years is too long," she said before boarding the Boeing 747-400.

Trinh is among 1 million ethnic Vietnamese who live in the United States, the largest population outside Vietnam. Many visit Vietnam every year.

The country is also a popular destination with American veterans who want to see how it has changed.

"The United Airlines link between the two countries will not only serve Vietnamese nationals living in America, but I was told that 45 million Americans wanted to travel to Vietnam, and that is a very big market," said Nguyen Xuan Hien, Vietnam Airlines president and CEO.

Many Americans who fought in the war have vivid memories of Tan Son Nhat airport, where they caught Pan American "freedom birds" home or to rest stops such as Hong Kong and Japan.

Now-defunct Pan American was the last commercial U.S. carrier to fly out of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Meanwhile Vietnam's state-owned carrier has expressed interest in opening its own route to San Francisco by the end of next year or early 2006.

And American Airlines has established a partnership with Vietnam Airlines Corp. that allows them to complete journeys for each other's passengers. But American does not fly directly to Vietnam.

"The new United Airlines route is a new indicator of the strong relations between the United States and Vietnam," U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Marine said.