HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) _ Vietnam celebrated its stunning victory over the world's No. 1 superpower 25 years ago with a remarkably unwarlike parade Sunday and hopes it can battle its way out of poverty in the new millennium.

Aging architects of that victory over the United States and its South Vietnamese allies saluted as thousands of soldiers, students, women in flowing ao dais _ the traditional tunic and trousers _ and barefooted mountain tribespeople filed past on the grounds of the Reunification Palace.

The day belonged to a man who died three decades ago, independence hero Ho Chi Minh, whose three-story portrait hung from the palace facade. But the mood was more akin to a springtime festival than a remembrance of war.

The heaviest weapons to be seen were assault rifles, and most units marched without them. Patriotic songs like ``Uncle Ho Lives in the Great Victory Day,'' alternated with lilting, dance-like numbers during the 1 1/2-hour parade.

``Vietnam looks back to the future,'' a headline in the official English-language Vietnam News said.

Also marking the anniversary were the release of more than 12,000 prisoners, including convicted murderers, in the country's biggest-ever amnesty and a mass wedding of 25 couples at a downtown park.

In the day's only speech, Ho Chi Minh City mayor Vo Viet Thanh focused on economic problems in Vietnam, among the world's poorest nations with an average yearly per capita income of $370.

A higher economic growth rate, elimination of corruption and less restrictive policies, Thanh said, were among the city's goals in the 21st century. He stressed that ``every favorable condition'' would be afforded foreign investors.

With some 20,000 people gathered on the palace grounds, Thanh recalled the war that ended April 30, 1975, when tanks 390 and 843 smashed through the gates of what was then known as Independence Palace and communist soldiers hoisted their flag atop the building.

The fall of the city, then called Saigon, was the last act of a tragic drama which saw two halves of the country, South and North Vietnam, locked in fratricidal combat and the unleashing of American war technology on a rural society.

``For what Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City can enjoy today, the entire nation has paid 30 years of continuous fighting, the loss of millions of human lives and the loss of the most beloved members of millions of families,'' he said.

``I'm very happy because on this day our country was reunified,'' said Huynh Ngoc Thi, a lovely 25-year-old woman dressed in a jungle-green uniform who rode atop a replica of tank 843. Her grandfather died fighting the French colonialists, said the recreation park employee, but like more than half of Vietnam's 76 million people, she was born after 1975 and has no memory of war.

However, many on the palace grounds did. They included uniformed veterans with rows of medals jangling on their chests and members of a wartime women's underground unit. Now wrinkled and gray-haired, some of those in attendance said they spent years of their youth in South Vietnamese prisons.

Among the dignitaries on the reviewing stand were 88-year-old Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, dubbed the ``Red Napoleon,'' who successfully led North Vietnamese forces against both the French and Americans, and Gen. Van Tien Dung, commander of the final offensive against South Vietnam.

Bai Thi Lien, a 45-year-old woman who served in an engineering unit on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, came several hundred miles to be at the celebrations.

``I have seen many changes over the last 25 years. There have been many difficulties. But things are getting better and better,'' she said. Lien spent three years on the trail, a communist lifeline that funneled troops and supplies from North Vietnam to battlefields in the south.

The jury is still out on Vietnam's foreseeable future.

Poverty has been considerably reduced, the once-famine prone country is now one of the world's top rice exporters and its relative isolation from the world's financial and economic systems served as a shield from the worst of the Asian economic crisis.

But basic reforms have been slow, corruption is rife and foreign investment has dropped dramatically with many companies fed up by ever-changing, largely unfavorable regulations.

Along with just Laos, China, North Korea and Cuba, Vietnam clings to a one-party communist rule which allows little dissent or public participation in decision-making _ something reflected in Sunday's celebrations.

It was hardly a people's parade, with the palace grounds off-limits to the general public and the surrounding streets cordoned off by police. Only a scattering of Vietnamese and foreign tourists were allowed through the security barriers.

``We found many things familiar to us from the old East Germany,'' said Ischlar Smolny, a young German tourist from what was once East Berlin. ``Like there, 90 percent of this ceremony was for and by the government.''

But her companion, Christel Thoms, added: ``The atmosphere here is much lighter and very friendly. There it was hard. People were not even allowed to smile.''