— When Richard Parker left Vietnam in 1970, he planned to leave his memories of napalm attacks firmly in the past. Instead, as time marched on, they haunted him.

“We were the bad guys,” Parker, now 65, said of the American war effort in Vietnam. “I had some ghosts I had to face down.”

In 2011, Parker flew from Illinois to Danang, a central Vietnamese city where he had worked for 22 months as a builder in the Navy. First he visited nearby places he still remembered, including a mountain pass where he had seen shooting.

On the same trip, a Vietnamese man who once worked for the Marines introduced Parker to some American veterans who lived in Danang full time. Parker enjoyed meeting them and seeing the country in a new light — so much so that he moved to Danang a few months later.

The presence of American war veterans in today’s Vietnam — and the warm welcome they usually receive — is yet another sign of how much the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship has evolved since the countries normalized relations in 1995.

“They want to see a different Vietnam,” said Nguyen Thi Nga, 34, who often hosts American veterans and other expatriates at her seaside restaurant in Danang. The bamboo-frame structure overlooks Non Nuoc Beach and the adjacent South China Sea. Once known as “China Beach,” Non Nuoc was a tonic for many American military personnel during the war.

“Maybe they’ve realized that the war was too ugly, or they want to correct some of the wrong things that Americans did here,” Nga said.

North Vietnamese forces — supported by fellow communist allies the Soviet Union and China — seized control of Saigon, the U.S.-backed capital of the former South Vietnam, on April 30, 1975, ending a war that killed some 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.

Forty years later, the U.S. is strengthening strategic and economic ties with Vietnam in hopes of counterbalancing China’s rising influence in Asia. Last year the U.S. partially lifted a longstanding embargo on selling Vietnam lethal weapons. Vietnam is also one of 12 nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an American-led free-trade negotiation.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, says it does not keep track of how many American veterans reside in Vietnam or visit it frequently. But Parker said he has met more than a dozen veterans who spend more than half the year in Danang.

Several veterans said they were initially nervous about coming to Vietnam, only to be surprised by the warm reception they have received from Vietnamese of all generations.

“American veterans are just like any other foreigners now,” said Nga, the restaurateur. “They come here and contribute to the economy.”


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