Vietnam War 40 years on: Brutal past mingles with a fresh start in a country shaped by conflict

On 30 April 1975, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces. Forty years on, veteran US correspondent Donald Kirk revisits the once area of swampy jungle from which the Viet Cong bombarded the South Vietnamese capital with rockets

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The Independent Online

Memories of a brutal past mingle with images of new beginnings in this region of thick mangrove swamps, interlaced with canals, from which Viet Cong guerillas – more than 40 years ago – fired 122 rockets into the heart of Saigon, visible on the skyline 10 miles away.

Now, 50,000-ton freighters load and unload cargo containers with the aid of overhead gantry cranes, sliding up and down on a dock that's 80 per cent owned by a United Arab Emirates company called Dubai Port World and managed by Vietnamese – to whom the final defeat of the old Saigon regime on 30 April 1975 is vaguely remembered from childhood, but not much discussed.

"There was bombing all around," says Trinh Quang Tuan, manager of business development, looking across a branch of the Saigon River lined with thick jungle that was largely impenetrable to the most determined of American troops before they withdrew after the signing of the "Paris peace" in January 1973. Upstream, he points out a cluster of oil tanks that the Viet Cong occasionally managed to blow up, sending shockwaves of noise and fear across the capital.

I remember seeing black plumes of smoke rising from the oil tanks one morning in July 1968, some hours after hearing 122 rockets whistling overhead, exploding as they landed. The dense swampland around here formed part of what the Americans called "the rocket belt", from which the Viet Cong showed they could fire at will despite heavy losses incurred in the Tet offensive. In February that year, Communist forces attacked virtually every provincial capital and district town in the country.

Now, revisiting the country that I had covered as a journalist for American newspapers and magazines, I am just as shocked by the shining signs of foreign and Vietnamese companies over just about every kind of establishment: from coffee shops to motor vehicle agencies, to high-fashion firms, to the port facilities here. Wherever you go, the talk is of construction, burgeoning projects, expanding what's already there, tearing down the old and building the new.

"I was in Saigon with my family when the war ended," says Le Chon Tam, director of the Dubai Port World facility here. Unlike about two million Vietnamese who fled the country, the lucky ones on American planes as Saigon was falling, many more by boats that often sank in stormy seats, still more by passenger planes in an "Orderly Departure Program" negotiated between U.S. and Vietnam authorities, Tam says "my parents decided to stay." His father, he says, "worked for the military" – but he's reluctant to say which military, U.S., South or North Vietnamese.

Such reluctance to talk typifies the responses you get everywhere you go, as people carefully balance the overwhelming relief, decades later, of entering a time of relative prosperity while still dealing with an underlying reality. Freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom to elect opposition leaders remains out of the question.

A helicopter lifts off from the US embassy on 29 April 1975 (AP)

You sense the contrasts in stark relief on a visit to the sternly modern central building of Vietnam National University, an institution with half a dozen different colleges that's opened just ten years ago with the mission of providing inexpensive education to a new generation of bright, eager students to whom the war is not even a memory, just blur from  school book and parents' stories.

"This system is very new," says Tuan Nguyen, dean of information technology. "We need to understand the concept of national universities, to share the same direction."

That's a view that students question – but without appearing openly rebellious. "I was on the losing side," says one student, meaning her father was either in the defeated South Vietnamese army or working for the old regime.  "We have to whisper."

Another student, studying journalism, asked how much freedom she as a journalist is likely to have in the country's controlled media, says, "That's a question that we are worrying about every day." She adds, carefully, "I'm not sure I can answer."

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Diem, bold enough to give her name, says, "We cannot really talk about sensitive problems", but explains the rationale in language the country's leaders in Hanoi would appreciate. "We are fighting for our national sovereignty," she says. "Life is better." As for whatever happened decades ago, she pleads, "I don't really know about the past."

Vietnamese national flags – a gold star on a red field – fly everywhere in the run-up to Friday's parade.  You rarely see the flag of the Viet Cong, that is the guerrillas that formed the National Liberation Front that waged guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam before the North Vietnamese force took over the war and staged the final campaign named for Ho Chi Minh, the legendary hero who died in 1968, but remains the iconic figure behind the Vietnamese revolution against the French – and then the Americans.

Troops and western TV newsmen run for cover on 28 April 1975 (AP)

At a complex of underground tunnels and bunkers at Cu Chi, about 40 miles west of the center of the city, an old Viet Cong fighter whose right arm was  blown off in a tank battle with American troops talks about the guerrillas who dug out and manned the tunnels, in a jungly region as difficult to penetrate as the mangrove swamps south of the city. 

"Every day we came outside the tunnel to fight," says Huynh Van Chia. "Then we hide." But he acknowledges that the force from the North played the leading role. "We are one country," he says. "They are also there." In fact, he says, one of the commanders of the complex was Nguyen Van Linh, the national leader in the late 1980s who reformed the economy after having been a diehard communist leader all his life.

Nowadays, the country is obsessed with other concerns. Admiral Tran Thanh Minh, deputy chief of Vietnam's small navy, focuses on Vietnam's border war with China that he says lasted from 1979 1991 and on the threat posed by China's claim to control of the South China Sea.

"For thousands of years, the Vietnamese people have been fighting invasions from China," he says. "We defeated China with endless spirit."

Considering that China once provided the Vietnamese forces with all their light weapons, including rifles, machine guns and ammunition, that remark may seem a little ungrateful – but times are changing.  Now, "the sale of U.S. weapons would be a good way to modernize our weapons and increase our strength" – all in accord with the "comprehensive partnership" formed with President Obama and Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang two years ago.