Just about any overture Vietnam made or received last year was interpreted as a further move in some kind of China containment strategy, or at the least as a response to the territorial dispute with Beijing over ownership of the oil-rich Spratly-Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea.
The clearest evidence was in the US-Vietnam relationship, which in 2010 appeared warmer than ever. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Vietnam twice—in July for the ASEAN regional forum and in October for the ASEAN and East Asia summits—during which time she made a point of reaffirming the importance of the relationship. (Although perhaps to her hosts’ irritation, she also raised the communist nation’s human rights record and its blocking of internet sites such as Facebook).
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, also paid a visit in October, marvelling at the progress in ties between the two countries since the Vietnam War. In addition, the two countries have conducted joint military operations, including a training exercise involving the USS John McCain and Vietnamese forces. These moves followed the symbolic visit by the USS Lassen in 2009, which docked in Vietnam captained by Commander Hung Ba Le, who fled Vietnam at the age of five.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But although it has been blossoming ties with the United States that have been getting much of the attention, a China-wary Vietnam has for some time been pursuing improved ties with other nations in the region.
‘Inside each piece of meat is love between Vietnam and Russia,’ says Pham Thanh Giang, a Soviet-trained former economist, over lamb shashlik at his ‘Russian-style’ barbecue restaurant in Saigon.
Giang, like tens of thousands of others, studied in the Soviet Union—first Ukraine then Uzbekistan—for nine years, before moving back to Vietnam and working in a research institute on Vietnam’s five- and ten-year plans. He says he opened his Spartan-looking restaurant beside the War Remnants Museum in 1994, cooking up some of the recipes his Ukrainian girlfriend’s mother had taught him.
The museum is one of a handful of examples of communist involvement pre-1991, with the odd, concrete monstrosity of a building surviving among the now-feted colonial architecture.