Colourful propaganda posters and vintage war-era relics decorate a downtown cafe in the former capital of South Vietnam. Young waitresses in olive drab fatigues and military caps serve coffee and smoothies to tourists and locals.

The vibe at Cong Caphe, a franchise that describes itself as “a hipster cafe and lounge of Vietnam,” is tongue-in-cheek, a playful look at the imagery of the past and a far cry from solemn memorials located nearby, such as the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace, where the fall of Saigon had its final act on April 30, 1975.

Stepping out the doors of the cafe into Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, is to encounter a city that feels light-years removed from the images of war: a non-stop whir of traffic and construction cranes as high-rise office towers, glitzy malls and new infrastructure projects spring up in every direction. From McDonalds and Starbucks to craft beer watering holes and artisanal pizza restaurants, this city of 13 million has fully joined the ranks of other fast-growing Asian metropolises.

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But the unbridled consumerism on display has left more than a few wondering which side truly “won” the war that ended more than 40 years ago.

In Vietnam, divisions remain between those who were loyal to the North and the South. The one-party system that emerged from the war maintains control over large segments of the economy, with rampant corruption and a form of crony capitalism that can limit opportunities for all but the well-connected. Free expression remains extremely limited, and Vietnam ranks far down the list in terms of human rights.

Many in the older generation say a true reconciliation between the two sides of the war has never even been attempted.

“Vietnam is still divided,” says 78-year-old Nguyen Huu Thai, an architect and author who worked undercover for the National Liberation Front.

Younger Vietnamese, meanwhile, are taught only a propaganda version of history that leaves a vacuum, says Nguyen Dang, 26, an associate communications professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Young people seem to have no context or very little context about recent history,” she says.

Some are trying to bridge that gap. Researcher Phan Khac Huy, 33, offers a historical walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City called “Saigon Then and Now.”

He says many Vietnamese who take his tour are deeply unfamiliar with the history of the city where they live.

“We want to help people understand what happened in the past in order to improve the country in the right way,” he says. “We want them to understand the roots of the problems, and to stay here to solve the problems together.”

Yet for many Vietnamese, the temptation to leave for greener pastures abroad is strong.

Hoang Mai Anh, 30, who recently moved to Vancouver for graduate studies in business administration, says: “We millennials talk about this so much. In theory, a developing country should have many niche markets, and people should have many chances. But those chances are only for the people with a lot of connections.”

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese study abroad each year. The concern is that many of them won’t return, creating a “brain drain” that will deprive the country of its most talented young people.

The government seems to recognise the problem and has begun a sweeping crackdown on corruption.

At the same time, the growth of internet access and the spread of social media have driven the emergence of a more politically active segment of the population than Vietnam has ever seen.

Journalist and blogger Huy Duc, whose 2013 book The Winning Side is one of the few Vietnamese-language accounts to take a critical look at the end of the war and its aftermath, says he is starting to see a change. While his book remains banned in Vietnam, it is widely accessible online. “No matter how open the government is, the Vietnamese people have many ways to access the truth,” he says. “I think the government is smart enough to know that.”

The government has recently begun pushing back, however, calling for tighter controls on the internet. President Tran Dai Quang said in an article on the government’s official website that Vietnam needs to find ways to address “hostile forces” that have been using websites and blogs “for posting toxic content and organising campaigns to blacken the reputation of leaders of the Party and State”.

The country has also been arresting and prosecuting high-profile bloggers.

And yet, from the country’s war-torn past, a solid middle class is emerging, and the country remains one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. The bigger questions are how fast and how far Vietnam will go and what type of society it will ultimately become. To many, at least part of the answer will have to start with an honest look backward.

“We can’t find a path to the future without understanding the past,” says Huy Duc.

This article first appeared in our sister publication, USA Today.