“Everyone was puzzled,” says Nguyen Qui Duc. “Many people had moved away. Along the streets, some houses were closed, others were locked. I started to worry. The news about the war just made me more nervous.”
He was 17 years old in April of 1975, and had just arrived in Saigon from Danang. His father had been imprisoned somewhere in the north since the Tet Offensive of 1968 — he had been working as an official in the South Vietnamese government (Republic of Vietnam). His mother was stuck in Danang while trying to come to Saigon the day after Duc left — there were no other planes making the trip. “Every day, I went to the airport to see if there were any planes arriving from the central provinces. But there weren’t.”
As the North Vietnamese staged their final blitzkrieg and their tanks knocked down the metal gate of Saigon’s Independence Palace and rolled onto its lawn, throngs of Vietnamese were clamouring to get aboard already overcrowded helicopters flying out of Vietnam.
Duc arranged to flee the country with his uncle’s family. They were jammed on a boat to Phu Quoc Island, then one week later, herded onto a ferry with about 3,000 other refugees heading to Guam before an airplane took them to Arkansas in the United States.
Duc left behind his beloved parents, sisters and his home country.
After the Liberation
Inside the country, after the liberation, the city’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City. Soldiers of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) were feeling optimistic — not only had they won the war, but their long and brutal struggle had finally come to an end.
“Our first thought was all about the fact that now we could return to our homes and reunite with our families,” says 83-year-old colonel Tran Minh Hong. “I think even the soldiers who drove the tank into the Independence Palace shared that feeling.” Hong served in the army for both the French and American Wars, and participated in both Dien Bien Phu and the central region’s bloody clashes.
Since that historical day, both Duc and Hong went on their separate paths. But looking back on that day, 40 years later, both have mixed feelings.
As Duc landed in a new country, he started his life again. He did all sort of jobs from painting houses to selling hamburgers — and later, he studied to become a journalist. He translated English writings about Vietnam for Vietnamese refugees who felt disconnected from their homeland. He also translated Vietnamese work into English for American citizens, so that they knew more about the lives of those on the other side of the globe.
His journalism took him through the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the airwaves of the BBC and public radio in San Francisco. He wanted to tell his people’s stories, not just of the suffering people in the south, but also the sorrow of the mother in the north who lost her children during the war — stories with universal meaning that those on one side of the conflict had not been told about the other.
America brought him many opportunities — career-wise at least. But deep inside, Duc never stopped wanting to come back to Vietnam.
“I’ve never liked living in America,” he says. “At the age of 17, I had encountered many things in life: I had seen the war and the deaths that it brought. I listened to Vietnamese music, I read Vietnamese poems and absorbed Vietnamese culture and society. When I came to another country that didn’t have such things, I felt uncomfortable.”
Duc’s father was released from prison in 1980, and four years later Duc sponsored his parents’ emigration to the US. After 16 years apart, he was finally reunited with his father.
“If he had died, it would have been different,” he says, his voice husky with feeling. “We would have been very sad but then continued to live our life.
“But as we didn’t have his news for so long, it felt as if I was under a yoke the whole time. I couldn’t allow myself to enjoy life. I received a scholarship to study art, but how could I draw when I assumed that my parents were suffering back home?”
In 1989, he finally came back to visit Vietnam for the first time. Then in 2006, he decided to move to Hanoi. He now owns the eclectic lounge bar and café Tadioto, a popular gathering spot for both expats and locals.
After liberation, Colonel Hong stayed in Can Tho and Saigon for a few months to take charge of infrastructure and property left by the South Vietnamese government. Then, in October 1975, he returned to Hanoi and continued to serve in the Ministry of Defence.
In 1982, he quit the military and moved to settle down in Saigon. When Vietnam imposed the policy of Doi Moi in 1986, Hong saw firsthand the change it made in peoples’ lives.
“Before that, the lives of people here [in Ho Chi Minh City] were very tough and poor. People couldn’t do business in an open way, but had to do it secretly. That reform policy finally helped Ho Chi Minh City to use its potential and strength — as it had more experience of capitalism during the colonial time. Its people were used to the market-oriented system, and the public infrastructure was also better than in the north. The links with Viet Kieu also brought more foreign currency flowing into the city.”
Today, looking at the development of the Vietnamese economy and people’s living standards, both Duc and Hong feel that the promise of the country is finally arriving. But they see much work ahead.
With the country’s bloody wars in the past, there are new battles to fight: against corruption, unbalanced development, the loss of cultural and historical values, even the loss of Vietnam’s natural beauty. But people like Duc and Hong went through the biggest trial Vietnam had to face in the last century, and can only be optimistic about the country’s will to overcome its future challenges.