Saigon's Fall, Saigon's Rebirth: 25 Years Later

Vietnam's long war ended 25 years ago, on April 30, 1975. Like a passerby staring at the wreckage of a road accident, I watched the fall of Saigon on television in Connecticut with my new family. Like millions of Americans, I was mesmerized by the collapse of a country where half-a-million American soldiers fought and 50,000 died.

I was lucky. Barely twelve, I left Saigon a month before its fall with an American officer whom I had befriended in an army hospital, where my mother and I volunteered. That was 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. We brought him rice porridge, chocolate eclairs, tamarind candy. He spoke French with me. As he lay bandaged, I told stories that made him laugh. Seven years later, as North Vietnamese tanks crossed the DMZ, he returned and adopted me, taking me out several months before my parents made their own escape.

From the safety of our living room we watched as crowds of Vietnamese forced their way into the guarded US compounds. Helicopters skittered on the Embassy's rooftop. This was ‘Operation Frequent Wind,' code-name for America's evacuation from Saigon. There was an exodus by air, towards the Seventh Fleet patrolling the South China Sea; an exodus by sea saw waves of barges, fishing boats and other makeshift vessels. More than 100,000 Vietnamese fled in April and May of 1975 alone, a number swelling to 2 million in the years after.

Wars are often incomprehensible to those who live through them. The beginning; the end; the beginning of the end: these are historians' questions. Those who survived the war in Vietnam and fled because we were suddenly on history's losing side, grappled with questions of forgetting, of how to live an unremembered life – unremembered until an anniversary like this one. April 30: the Day of Liberation as it is known in Communist Vietnam; the Day of National Loss, as Vietnam's exiles call it.

Reinvented by Hollywood for American self-examination, recrimination, and regret, Vietnam became an allegorical black hole. In films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, shadowy enemies lurk in an hallucinatory darkness of fetid swamps and jungles. Symbols of disillusion abound in Born on the Fourth of July, where a flag-waving patriot is transfigured into an antiwar demonstrator. The Deer Hunter conceives of Vietnam as a metaphor for insanity, the arbitrary click of a gun in a game of Russian roulette signaling the difference between life and death for American GIs addicted to the madness of war and hell in a very small place.

Years after the war, Vietnam remained a buzzword for something else, never for itself; a short-hand for disaster. But for us Vietnamese who made America our new country, Vietnam remains home, a place of controlled forgetting and even more controlled remembering. In that grey space between remembering and forgetting, most of us invented new lives.

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So, for many Vietnamese, April 30 is a day of re-invention and rebirth. Twenty five years after Saigon's fall, most of us have inched away from the margins of American life. We learned English, managed America's raucous sounds, even as we preserved our multiple versions of the old. Across America, in Orange County in California, in Houston and Dallas, Arlington and Falls Church, Virginia, Saigon has been resurrected. In these "Little Saigons," mini- malls are filled with American-style Vietnamese supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, nail and hair salons, medical and law offices, travel agencies, and every type of service business. Ice cream parlors are called "Givrard" and "Brodard", and restaurants "Pasteur," after those once frequented in Saigon. South Vietnam's flag of yellow with three red horizontal stripes often flies side-by-side with the Star-Spangled banner.

Vietnam remembered remains the stuff of dreams, a voluptuous mix of reproduced scent and sound. For the generation raised as hyphenated Americans, Vietnam hovers in the recesses of their lives, through stories told by parents and, increasingly, in this technological age, with a click to such websites as ‘Viet.story', ‘Viet.travel', etc. VC nowadays means not Vietcong, but venture capitalist.

Twenty five years after the exodus from Vietnam, a reverse exodus is taking place. The Viet Kieu, as the Vietnamese diaspora is called, are returning by the thousands, bringing to Vietnam the precious American dollar. There, we find ice cream parlors called "Baskin-Robbins," restaurants owned by locals called "Café California," and bars with names like "Apocalypse Now." For those left behind, it is America that is the stuff of dreams, the American passport that is admired.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a name not even Communist officials use, Saigon remains its old brash, energetic, and audacious self. In the city that bears his name, Ho Chi Minh is more or less ignored, although his portraits loom alongside Sony and Coca Cola signs. Before 1986, it was a crime to own a private business. As a result of economic reforms, the private economy, especially in Saigon, surpasses the official state economy. In the city's markets, on sidewalks and in alleyways, everyone peddles something. After twenty five years of collapsed expectations, you feel a raw energy in the roar of motorbikes that weave through improvisational waves of traffic, in the spirit of a city revived.

Four years ago, I gave a series of lectures at the invitation of the Ministry of Education and squeezed in a visit with my uncle, a Vietcong who stayed behind after the Communist victory. What he wanted to learn was how his Mekong Delta province could attract some of the foreign investment going mostly to Saigon. Hanoi's officials, too, resent that investors fly to their city to get approval for deals, only to do business in the South.

April 30 is indeed called the Day of Liberation in Vietnam: 1.5 million Vietnamese died during that war; 3 million were wounded. But as my uncle suggests, perhaps it was the South that ultimately liberated the North.

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