HANOI, Vietnam — A country once at war with the United States cozies up to its former enemy. Market reforms galvanize its economy, even as the Communist Party remains firmly in control.
As Vietnamese officials play host to the summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea this week, they are offering up the hope that the North Koreans could somehow mirror Vietnam’s trajectory — transforming from a closed society strangled by central planners to a bustling nation full of capitalist enterprise.
In preparation for the two-day meeting that starts on Wednesday, Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, has been festooned with North Korean and American flags, some of the stars and stripes fluttering upside down. Local restaurants are selling hamburgers garnished with kimchi, and one barber is offering free haircuts mimicking Mr. Kim’s and Mr. Trump’s signature styles.
Ideological fraternity has long bound Vietnam and North Korea. Now, as Mr. Kim is expected to tour Vietnamese industrial zones filled with foreign-invested factories, Vietnam has advice that might sound surprising from a nation that ejected American forces from its soil more than 40 years ago.
“The success of the Vietnamese economy is due to its decision to normalize relations with the United States in 1995,” said Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong, the former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security, noting that the United States is the top destination for Vietnamese exports.
“I would say to our North Korean friends that as long as they have a conflict with the United States, they will not be able to develop their economy properly,” he added.
North Korea has said that it would only initiate a process of denuclearization, something nebulously agreed upon during Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump’s first meeting in Singapore in June, if the United States first lifted its sanctions.
Looming over the summit meeting in Hanoi is China, a country that is not a party to the talks but whose rising influence, as well as its territorial forays in the South China Sea and fears of its debt-trap diplomacy in the developing world, is reshaping geopolitics.
“The fact that the summit between North Korea and the United States is happening in Vietnam symbolizes the push that China has exerted on all three countries,” said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, who grew up in Vietnam. “China’s aggressive behavior has helped to bring about a rapprochement between former enemies.”
Mr. Kim’s decision to negotiate directly with Mr. Trump twice within a year has displeased China’s leadership, which remains North Korea’s lone patron, Vietnamese foreign policy analysts say.
Although North Korea has depended on China for an economic lifeline, Mr. Kim largely ignored Beijing’s entreaties to cease nuclear tests. Market reforms and a booming black market have enlarged North Korea’s private sector, enabling the country to better weather international sanctions.
“China will try every possible tactic to keep North Korea in its arms because it wants a country to control,” General Cuong said. “Luckily, North Korea has the necessary conditions to escape China’s grip if it deepens its relationship with America.”
Vietnam prides itself on being a small nation that has vanquished foreign powers: France, the United States and, most of all, China, its neighbor to the north.
As recently as 1979, Vietnam repelled hundreds of thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers who poured over the border. This month marks the 40th anniversary of that brief but vicious war, in which more than 25,000 Vietnamese soldiers are believed to have been killed in little more than three weeks.
Vietnam’s antipathy toward China seems to have outstripped whatever animosity it once felt toward the United States. Particularly irksome to the Vietnamese leadership has been China’s conversion of contested reefs in the South China Sea into fortified military bases. Vietnam once controlled islets in the northern part of the waterway, but Beijing seized them by force.
Still, China’s economic weight — it is Vietnam’s largest trading partner — means that Hanoi has also tried to prevent anti-Chinese sentiment from inflaming the public. Despite the heavy loss of life during the 1979 conflict, the Vietnamese government has, until this year, downplayed the anniversary of the border war.
“I feel like the sacrifices we made were ignored for many years,” said Nguyen Thanh Sang, who lost part of his leg to a Chinese grenade when he was an 18-year-old recruit. On Sunday, for the first time, Mr. Sang commemorated the conflict with fellow veterans.
“Countries that border China, like Vietnam and North Korea, should know not to trust the Chinese,” he said.
Vietnam’s ties with North Korea were strengthened during the Vietnam War, when North Korea dispatched dozens of fighter pilots to combat the Americans. At least 14 North Korean military personnel were killed in action in Vietnam. (About 300,000 South Koreans fought on the American side.)
In 1976, a year after Ho Chi Minh’s forces unified Vietnam and defeated the American-backed government in the south, North Korea, then richer than Vietnam, began building a kindergarten in Hanoi.
Electricity switches, metal beds and bowls for the canteen were imported from North Korea.
“We were very grateful to North Korea because we were very poor after the American war was over,” said Hoang Thi Thanh, the former principal of the Vietnam-Korea Friendship Kindergarten.
Today, Vietnam, one of the world’s largest rice exporters, has donated grain to North Korea. While the 470 students at the Hanoi kindergarten still learn the North Korean anthem and two classrooms are named after Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Mr. Kim’s grandfather and father, the languages of instruction are Vietnamese and English.
One noted alumnus of the kindergarten is a professor of economics in the United States. School administrators hope that their students might one day work for companies from South Korea, the archenemy of the North. Samsung, the South Korean electronics company, is the single largest foreign company investing in Vietnam.
“I really hope that North Korea can institute economic reforms like we did,” said Ngo Thi Minh Ha, the current principal, who has visited Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “Maybe in the future we can have peace and Korea will be a unified country again, like Vietnam.”
But for years, Chinese leaders have tried to show their North Korean counterparts the merits of market reforms by a communist state.
“You can say that North Korea and Vietnam are both socialist states, but North Korea is actually a dictatorship run by a family for 70 years,” said Tran Ngoc Vuong, a professor at Vietnam National University and a political commentator. “We have never had any dictatorship by either a family or an individual.”
Although Vietnam has pursued market reforms and was a strong supporter of the now shelved Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with the United States and other countries, the Communist Party has shown little sign of embracing political reform.
A number of dissidents have been jailed in recent months. In 2017, Germany accused Vietnamese operatives of traveling to Berlin to kidnap a Vietnamese businessman who was seeking asylum in Germany.
It was the kind of brazen scheme that might be familiar to North Korea, where Mr. Kim is believed to have ordered the assassination of his estranged half brother in a plot that involved two women, one Vietnamese, smearing a nerve agent on the victim’s face in an airport in Malaysia.
On Monday, Lee Howard Ho Wun, an Australian impersonator of Mr. Kim, was forced to leave Hanoi, soon after he and a fake Mr. Trump were detained during a publicity stunt in the Vietnamese capital.
“It just proves that all dictatorships fear any forms of satire,” the ersatz Mr. Kim wrote in a Facebook post, “even something as trivial as an impersonator.”