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Gen. Martin Dempsey / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AP

HANOI - Army Gen. Martin Dempsey landed here Wednesday, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Vietnam since 1971 when nearly 300,000 U.S. troops continued to fight in the bloody, costly war here.

Dempsey's visit represents a further thawing in the relationship between the former foes. The two countries normalized relations in 1995, under President Bill Clinton.

Dempsey's arrival was a low-key affair. A small delegation met him at the airport and whisked him through a fast-moving river of commuters on scooters navigating rain-slick streets.

Dempsey referred to events in "other parts of the world" that vied for his attention, no doubt a reference to the crisis in Iraq. But he told Vietnamese defense officials he wasn't going to miss his trip here. President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted on it, he said.

They told him: "The place for you right now is Vietnam," Dempsey said.

His visit comes as Vietnam and China, its often quarrelsome neighbor to the north, continue to spar over such issues as offshore mineral rights. China has asserted its claims in recent months, shifting a massive oil-exploration rig to disputed waters in the South China Sea.

The trip's purpose is to build relations with senior Vietnamese military officials and to discuss regional security concerns, according to Air Force Col. Ed Thomas, Dempsey's spokesman. The visit is one more step in building a normal relationship.

A generation ago that was almost unthinkable. The war had claimed the lives of 58,000 U.S. troops, altered American views about its role in the world and ravaged Vietnam. Today, although it continues under Communist rule, Vietnam appears open for business. High-end boutiques such as Louis Vuitton, have outposts here. Starbucks, naturally, has made inroads as well.

Dempsey is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to visit Vietnam since Adm. Thomas Moorer, then chairman of the joint chiefs, toured the country in 1971. Dempsey has meetings planned with senior Vietnamese military and civilian officials.

Follow @tvandenbrook on Twitter.



Copyright 2014USAToday

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