The USS Vandegrift pulled up anchor yesterday and ended its historic four-day port call in Ho Chi Minh City, after becoming the first US warship to visit Vietnam since the war between the two countries ended nearly three decades ago.
"The people of Ho Chi Minh City have welcomed us with open arms," said the ship's captain, Commander Richard Rogers.
"I've received reports from my sailors about how friendly the people are here," Rogers said. "It's gone a long way in establishing better relations."
The frigate's visit came as the US and Vietnam look to build cooperation beyond diplomatic and trade relations.
"While we can't forget what happened in the past, what we're looking forward to is the future," Rogers said.
Calling the ship's visit "just one more step" in the reconciliation process, Rogers said it had helped improve cultural understanding.
The port call came a week after a landmark visit to Washington by Vietnam's Defense Minister Pham Van Tran, who met with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
It was the first time Hanoi's senior military official had been to the US.
While bilateral ties have evolved since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1995, military-to-military ties remain sensitive. The arrival of the USS Vandegrift in Saigon Port this week is the most visible sign yet of a common desire to move toward stronger forms of cooperation.
Both sides have said they're keen to work on counterterrorism and regional stability. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ball, the US Embassy's military attache in Hanoi, said he expects that future military contact -- including possible annual ship visits -- will be coming.
But perhaps the most significant part of the port call was symbolic, Ball said.
"The Vietnam War was such an important part of the American psyche," he said, adding that the ship's visit has been "a visual display of closure."
The ship's 200 crew, based in Yokosuka, Japan, were given four days of shore leave and swarmed the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, evoking memories of a wartime when the city was still called Saigon and US military personnel were everywhere.
Dressed in white naval uniforms, they drew curious stares and friendly greetings from Vietnamese as they shopped for souvenirs, visited war museums and filled up the bars.
"When you think of Vietnam, you see the old war movies," said Signalman 3 Christopher Burns, 22, of Luray, Virginia. "This is nothing like that. It's very cultural. I loved it. It's by far the best port visit I've ever had."
"This visit brings a new image of the relationship between Vietnam and the US This is a symbol of our new friendly relations,'' Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Phan Liem said at the dock.