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U.S. jet flight to Vietnam makes history

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- A U.S. passenger jet landed in Vietnam on Friday, the first since the Vietnam War ended nearly 30 years ago.

United Airlines Flight 869, from San Francisco, arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, at shortly after 10:00 p.m. Friday (10 a.m. EST).

The flight -- carrying 260 people, including some Vietnamese who fled their country after the war -- was first U.S. commercial plane to touch down at Tan Son Nhat International Airport since the wartime capital of South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975.

VIPs emerging from the blue and white plane were greeted by Vietnamese women wearing traditional white tunics or ao dais, and holding lotus blossoms and silk lanterns.

U.S.-Vietnam relations 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.

Among the flight's passengers was 62-year-old Vietnamese-American Bernard Lang, who said he left on the last military flight out of Saigon when it fell on April 30, 1975.

"I love it. I wanted to be on the first flight because of history," said Lang, of Falls Church, Va. "We should do whatever we can to better relations with Vietnam."

Also aboard were American actor David Hasselhoff and his wife, Pamela, who celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary on the flight. The trip was "really about bringing the world back together through people," he said. "There was a big buzz on the plane."

Hasselhoff was bringing 36 wheelchairs to Vietnam from a U.S.-based charity.

Another passenger was Van Trinh, 48, 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.

United Airlines, which filed for bankruptcy two years ago, is betting the daily flight to Vietnam will be a big moneymaker -- some 1 million ethnic Vietnamese live in the United States, the largest population outside Vietnam, and many visit their homeland every year.

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

"We think it's a very important market, both from the economic as well as tourist standpoint," said Martin White, United Airlines' senior vice president of marketing. "We're very proud to be the first U.S. carrier to come in here in nearly 30 years."

The airline says it expects air travel to Vietnam to grow by 10.5 percent a year in the next decade.

"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. airline to fly out of Vietnam before Saigon fell on April 30, 1975.

Meanwhile, Vietnam's state-owned airline 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.

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Associated Press writer Bilen Mesfin in San Francisco contributed to this report. 

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