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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Fuels Nostalgia Among Vietnamese

HANOI, Vietnam - President Vladimir Putin's visit to Vietnam Wednesday, hopes to breathe new life into ties with what was one of the old Soviet Union's staunchest Cold War allies and remains one of the world's few communist countries.

The two-day visit, the first by a Kremlin leader, has left Vietnamese in the north looking back fondly to the heyday of socialist cooperation, when many trained in Russia and the former Soviet republics.

Tens of thousands of them studied in the former Soviet Union, which supplied massive military and economic aid to help North Vietnam win a long and bitter war against the then U.S.-backed South in 1975.

Many now hold key positions in the communist hierachy but the the relationship between the two countries has suffered a decade of neglect and growing Western influence since communism collapsed in Russia.

"Russia has a very deep influence in Vietnam, especially for those who received education or working experience there," said one native of Hanoi who runs a Russian restaurant in the Vietnamese capital.

Poignantly named "The Little Dream", it is usually filled with former Soviet bloc alumni reminiscing fondly over vodka to the strains of "Kalinka", "Moscow Evenings" or "Katyusha".

"For those who studied there, Russia has become their second homeland," said a senior official of the Vietnam-Russia Friendship Organisation.

"Russia still has a strong influence in many sectors here, such as science and technology and literature and arts."

Many former students often remain deeply nostalgic about their experiences in Russia, even though they find their Russian language skills of limited value today.

TENS OF THOUSANDS TRAINED IN RUSSIA

According to the Vietnam News Agency, Moscow helped to train 33,200 Vietnamese officials and 25,000 workers from 1950. The programme was all encompassing, including many artists and musicians, not just military officers and political commissars.

In 1956, Russian become a compulsory in North Vietnam's schools and generations were brought up on Puskin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gorky. In the 1980s and into the 1990s Hanoi cinemas were packed whenever a Russian film was showing.

Economic and cultural ties crumbled with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and many Vietnamese on scholarships found themselves stranded thousands of miles from home without funding.

A large statue of Lenin in a central Hanoi park testifies to the enduring Soviet political influence in Vietnam, but English is now the main foreign language in schools and the West increasingly the economic and cultural barometer.

"Now Russian influence in Vietnam is more spiritual than economic," said a man in his 30s who studied in Russia but now works for a South Korean firm in Hanoi.

A flight attendant with Vietnam Airlines spent five years studying Russian until 1993, but had not used it since. "If I met a Russian traveller I might not be able to speak it," she said.

An army officer who spent years at a Russian military college now studies in Australia. He says Russian influence is still evident in Vietnam's education system and bureaucracy.

"It is a different system to the United States or Australia," he said. "It's less stressful, but lacks efficiency."

He hoped Putin's visit would revive deep-rooted ties, adding: "Russia now understands who its real friends are."

But in a sign that things had moved on a bit since the days of hardline communism, when business was a dirty word in both Hanoi and Moscow, the restaurateur hoped for a spinoff.

"Before Putin's visit my place was already popular, but with him in town, I guess it might be more crowded," she said.