Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Pham Quoc Hung felt calm when the end finally came.
It was the morning of April 30, 1975, and North Vietnamese tanks were rumbling towards their final military objective: Saigon.
Those tanks were a sign that the war in Vietnam was finally over, said Hung, recounting the last hours, 40 years ago today, of the country once known as the Republic of Vietnam, and the fall of its former capital, Saigon, to North Vietnamese forces.
“I felt calm because I could expect the result,” said the 75-year-old Hung, who was a battlefield photographer with the defeated South Vietnamese army at that time.
After years covering the war that brought so much death and destruction on his country, Hung said he wasn’t filled with dread at the prospect of a Communist victory. He was just relieved that peace would finally arrive.
“I wasn’t afraid because I never had a gun. I was a reporter,” he said. “I had nothing to regret.”
When the last American helicopter flew out of Saigon on the morning of April 30, 1975, more than 58,000 US military personnel had been killed in the war. So many more Vietnamese had died that it is difficult to calculate. Estimates range from 1.5 million to more than 3.5 million Vietnamese killed in fighting from the mid-1950s until the war’s end in 1975.
Predictions of a bloodbath after the fall of Saigon proved entirely false. Hung and other low-ranking soldiers of the defeated South Vietnam spent time undergoing “hoc tap”, or re-education.
Hung spent just a few days undergoing re-education. Senior officers and other officials of the defeated South would have to spend longer in hoc tap, and in harsh conditions. Some never returned.
The war seems like a very distant memory among the gleaming high-rise buildings in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, the new name for the old Saigon. High-end stores sell Hugo Boss, Chanel, and Chopard to the city’s nouveau riche, and McDonald’s caters to the aspiring middle class.
Old symbols still have their place in this one-party state though.
In preparation for what is officially called Reunification Day, the city’s streets were awash in newly made hammer and sickle flags and rousing billboards and posters, featuring tanks and soldiers with AK-47 rifles, extolled the military victory of four decades ago and the glory of the Communist Party.
A huge digital screen on the front of the luxury, twin-towered Vincom shopping mall beamed the same propaganda messages across the city’s skyline: Marxist slogans with capitalist spending power never looked so good.
Embracing the free market, Vietnam’s economy has gone from one of the worst to one of the hottest in Southeast Asia in the past 20 years.
Vietnam’s foreign relations have taken the same 180-degree route. The United States is no longer the enemy, and Americana culture appears to be winning the “hearts and minds” of a new generation of young Vietnamese peacefully.
“To say that Vietnamese love American culture is an understatement,” the state-run Thanh Nien newspaper declared in a recent article.
The article featured a Vietnamese author whose autobiography about marrying an American man and living the “American dream” has become a bestseller in Vietnam. Since publication, young Vietnamese women have contacted the author seeking her advice on how to “land an American husband”, Thanh Nien reported.
“This is a country where young people often queue in long lines for a new Hollywood blockbuster, or a new Starbucks store. On busy streets in Ho Chi Minh City, it is easy to find teenage girls wearing American outfits, humming a Miley Cyrus song,” Thanh Nien added.
On the foreign relations and defence fronts, the once bitter enemies, Washington and Hanoi, have found common cause in bolstering ties to counterbalance emerging China and its claims to territory in the South China Sea.
Winners and losers
Closer to home, post-war reconciliation is still a fraught subject among the Vietnamese themselves, and not everyone will be celebrating today’s anniversary.
“No one invited me,” Hung, the former combat photographer, says jokingly of the April 30th festivities, which he views as a celebration dedicated to the winner.
Others interviewed said they felt the same way, recounting instances of discrimination in education and employment opportunities over the years because of their family links to the vanquished South Vietnam.
It is only then that all people, including children of families whose fathers were on the other side, could truly recognise that this country, this nation, is theirs.
Reconciliation is still a work in progress, wrote Tran Huu Quang, a leading Vietnamese sociologist, in a 2013 essay on the subject.
“Old wounds continue to bleed unnecessarily,” Quang wrote, because of “excessive propaganda” focused on “one side’s achievements in warfare and victory”.
Quang suggests that the Vietnamese government could foster reconciliation by reducing the “symbols and discourses celebrating the 1975 warfare victory in mass media, especially at traditional national festivals”.
“It is only then that all people, including children of families whose fathers were on the other side, could truly recognise that this country, this nation, is theirs,” he wrote.
On the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, there are two symbols of Vietnam’s slow progress towards reconciling with the past.
A short drive beyond the luxury condominiums that line the new, multilane highway on the northern suburbs of the city, there is a tranquil place of remembrance for fallen soldiers.
Symbols of reconciliation
Frangipani trees shade the narrow, grass-fringed paths between the thousands of immaculately kept graves at the Ho Chi Minh City Martyrs’ Cemetery. Here, friends and family leave flowers and burn incense for their dead. Veterans who survived leave lighted cigarettes at the headstone of their old comrades.
“Mother Vietnam”, a 30m-tall stone monument of a woman holding a draped Vietnamese flag, is the centrepiece of this cemetery, which is reserved for “liberation” forces who were killed fighting the French, Americans, the South Vietnamese, and Pol Pot’s forces in neighbouring Cambodia. Tourists are free to roam here without questions.
A short drive away on a winding side-road and hidden behind a high brick wall topped by rusted barbed wire, there is another soldiers’ cemetery. This is the former cemetery for officers and soldiers of the defeated Saigon regime.
The cemetery was a military zone and off-limits for many years after 1975.
In 2006, in the spirit of belated reconciliation, the cemetery was turned over to civilian control. Yet, almost a decade later and the cemetery still wears its years of neglect badly. Workers at the cemetery are not used to visitors, and they keep a close watch on those who venture here.
Harsh sun and rain has washed the names off many of the concrete headstones. Some graves are nothing but mounds of raised earth surrounded by fallen leaves in which chickens scratched for food on a recent morning. Dotted here and there, a renovated grave stood out, making the neglected graves nearby seem all the sadder.
The soldiers buried here were once enemies of those in the pristine Martyrs’ cemetery. But, take a moment, and you notice something both sides now have in common: the young age at which these men and women fought and died. Many were in their early 20s.
Carrying a small bunch of incense sticks, a lone visitor stepped carefully among the unkempt graves, stopping briefly to place a single stick at each grave.
Asked if he had family buried here, the young man said no. He didn’t know to whom he was making his small offering of incense. But, each April, he said, he made the trip to this graveyard to offer a small memorial to the forgotten soldiers that are buried here.
“They are not my family,” he said, using a lighter to ignite another bunch of incense sticks before moving off to another row of graves.
“But, I must do this,” he said. “They died for their ideals.”