The fall of Saigon

Twenty-five years ago next week, James Fenton found himself at the centre of one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century. Here, the poet and former Independent journalist recalls how, as a 26-year-old freelance reporter, he witnessed the chaotic and terrifying final act of the Vietnam War
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The Independent Online

The Paris peace treaty of January 1973 formally ended America's direct military engagement in Vietnam, sealing the doctrine of "Vietnamisation" of the conflict. For a while, the focus in Southeast Asia shifted to the Khmer Rouge offensive in neighbouring Cambodia. But in early 1975, South Vietnam's resistance suddenly collapsed. The former imperial capital of Hue fell to the North Vietnamese army on 26 March, followed on 29 March by Da Nang, the South's second city, almost without resistance. On 17 April, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, to complete the conquest of Cambodia. Four days later President Thieu resigned in Saigon, a city now at the mercy of Hanoi's troops.

The Paris peace treaty of January 1973 formally ended America's direct military engagement in Vietnam, sealing the doctrine of "Vietnamisation" of the conflict. For a while, the focus in Southeast Asia shifted to the Khmer Rouge offensive in neighbouring Cambodia. But in early 1975, South Vietnam's resistance suddenly collapsed. The former imperial capital of Hue fell to the North Vietnamese army on 26 March, followed on 29 March by Da Nang, the South's second city, almost without resistance. On 17 April, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, to complete the conquest of Cambodia. Four days later President Thieu resigned in Saigon, a city now at the mercy of Hanoi's troops.

On 24 April 1975, the day before my 26th birthday, I boarded the plane from Bangkok for Saigon. In the seat next to me was a man named Garth W Hunt, the Field Secretary for Asia of Living Bibles International, who was on his way to get his team out of Vietnam. His team was a "hard core" of 10 to 15 translators who produced the Vietnamese Living Bible, plus a "broad base" of theological and stylistic reviewers. Then there were the consultants ("men of stature, recognised in their own field"), including literary consultants, exegetical consultants, theological consultants, technical consultants and editorial consultants. Each of these had a family and dependants, and most of them wanted out.

Living Bibles International is an evangelical organisation with strong, unmistakable political leanings. "God loves the sinner but he hates the sin," said Mr Hunt, and in this case the sin was communism, which God certainly despised. So did Living Bibles International: at the present moment, their powerful transmitters were broadcasting the Chinese translation of the Living Bible at dictation speed into the People's Republic. "International boundaries," said Garth W Hunt, "can't keep out God's message."

They'd had no luck in North Vietnam, although they had asked to work there. But in the South they had always had tremendous co-operation from the government. A translation of The Gospel According to Saint Mark, the only thing this vast organisation had so far completed, had already sold 120,000 copies. It had been broadcast over the radio, and was distributed in camps and refugee centres. An earlier book, produced by a sister organisation, had been distributed to every psychological warfare officer in the country, and also to every Vietnamese embassy and consulate throughout the world. "This book," said Mr Hunt, "became the most influential book in Vietnam, apart from the word of God himself." It was called God Still Performs Miracles.

 

We landed in Saigon, and I got my tourist visa without any trouble - they seemed to be giving the things away. But the customs man confiscated my copies of Time and Newsweek: it was at last impossible to allow too many Saigonese to see the wretched things. One of the covers had a photo of a Saigon soldier with a target drawn over his heart. It was headlined "Target Saigon". The customs man asked, "Do you think...?" and made a sign as if to slit his throat. I told him not to worry. Everything was going to be OK, no sweat.

I checked in at the small hotel near the market where I had stayed before, and went off to dinner at the Continental. The garden was crowded - tout le monde was there. Le Monde was there. The famous Dr Hunter S Thompson was there, surrounded by admirers, and was rumoured to have bought a gun. All the Indochina hands were back for the last act, which to the Americans meant the evacuation. The Washington Post staff had now been ordered, under pain of dismissal, to leave with the Embassy. The New York Times had also ordered its journalists not to stay behind, and the American networks were planning to evacuate. Everyone was talking about the secret password, which would be broadcast when the time came: an announcement that the temperature was 105 and rising, followed by the song "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". It was all very jolly: I had a good meal, and sloughed off some of the misery of Bangkok.

I was woken the next morning by a sharp rap on the door. In came a rather beautiful Vietnamese girl, who plunged, without preliminaries, into a passionate speech. She had been a nightclub dancer, and now she simply must leave Saigon, and I must help her. It was early in the morning and I was rather gruff. She redoubled her efforts. "How can I live with the communists?" she wailed. "I can't spend my money and I can't wear my clothes. I have to wear Vietcong clothes." Then she kneeled on the floor beside my bed and pretended to cry - or gave what was, at best, a terrible imitation. "Please help me," she whined, "please help me leave Saigon." She was offering 300,000 piastres - a large sum for her, but with the soaring black market rate it amounted only to £40.

To earn this money I had only to say that she was my sister, then the Americans would give her papers. She would go to Hawaii, where she would automatically be given a US passport. She had a house in Singapore, which she could sell for $100,000. In addition, she already had $1,500 in greenbacks. The last figure she mouthed with respect and wonder. I decided that the house in Singapore was probably a fiction, and pointed out that the greenbacks would not last very long in the United States. But she had it worked out. She would live in Hawaii and set up a Vietnamese restaurant. There were so many Vietnamese going to Hawaii. She would be able to sell spring rolls and things like that. President Ford had said that two million Vietnamese could go to America. They could go this month, but after that it would be too late. I avoided giving her a definite answer, and she left the room in great distress.

"Three-hundred thousand piastres," people said scornfully. Oh, we've been offered far more than that. Wherever you went, Saigon was using its most ingenious methods, either to get out or to make money out of those who were leaving. It was said that the Americans were also running the rackets. Hopeful young girls would be relieved of their savings and then left stranded. The bars of Tu Do Street had been combed by the talent-spotters of the Philippines. An enormous number of people were caught up in a craze for leaving.

In a friend's hotel, I met a youth of about 20 rushing around asking for help. He had suddenly remembered something his father had given him - the torn end-paper of a book on which was written an American name and address. In his other hand, he carried the wording of a cable: "Please send a cable to American Embassy Saigon accepting responsibility for..." It seemed highly unlikely that the addressee would have any recollection of either father or son. Nevertheless, we told the boy to send the cable with that wording. He didn't know how to send a cable. He did not know why he wanted to go; he knew only that he had to. He confessed that his head was in a spin. From his manner it seemed as if he had about five minutes to get out, or face the firing-squad.

This mad dash for the planes had begun about a week before when it was noticed that the Embassy had started rounding up the people they believed to be in danger when the communists took over. The calls had been carefully conducted under cover of darkness, in the manner of a Stalinist arrest. The criterion was broad. As one of the embassy personnel put it: "The kind of people who know us are the kind of people who would be in trouble." The Embassy was clearing out everyone in its address book, but to do so they also had to take their wives and families, and the families got larger and larger.

The rich Vietnamese also wanted to take their maids. Sometimes this would be challenged at the airport: it was not customary in America to have maids. So the rich Vietnamese would then turn round and dismiss their maids with a wave of the hand.

Then there was a flood of letters to the Embassy from Americans and Vietnamese living in America... Discreet diplomats would pad up the stairs, knock quietly so as not to arouse the neighbours, and deliver the message: "Your son-in-law says you must leave. Can you be ready this time tomorrow night?"

"I don't know. I haven't got a suitcase."

"Couldn't you buy a suitcase?"

"Yes, I think so."

"All right then?"

"What shall I wear?" And so on.

Sometimes these visits must have been welcome. At other times they shattered a few illusions. A man, living not far from my hotel, was a member of the local defence force. I sat up late one night with him and the other members of the force, drinking Vietnamese spirit and chatting about what was going to happen. They were clear about one thing: they would not lift a finger to defend the area from the Vietcong. They had seen the writing on the wall; when the Vietcong arrived, their duties ended. They all talked with admiration for the other side, and there was not a trace of the usual intransigence or panic of Saigon.

The exodus was continuing at a rate of about 10,000 a day. It was estimated at the time that out of each day's departures, 3,000 had Embassy connections, 1,000 were relatives of Americans and 1,000 were friends or contacts of Americans. What about all the rest? When I went to Tan Son Nhuot airport to watch the processing of the evacuees, I found very few who had a clear notion of why they were leaving. Some were North Vietnamese refugees from the 1950s, others were going because they had once worked in PX stores or as ancillary staff on American bases. One woman just did not know why she was going. Her husband had left the North as a young student. Her sister was married to an American, who had insisted that the family should leave. She did not want to do so at all. She was leaving so much behind. For instance, she had saved up for five years in order to buy her son a piano. It had only just arrived. Another man did know. He claimed to have led the National Revolutionary Movement in the days of Diem. "Obviously," he said, "as a journalist you will know what it means to live under communism. No? Then you should not in that case be a journalist."

There were snackstands at the entrance to Tan Son Nhuot set up to cater for the waiting crowd of refugees, many of whom slipped past the guards without any papers. Processing was done in the Defence Attache's Office Compound, one of the last bits of pure America left in Vietnam. The last hurdle was in the gymnasium, under the basketball net. There were old notices reminding you not to bring in your pets, and not to put your hands on the walls. The forms were filled in by sour-looking GIs in olive drab, with daggers hanging from their belts. The prevailing atmosphere was of general menace.

While the American evacuation accelerated, the Vietcong, we later discovered, were filling the place up with their own troops. The operation was haphazard. The soldiers came in wearing Saigon uniforms, in military trucks that had been acquired during the last few months, as the Southern army had retreated in disarray. But the soldiers had no identity cards and must have lived continually on the verge of discovery. They took up positions near important installations in order to take control swiftly when the time came. The students' groups were also working out what to do in order to help in the takeover, and the Chinese, the shrewdest businessmen in Saigon, were already manufacturing the three-coloured flags of the National Liberation Front, in readiness for a quick sale. There must have been a tremendous run on the haberdashers. When red, blue and yellow cloth ran out, they used coloured plastic.

 

One night I was awakened by the sound of three large crashes, and I realised that the rocketing had begun. I went up to the top floor of my hotel (once a bar and billiard room for GIs) where I had a good view over the roofs. Already there was a large fire, fuelled no doubt by the petrol kept in the houses of the poor. Soon a whole block was ablaze, and the fire was spreading. I watched it with mixed feelings: the Vietcong had announced their proximity - the fire, though distant, spelled an immediate danger; nevertheless, a city fire, far enough away, has a terrible splendour. The fire attracted me. The next day I walked around the burnt-out area, a huddled group of makeshift shacks built on an old Catholic graveyard. The fire brigade had refused to put out the blaze until massive bribes had been produced, and a large number of poor people's homes had consequently been destroyed. All this I might have guessed at the time, and yet I was excited by the fire. It seemed to be the curtain-raiser for the last act.

The next morning, 28 April, began dramatically enough. I went out to the edge of the city at about 6.30am, where I found that the Vietcong had come to the very outskirts of Saigon and had closed the road on the other side of the bridge. There were, it turned out, only a few of them, but they served their purpose, calling down a massive amount of firepower where they were ensconced. Saigon brought out all its weapons, and the helicopter gunships blasted away all day. It was not until evening that the road was cleared of a few brave men. After watching this scene for a time, I went back to my room and was reading a book when, without warning, the city became ablaze with rifle fire. I thought: that's it. The insurrection has begun.

Once again, I went up to the top floor, but this time there was nothing to see. There was simply a noise, a massive, unvaried, unstinting noise. It was too uniform. There were meant to be grenades, machine-guns, more variety. I asked a member of the hotel staff. Perhaps a coup d'état, he said, shrugging. That, again, was possible. But then, as suddenly as it had started, the firing ceased. I walked out into the deserted street. No dead bodies. Nobody much around. On the corner I met a soldier, and gave him a quizzical look. "Sorry about that," he said, and turned away.

President Minh at this time would have just finished his speech, calling on the Americans to leave, and on the other side to negotiate. The other side would have been answering that this was not enough - there had to be total unconditional surrender. For it was at the same time, for the first and last time in the war, that the Vietcong air force was brought into play. It had been a masterly piece of timing. These planes had been picked up in the previous months, having been left behind as the provinces north of Saigon had fallen in swift succession and in such disarray. Now these same South Vietnamese planes were used to bomb the Saigon air force. There was no other way in which the Vietcong could ever have used an air force except against an air base. To have done so at that moment was to announce imminent victory, and to make sure that the victory cost them as little blood as possible. As for the firing I heard outside my hotel, the troops had been told of enemy planes on the attack, but they were confused. The plane they were firing at was in fact civilian. It got away.

The incident unnerved people. It was a foretaste, we thought. From now on, anything could happen, and happen swiftly. And when something did happen, there would be nothing we could do about it.

 

The next morning I was woken by the ancient doorman of the hotel, who walked straight into my room carrying one loaf of French bread, two large chunks of palm sugar and a bottle of Coca-Cola. He returned a little later with ice, and insisted I get up and eat. I gathered from a rather complicated conversation that there was still a curfew, and that these were the siege rations. The bread was wrapped in what appeared to be an American Embassy report. As I attempted to eat the sugar and the bread, there was another knock. A young man came in, looking for an American who had promised to get him out of the country. He had been planning to leave from New Port the night before, but the place had been under attack. Now his father, a captain in the army, was waiting outside. We talked for a while. The young man had an infinitely sad face. He was not pushing. He probably knew already that he had missed his last chance. Anyway, he was unclear about why he wanted to leave Vietnam. I told him that he should not leave, since this was his country, and if he left it now he would never get back. He said wistfully: "I like going to the country. My family always goes to the country for holidays. We go to Rach Gia and Ha Tien." I said that Ha Tien was now in the hands of the Vietcong. He said: "Do you think people are happy in Ha Tien?" I said I thought so. We discussed what would happen to his father, and I tried to reassure him. But he left as sadly as he had come in.

The curfew did not seem to be very strict, so I set out to find the other journalists and see what was happening. Saigon looked beautiful that morning, with its deserted streets. Everyone was smiling. There were families standing in the doorways, smiling. A group of soldiers passed, smiling. A beggar girl in a tattered silk blouse, to whom I gave some money, ran laughing along beside me. She was young, with an idiot look and no teeth. Clearly the curfew did not apply to idiots. There was a Sunday morning atmosphere. I felt very happy, as if I were in some English town, setting out to buy the Sunday papers. On the way I met one of my friends from the local defence force, who told me that the airport had been attacked during the night. I appeared to have slept through everything.

At the Continental all the journalists were talking about the previous night's fighting at the airport. They had seen planes shot down with Strela missiles and this, coupled with the previous day's panic when the airport had been bombed, convinced several people that they should leave. Others who had not intended to stay on were having difficulty making up their minds. I felt very excited, but did not consider going. The same principle that had taken me from Phnom Penh would keep me in Saigon. I had made my decision in advance. But I can't deny that I felt a certain superiority to those rushing around, paying their bills, gathering their stuff together, or dithering.

There was a strong move that all the British journalists remaining behind, one of whom was keen to acquire a gun, should stick together. The main worry for those staying on was that the "friendlies" might get nasty. One of the calculations of those leaving was that the Vietcong would certainly be nasty. As a Beaverbrook reporter said to me. "I wouldn't like to be interrogated by them. You know, they have methods..."

"I doubt if it would come to that," I said.

"Have you ever done any work with the Americans?" he asked.

"No. I was never here with the Americans."

"Well, I can think of things I've done, places I've been and so on, that I'd find very difficult to explain away."

I never found out exactly what he meant. As the hotel emptied I looked at the garden and was reminded of Coleridge: "Well, they are gone and here I must remain. This Lime-tree bower my prison." I said: "Won't it be nice to have the place to ourselves." This remark was considered incredibly irritating.

I had to get my possessions and bring them to the Continental. As I walked along the street people asked me why I had not left yet. "Are you French or Australian?" they asked. One small restaurant was open, in which a group of lieutenants were sitting eating Chinese chicken and drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label. They invited me to join them, which I did with some diffidence since they were obviously out to get drunk, and might therefore become aggressive. They began by explaining that they would sit there until they were killed. I tried to say that I thought they were wrong, but when I explained why, I saw at once that I had gone too far. Ice formed over the conversation. "How long did you spend with the communists.?" they asked. I said I hadn't been with the communists.

Hitherto we had been talking in English. Then we switched to French. They were amused, they said, that when I started speaking in French I began to tremble.

I was afraid that I had fallen into the hands of precisely those "friendlies" who were supposed to turn nasty. I reached out for a piece of chicken and nonchalantly picked up the head. It was not the part I had had in mind, but I bit into the eyeballs with great gusto, and sucked out the brains. The ice was finally broken when one of the officers asked in Cambodian whether I spoke Khmer. A little, I said, and we exchanged a few phrases. These men belonged to a breed that was just on the verge of extinction - the nattily dressed, well-groomed, gun-toting, sunglass-wearing, American-style, narcissistic junior officer. The weight of their impending extinction bore down upon them.

Inevitably, the conversation returned to the impending takeover. I asked them why they were afraid. They were well aware, they said, that in Phnom Penh the people had greeted the Khmer Rouge with open arms. But they said that that was just for appearances. Afterwards there would be a settling of accounts. They insisted again that they were going to die. I bade them farewell. They repeated that they were going to sit there drinking all day, until they died.

 

Some people get rich on others' misfortunes, and it appeared that I was one of them. I became, during the course of the day, acting bureau chief of The Washington Post. I had a bureau! The keys were waiting for me in the office, together with a charming farewell note from the staff. I had a pleasant young Vietnamese assistant, who was good enough to show me how to open the drawer to get at the office petty cash. The office was well equipped: I could have moved in to live. Nice bathroom, plenty of books, fridge, bottle of Polish vodka in the fridge. I settled down to work, assuming that the evacuation had begun, since there was now a fairly large amount of helicopter activity over the city. I had also assumed that the operation would be conducted as quickly as it had been in Phnom Penh. But this was not so. A few moments later I got a phone call from The Washington Post's former Bureau Chief, David Greenway. He was at the US Embassy. They were stuck. Nobody had come yet, and Embassy staff were getting nervous that the place might be shelled. Oh, and did I want the car keys? They had left the Volkswagen by the Embassy gate.

I went round to the Embassy. The crowd outside had grown, but it had not yet reached the alarming proportions of later in the day. There were shady Koreans, a few stranded Americans and several hundred Vietnamese waiting around or attempting to argue with the Marines on the gate. South Vietnamese Army Officers in mufti would come up and, producing an Embassy visiting card, say: "Excuse me, I'm a good friend of Mr So-and-so. Do you think I could get in?" Greenway appeared on one of the Embassy's turrets and threw down The Washington Post car keys. He had the look of a man convinced that he was about to be shelled, but was far too polite to mention the fact. I went to the car, and found that I lacked the knack of turning the key in the ignition. It had always been troublesome, and I had never driven the thing before. In fact, I had never, I remembered suddenly, learnt how to drive. As I tried to start it I became nervous at being so close to the Embassy. There was a sound of rifle-fire nearby, and around the Embassy the police would occasionally shoot in the air when some angry man became too importunate. I decided to abandon the car.

Before too long the large helicopters, the Jolly Green Giants, began to appear, and as they did so the mood of the city suffered a terrible change. There was no way of disguising this evacuation by sleight-of-hand, or, it appeared, of getting it over quickly. The noise of the vast helicopters, as they corkscrewed out of the sky, was a fearful incentive to panic. The weather turned bad. It began to rain. And as the evening grew darker, it seemed as if the helicopters themselves were blotting out the light. It seemed as it the light had gone for ever. All the conditions conspired against calm. All over Saigon there were people who had been promised an escape. There were others, like the officers of the morning, who thought that they would definitely die. And there were others still who for no definite reason went into a flat spin. Always the beating of the helicopter blades reminded them of what was happening. The accumulated weight of the years of propaganda came crashing down upon a terrified city.

The crowd around the Embassy swelled and its desperation increased. It became dangerous to go out on the streets. The looters were out and the cowboys were on their Hondas: who knew what grudge might be worked out on the white face of a passer-by? The first major looting took place at the Brinks building, which had served as a billet for American officers from the earliest days of US involvement in Indochina. It proved a rich source of booty. To add to the confusion of the city, the electricity cut out at around seven in the evening. It was then that I had to make my second move of the day from the Continental to the Caravelle Hotel across the square, where it had finally been decided that we should all stay together for however long it took for order to be restored. A mere matter of lugging a few cases across a small square - but I remember finding it an arduous and frightening task, as the Honda boys drove by shouting "Yankee, go home!" I cursed the Embassy for its bungled withdrawal, and began for the first time to admire John Gunther Dean, the American Ambassador in Phnom Penh who had evacuated at such speed. But here: always the sound of the helicopters, stirring the panic.

Indoors it was all right. Finishing my work in my new office that evening, I came across a note from my nice Vietnamese assistant. It informed me that the office was most likely to be looted by the soldiers and that the assistant had therefore taken home the petty cash. This was the last time I saw the man. Well, easy come, easy go, I thought. I went to the fridge, and broached the Polish vodka. It turned out to be water.

The power cut turned out to be a godsend, since by the time light was restored the majority of the crowd had gone home and the police had regained control of the streets. As the lights went on in the Caravelle Hotel, they found our gallant press corps in the best of spirits. We didn't know how long we would be holed up in the hotel, or in what manner the city would fall.

Most people I think were envisaging a rather slow and bloody takeover, but this did not spoil the brave mood of the evening. We had a distant view of the war. Towards the airport it appeared that an ammunition dump was exploding. Great flames rose up and slowly subsided. It went on for hours, like some hellish furnace from Hieronymus Bosch. If you went up on to the roof itself you could hear the war from every direction. But the city centre had calmed down.

I had one more story to send out. In the foyer of the hotel I found a policeman in mufti, and arranged to walk with him to the Reuters office. It was OK at first, but as we approached the dark area around the cathedral we both became more and more apprehensive. Turning left, we walked down the middle of the road, hand in hand, to keep up each other's spirits. We exhibited all the heroism of children in the dark. To any Vietcong agent, watching from the trees, I should say we must have looked too touching to kill.

 

Early on the morning of 30 April, I went out of my hotel room to be greeted by a group of hysterical Koreans. "The Americans have called off the evacuation!" said one. The group had been unable to get into the Embassy, had waited the whole night and had now given up. Of all the nationalities to fear being stranded in Saigon, the Koreans had most reason. I went up to breakfast in the top-floor restaurant, and saw that there were still a few Jolly Green Giants landing on the Embassy, but that the group on the Alliance Française building appeared to have been abandoned. They were still standing there on the roof, packed tight on a set of steps. Looking up at the sky, they seemed to be taking part in some kind of religious ritual, waiting for a sign. In the Brinks Building, the looting continued. A lone mattress fell silently from a top-floor balcony.

There was one other group at breakfast - an eccentric Frenchman with some Vietnamese children. The Frenchman was explaining to the waiter that there had been some binoculars available the night before, and he wanted to use them again. The waiter explained that the binoculars belonged to one of the hotel guests.

"That doesn't matter," said the Frenchman, "bring them to me." The waiter explained that the binoculars were probably in the guest's room.

"Well go and get them then!" said the Frenchman. It seemed extraordinary that the Frenchman could be so adamant, and the waiter so patient, under the circumstances. I had orange juice and coffee, noting that the croissants were not fresh.

Then I went to the American Embassy, where the looting had just begun. The typewriters were already on the streets outside, there was a stink of urine from where the crowd had spent the night, and several cars had been ripped apart. I did not bother to check what had happened to mine, but went straight into the Embassy with the looters.

The place was packed, and in chaos. Papers, files, brochures and reports were strewn around. I picked up one letter of application from a young Vietnamese student, who wished to become an Embassy interpreter. Some people gave me suspicious looks, as if I might be a member of the Embassy staff - I was, after all, the only one there with a white face - so I began to do a little looting myself, to show that I was entering into the spirit of the thing. Somebody had found a package of razorblades, and removed them all from their plastic wrappers. One man called me over to a wall-safe, and seemed to be asking if I knew the number of the combination. Another was hacking away at an air-conditioner, another dismantling a fridge.

On the first floor there was more room to move, and it was here I came across the Embassy library. I collected the following items: one copy of Peace is not at Hand by Sir Robert Thompson, one of the many available copies of The Road from War by Robert Shaplen, Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (I had been meaning to read it for some time), a copy of a pacification report from 1972, and some Embassy notepaper. Two things I could not take (by now I was not just pretending to loot - I had become quite involved): a reproduction of an 1873 map of Hanoi, and a framed quotation from Lawrence of Arabia, which read: "Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short." Nearby I found a smashed portrait of President Ford, and a Stars and Stripes, mangled in the dirt.

I found one room which had not yet been touched. There were white chairs around a white table, and on the table the ashtrays were full. I was just thinking how eerie it looked, how recently vacated, when the lights went out. At once, a set of emergency lights, photosensitively operated, turned themselves on above each doorway. The building was still partly working; even while it was being torn to pieces, it had a few reflexes left.

From this room, I turned into a small kitchen, where a group of old crones were helping themselves to jars of Pream powdered milk. When they looked up and saw me, they panicked, dropped the powdered milk and ran. I decided that it would be better to leave the building. It was filling up so much that it might soon become impossible to get out. I did not know that there were still some marines on the roof. As I forced my way out of the building, they threw tear-gas down on the crowd, and I found myself running hard, in floods of tears.

Although the last helicopter was just now leaving, people still thought there were other chances of getting out. One man came up to me and asked confidentially if I knew of the alternative evacuation site. He had several plausible reasons why he was entitled to leave. Another man, I remember, could only shout, "I'm a professor, I'm a professor, I'm a professor," as if the fact of his academic status would cause the Jolly Green Giants to swoop down out of the sky and whisk him away.

There was by now a good deal of activity on the streets. Military trucks went to and fro across town, bearing loads of rice, and family groups trudged along, bearing their possessions. As I finished writing my Embassy story, the sirens wailed three times, indicating that the city itself was under attack. I returned to the hotel roof to see what was happening. The group on the Alliance Française building was still there, still waiting for its sign. Across the river, but not far away, you could see the artillery firing, and the battle lines coming closer. Then two flares went up, one red, one white. Somebody said that the white flare was for surrender. In the restaurant, the waiters sat by the radio. I asked them what was happening. "The war is finished," said one.

I looked down into the square. Almost at once, a waiter emerged from the Continental and began to hoist a French tricolour on the flagpole. There were groups of soldiers, apparently front-line troops, sitting down. From the battlefield across the river, the white flares began to go up in great numbers. Big Minh's broadcast had been heard-offering unconditional surrender - and in a matter of minutes the war would be well and truly over.

 

Under such circumstances, what does one do? For the poor of Saigon, the first reaction was to loot as much as possible. For most of the soldiers, it was to give in as quickly as possible, and make oneself scarce. For the victorious troops, for the students and Vietcong sympathisers within the city, it was a question of taking control as quickly as possible. For the reporter, there was a choice: go out and see what was happening, or write about it. It was a cruel choice, but it was clear that the lines would soon either be jammed or go down altogether. For a stringer, the burden of the choice is even greater, since it is during such moments that he earns the fat off which he has to live during the lean years. The first two laws of stringing are: the more you file, the more you earn; and the more you file, the less you learn. I mention this because, throughout the remainder of the day and in the days that followed, all my reactions were underscored by a worry about getting the thing written up, and not just written up but sent out. Whereas all my instincts were not to write at all. In the end the instincts won, hands down.

I took a lift with Brian Barron of the BBC along with his small crew, who had remained after their American counterparts had already left. We went out towards the Newport Bridge, in a small car driven by a Vietnamese. The Union Jack was flying from the aerial, and the BBC sign was clearly displayed. As we drove along past the lines of anxious faces, it became clear to me that I had come with the wrong crew. The soldiers whom we tried to film thought

that the BBC had been on the side of the Vietcong. It had been denounced by Thieu, and now, in the moment of defeat, was no time to be flying the Union Jack. There was a large amount of military activity on the roads: truckloads of soldiers returning from the front. There was one bulldozer racing back from the bridge, with a whole platoon sitting in the scoop. The tanks were waiting by the tank-traps, many of them with their crew still in position. As we stopped to film them, I noticed one soldier fingering a grenade, weighing it thoughtfully in his hand. In the doors of houses, families waited nervously. By Newport Bridge itself, the looting of the American stores was still going on, a desperate last-minute effort which would hold up, in parts of the city, the advance of the victorious troops. The first thing the North Vietnamese and Vietcong saw as they came into Saigon was crowds of looters dragging sacks of rice and cartons of luxury goods. It must have justified their view of the degeneracy of the city.

But they had not yet arrived. Walking up to the top of the bridge, we wondered whether to go on to meet them, or retrace our steps. Then we were called back to the car by the Governor of Gia Dinh.

He looked exceedingly angry and unpleasant - he and one of his officers laden down with pistols and grenades, ready perhaps to make their last stand against the encroaching communists. They were fat men, with twisted faces, gripped no doubt by the bitterness of betrayal.

Where had we been?

To the top of the bridge.

No, they said, we had come from the Vietcong.

We replied that we had been to the bridge because we wanted to film.

"I don't want to hear any more." said the Governor. "How much did they pay you? How much did the Vietcong pay you?'

"Look," said Brian Barron, "I'm not Vietcong. I'm afraid of the Vietcong. When the Vietcong start shooting, I lie down."

"Why do you lie to me?" said the Governor of Gia Dinh.

I thought: "This is it. He's going to kill us." And apart from the fear of death itself, there seemed to be something particularly bitter and unfair in being killed as a traitor after the defeat. But instead of killing us, the Governor told me to remove the Union Jack from the car, and ordered one of the film crew to take the BBC label off his camera. The Union Jack was stuck to the aerial with Elastoplast and I remember wondering whether my trembling hands would ever get the thing off. The Governor then ordered us to push our car between two tank-traps, where it was later found, completely squashed by a tank.

I wanted to get back to the city centre as quickly as possible - we were now going to have to walk - and I couldn't understand why Barron was taking such a long time. He seemed to he looking for something in the car, and later he told me what it was. A few days before, he had been reading Ho Chi Minh's works, and had shoved them under the backseat, out of sight. Now he was afraid that they would suddenly find the book, and shoot us on the spot. He therefore decided to get the thing out and shove it under his shirt. He went back to the car, put his hand under the seat, and discovered that the book was gone.

By now there was chaos on the streets. The trucks which had passed us in one direction as we were coming out of Saigon appeared to have returned. Clearly nobody knew where to go. There was gunfire at the crossroads just ahead, and I think that we all felt, having lost our car, in great danger. We were saved by a taxi-man who dumped a load of customers and offered to take us back for 4,000 piastres. I would have paid whatever I had. We got into the car, put our heads down, and sped back to the city centre.

In the Reuters office I was writing an account of what I had just seen when Barron came in again.

"I don't know what's happening," he said. "I've just seen a tank with the flag of The National Liberation Front." I went to the door and looked out to the left, in the direction of Thieu's palace, and saw the tank. Without thinking, I ran after it and flagged it down just as it turned towards the palace gates. The tank slowed down and a North Vietnamese soldier in green jumped off the back and went at me with his gun, as if to hit me. In my confusion, I couldn't remember the NLF salute, or how to explain to the soldier that I wanted a ride. I tried everything - a salute, another salute, a clenched fist, a hitch-hiker's thumb. Finally (after, that is, a few extremely nervous seconds) I held out my hand to shake his. He took my hand abruptly and indicated the back of the tank. I remember worrying, as I climbed on, that I might touch something very hot. Then, as the soldiers told me to keep my head down, I idiotically produced my passport, which they dismissed scornfully.

The tank speeded up, and rammed the left side of the palace gate. Wrought iron flew into the air, but the whole structure refused to give. I nearly fell off. The tank backed again, and I observed a man with a nervous smile opening the centre portion of the gate. We drove into the grounds of the palace, and fired a salute.

I had taken a ride on the first tank to reach the palace, but it was not until several weeks later that I realised this was the case: looking up from my crouching position at the back, I saw another vehicle in the grounds (which turned out to be a South Vietnamese tank). Damn, I thought, I was on the second; still, never mind. I wondered whether I was under arrest. I tried to talk to the soldiers, but I did not notice that some of them were captured troops of the South Vietnamese Army who had been co-opted in order to show the way. On the top of the tank was an open carton of Winston cigarettes, which struck me as odd. No doubt it had been thrown up from the looting crowd. I also remember noticing another tank passing behind us on the lawn. Its tracks crushed the verge of a flower bed, and I remember thinking: that was unnecessary. Also, I noticed an incredible number of dragonflies in the air.

I was very, very excited. The weight of the moment, the privilege of being a witness, impressed itself at once. Over and above my self-consciousness, and the trivial details which were made all the more interesting by the extraordinary nature of the event, there was the historical grandeur of the scene. Events in history are not supposed to look historical: no eye perceived a battlefield at a glance, no dying leader composed his followers around him in the neo-classical manner; many war photographs, even some of the great ones, are said to have been rearranged. The victors write, rewrite, or retouch their history. Indeed, in one Western account of these events, I noticed that the tank I have just described was meant to have knocked the palace gate to the ground "like a wooden twig". The man who opened the gate, a civilian guard, has in this account been subbed out. The guards themselves have fled. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the symmetry of the scene, or interrupt the conquest with wild, flailing arms.

And yet the North Vietnamese do not merely touch-up history. They also enact it in the heroic manner. This was the first time I had seen their genius for imposing their style upon events, for acting in the manner of their propaganda. The spectacle was tremendous and, as one of their officers realised, not to be missed. He ran up to a British cameraman filming the arrival of the tanks, and begged him: "You take film for us? You take film for us?" The tanks rolled on to the lawn, and formed automatically into a semicircle in front of the palace, firing a salute into the air as they did so. Soon the air became full of the sound of saluting guns. Beside the gate, sitting in a row on the lawn, was a group of soldiers, former members of the palace guard. They waved their hands above their heads in terror. An NLF soldier took his flag and, waving it above his head, ran into the palace. A few moments later, he emerged on the terrace, waving the flag round and round. Later still, there he was on the roof. The red and yellow stripes of the Saigon regime were lowered at last.

I thought, I shall know if I'm under arrest when I jump off the tank. There came suddenly to mind a story of a plane which went through an electric storm: when it touched down, all the passengers were electrocuted on contact with the earth. I jumped off, and noticed that I was still alive and free. The palace grounds filled up with soldiers, and trucks were arriving all the time. The broad avenue towards the cathedral became the centre for the arriving troops. Their vehicles and helmets were covered in leaves, their uniforms green. A great wave of greenery swept over the city. It blended into the grass and the trees of the avenue. Only the red armbands and the red tags on the guns stood out. Everything had changed in a trice.

For the Westerners present, it was an occasion for overt celebration. I saw Jean-Claude running through the palace gates, his hands over his head, his cameras swinging hectically around his body. Old colleagues greeted each other with delight. We felt bound to congratulate each other, as if we had a right to partake of the victory. For the National Liberation Front troops, on the other hand, such satisfaction as they felt was completely suppressed. They sat down and lit up North Vietnamese cigarettes, like men who had simply done a good day's work - they were justified and did not need praise. Sometimes they shook hands with the foreigners, occasionally they smiled, or waved from the trucks, but never once did I see them lose their self-control.

I walked past the cathedral, and came upon a North Vietnamese soldier in a condition of extreme embarrassment. He was facing a wall, secretly looking at something. I thought he was embarrassed by having to relieve himself in front of a group of interested onlookers, but in fact he was consulting his compass, unsure of where he was supposed to be. The group realised his difficulty, and gave him directions. At this moment the fire brigade drove past, lights blaring, horn blaring, waving their hats in the air, in expressions of wild delight. Further down, along Tu Do street, I met a friend and we walked together to the Ministry of Defence, which was in the process of surrendering. At these ceremonies, a salute was always fired over the building, and so the city must have been full of failing lead, and yet I never heard of anyone being injured from such fall-out. This was one of the many curious features of the day.

The most dramatic change that had taken place was the complete disappearance of the Saigon army. All round the streets one would come across piles of clothes, boots and weapons. Some of the piles were so complete it looked as if their former occupant had simply melted into his boots. And then, in the doorways, one would see young men in shorts, hanging around with an air of studied indifference, as if to say: "Don't look at me, I always dress like this - it's the heat, you know." Where groups of soldiers had been caught and told to surrender, they were made to take off their clothes and sit down. I came across one such group by the town hall.

Slowly the streets were beginning to fill up again. Occasionally the requisitioned jeeps of the former regime came past, full of cheering youths in gear that was intended to look like Vietcong attire. These new revolutionary enthusiasts were immediately distinguished in appearance and behaviour from the real thing. Some of them were disarmed on the spot. Others were to carry on for several days or weeks before being identified, but for the moment they had a great fling, cheering, shouting and riding around. Most people were still indoors, wondering what would happen to them. The first to appear on the streets and talk to the soldiers were the old men, women and young children. They brought out tea to the tired troops, and sat with them, firing questions about what would happen next. The reassurance they received spread visibly throughout the suspicious city, and in a short while the areas where the troops were concentrated (around the palace and the port) took on the air of a massive teach-in.

The sorts of questions being asked were: Would there be revenge? Would those who had left North Vietnam at the time of the division be forced to return? Would the women be forced to cut their hair? Would those with painted nails have them pulled out, without anaesthetic? Would women be forcibly married off to the crippled soldiers of the North? To all such questions, the answer was a gentle no. Another question was, what did the North Vietnamese eat? The fact such a question could be put shows the ignorance of young Saigon about Hanoi, since the answer of course was rice.

I was getting very hungry and thirsty after the exertions of the day, so I wandered down to my old hotel by the market. The manager was pleased, and rather surprised, to see me. She had obviously assumed that, whatever I said, I would in fact leave with the Americans. I told her what was happening outside. "We are very pleased to welcome the liberation forces," she said, through clenched teeth. The nightclub dancer, whom I had failed to assist to leave, was also there. She gave me some very sick looks. She had dressed simply, in black pyjamas, and done up her hair in a bun, in what she imagined would be a manner suitable for receiving the forces of liberation. The landlady and the old doorman produced from the siege rations a meal of bread, olives, walnuts, cheese and beer. It was the first and last time that the landlady ever let me have anything for free.

A phrase ran through my mind, from the time of the arrival of the tanks, and on through the day as I wandered the streets, meeting people I knew, watching the chatting groups, and seeing how the whole place settled down. The phrase was: "a permanent and marvellous disgrace." It seemed to me evident, and bitterly ironical, that all the talk of what the North Vietnamese would do when - if - they took Saigon, all of it had been wrong. During the whole of the day I saw only three or four corpses. The North Vietnamese Army were clearly the most disciplined troops in the world. They had done nothing out of order, and it could not be that they were just waiting till the foreigners were out of the way before setting about the rape and pillage which many had prophesied. You could not fake the sort of discipline they had shown, nor could the events of the day be depicted as anything other than a triumph - a triumph that exceeded the expectations of their warmest, most bigoted admirers. Consequently, when the story was told (by now the lines were down), it would disgrace those who had predicted otherwise. It would be a permanent and marvellous disgrace; the CIA and Pentagon boffins, a generation of hawks, would be made to stand for ever in the corner, wearing the dunce's cap. I did not think that Saigon had been liberated in the way that would shortly be made out. I did not think that there had been an uprising - I had seen no real evidence for such a thing. But the victorious army had justified itself by its behaviour alone. That I will never forget.

Peace had come, more or less. In the afternoon one desperate group of South Vietnamese soldiers had made a last attempt at a firefight right in the centre, and sometimes in the distance one would hear explosions, for which I never found the reason. Along the outskirts of the town the looting continued wherever any wealthy establishment had been abandoned, or wherever the troops had not yet taken control. I went to the Buddhist University, where the students were organising the collection of the enormous number of arms abandoned on the streets. Nguyen Tuu Thai, the student leader, greeted us and gave us a form of identification which would serve for the next few days. Were we not impressed? he asked. Was it not like the Paris Commune of 1871?

As we drove back, we passed the Taiwanese and Malaysian Embassies, which were being very thoroughly looted, including the chandeliers. The young students who had taken it upon themselves to stop the looting tried to do so by firing into the air. When this did not work, one of them adopted a terrifyingly effective technique. Holding a rifle in his left hand and a pistol in his right, he pointed the pistol at a looter and fired his rifle into the air.

Back at the Caravelle Hotel, I watched the landscape settle down in peace. The flares still went up, on and on into the night. The intense excitement of the past days subsided into an irritable exhaustion. I had a bitter argument with one of my greatest friends, and went to bed in the worst of spirits. As my head sank into the pillow, I burst into tears.

The fall of Saigon and the evacuation of the last American marines from the US Embassy on 30 April marked Vietnam's final independence after three decades of anti-colonial struggle, first against the French, then the Americans. Today, Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist states. But its relations with the US are slowly normalising. President Clinton, famous for having evaded the Vietnam draft, lifted the trade embargo in 1994, restored diplomatic relations in 1995 and may later this year become the first US President to visit Vietnam since President Nixon spent a day with American troops there in 1969.

The full text of James Fenton's article appears in 'Granta 15: The Fall of Saigon'. To order this issue at the special price of £5.99 (33 per cent off), phone or fax Granta on freecall 0500 004 033

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