Vietnam Remains Divided by War 40 Years Later

People ride past a billboard marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. (PHOTO CREDIT: Le Quang Nhat, European Pressphoto Agency)
People ride past a billboard marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. (PHOTO CREDIT: Le Quang Nhat, European Pressphoto Agency)

This bustling city of 8 million that is still called Saigon by many is going all out to celebrate Thursday’s 40th anniversary of its fall — the day North Vietnam’s Communist army captured South Vietnam’s capital.

Propaganda posters and billboards marking Liberation Day blanket a downtown brimming with construction cranes and new high-rise buildings. City landmarks such as the old French colonial city hall and post office have gotten fresh coats of paint. A massive military parade is in the works and a shiny new statue of the North’s iconic leader, Ho Chi Minh, waits to be unveiled on a renovated central square.

Yet even as the now-united country trumpets the North’s victory over American invaders during a devastating conflict that left more than 3 million Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 American troops dead, bitter rifts over the civil war remain deep and unresolved.

For journalist and author Huy Duc, the first step towards reconciliation is to acknowledge the very different perspectives on why the war was fought. That has yet to take place.

“Vietnamese people from both sides have to agree on what happened,” he said. “People who were sent from the North believed that they fought against the invading Americans and were liberating the South. And many people from the South … believe it was a civil war, that the South was invaded by the North.”

Architect Nguyen Huu Thai, 75, had a front-row seat for the last moments of the war. A student leader in Saigon in the 1960s, he later secretly worked for the North as a member of the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, that fought U.S. troops in South Vietnam.

“The reconciliation clock stopped in 1975,” said Thai. “Even 40 years later, I still search for real reconciliation.”

At noon on April 30, 1975, Thai was at Independence Palace, home to the South Vietnamese president, as the first North Vietnamese tank came crashing through the front gate — an image memorialized on banners all over the city. He helped a soldier find his way to the roof of the building to hang the NLF flag.

“When we raised the flag, I thought: ‘This is not only 30 years of fighting ending, but 117 years,'” he said, counting back to the arrival of French colonial troops in 1858. “Tears were running down my face. It was so emotional, so important.”

Afterwards, Thai helped organize the radio broadcast in which South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh announced his surrender over the airwaves. As the day came to a close, he recalled it being the quietest night he had ever experienced: “All of my life, there were no peaceful times,” he said. “Until the night of the 30th. It was such a strange thing for me. In the sky, no more planes, no more flares. On the street, no more military cars racing around.”

The tranquil early moments after the end of the war did not last long, however, as the new regime quickly began a period of harsh crackdowns and waves of desperate Vietnamese fled the country. “The winners still had the mentality of war,” said Thai.

D.M. Thanh, a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, faced the morning of April 30 with dread. “The bright side was that the war had ended, and there wouldn’t be any more fighting,” he said. “On the other hand, I was very worried. I didn’t know what my future would be.”

Thanh, like thousands of other South Vietnamese officers, was sent to a re-education camp, where he spent 12 years subject to backbreaking labor, extreme deprivation and Marxist indoctrination. His wife was pregnant with their son when he was sent away and Thanh only saw them twice during his confinement. After he was released, he took over a flower shop his parents owned and has lived quietly since.

Thanh said he doesn’t talk about the past with his son, but the memories haunt him. “I forgive, but I can never forget,” Thanh said, his eyes welling up.

Vietnam’s lack of reconciliation is a theme Duc addresses in his book, The Winning Side, a far more frank and open look at the final days of the war and its aftermath than is found in official Vietnamese literature. The book has not been published in tightly censored Vietnam, but it has been widely read around the country online and in bootleg editions.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Thomas Maresca