Vietnam's warrior generation still learning to open up after 30 years

Saigon fell to Viet Cong forces in 1975. Brian Barron, who witnessed the assault, returns to find that little has changed in the new Ho Chi Minh City - except for a pragmatic youth ready to embrace the outside world
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Sniffing around Old Saigon for any snippets that might encapsulate past and present, I learned that one of the most interesting events of the past three or four years had been essentially cosmetic. What galvanised locals and expatriates was the arrival of Michael Caine plus production team for the remake of Graham Greene's The Quiet American. "Before the shoot they repainted several buildings round the corner," a hotel manager said. "First time the place has been tarted up for decades."

Sniffing around Old Saigon for any snippets that might encapsulate past and present, I learnt that one of the most interesting events of the past three or four years had been essentially cosmetic. What galvanised locals and and expatriates was the arrival of Michael Caine plus production team for the remake of Graham Greene's The Quiet American. "Before the shoot they repainted several buildings round the corner," a hotel manager said. "First time the place has been tarted up for decades." Today Ho Chi Minh City, to give it the title bestowed by the northern conquerors, looks almost the same as it did in those fateful days of April 1975. There are a few high-rise bank blocks and the original Caravelle Hotel is dwarfed by a steel and glass extension. Otherwise this seems the most unchanged city in the Far East. The Honda Cavalry still charge around, though now there are over four million motorcyclists, reflecting Vietnam's dramatic population increase to 90 million.

The concrete headquarters from which President Thieu ran his corrupt, ramshackle regime has been renamed Reunification Palace, a favourite spot for wedding couples posing for family photos. Half-a-mile away, the blockbuster American embassy has disappeared, demolished during the Clinton presidency, replaced by a modest-sized consulate. All that remains is the white-painted concrete boundary wall as a reminder of Saigon's last desperate hours amid chaos and cowardice.

On the street corners of Tu Do Street, once full of girlie bars packed at midnight with soldiers, seedy business types and hacks all seeking solace, vendors now offer a wide range of Indochinese literature: Greene's TQA, Michael Herr's Dispatches and my own favourite, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, a devastating analysis of the brilliant but tragically flawed Colonel John Paul Vann, who went down with his helicopter a couple of years before Saigon fell. All the books are bootlegged versions run-up on photo-copiers and a bargain at $8 (£4.20) each.

The atmosphere internally reminds me of communist China in the mid- to late-Eighties when Deng Xiaoping was pushing through his market-forces revolution despite sceptical party workers. In Vietnam today there's both an eagerness to connect with the outside world and a wariness about contacts with foreigners.

Just as in Beijing in the old days, your prospects on a Vietnam assignment hinge largely on the levels of skills, connections and energy of your official minder. On this anniversary trip we are lucky. Mr Giang is in his late twenties, inexperienced in handling foreign media, but intelligent, motivated and in his own private seventh heaven because he's in love. His mobile periodically bleeps and his latest dispatch from the love front is decoded. In English improving by the day he slowly reads and digests: "It is wonderful to think of a shared love with you, my darling."

A pause, then Mr Giang turns to us: "A good message, yes?" We nod approval. Like him, his 18-year-old fiancée is the offspring of well-connected members of the party in the all-powerful network of the politically correct who control Vietnam. We like this pragmatic young man who manages to cut through much of the red tape that's the bane of working here. Nor does it offend that a couple of times a day he sits apart, writing up his notes ­ who we've seen, what we've said ­ for his nightly file to the security authorities. That's how life is in Vietnam today.

Later, in Hanoi, Mr Giang is looking happy. Another love missive has arrived and he is back in his home town.

Another cause for celebration is that he has delivered on our trickiest request ­ to see a prominent Buddhist monk, Thich Nguc Hac. He has been allowed to return nearly 40 years after being expelled by the Saigon regime.

I ask Mr Giang if we can see a well-known dissident. "It may be difficult to find him. Perhaps only the police know where he is because he is free now." I try again later. "There are no political prisoners in Vietnam," says Mr Giang. "We don't detain people for their beliefs." But Western diplomats and human rights observers put me right. Overt repression is finished but today there are 20 to 30 "persons of concern" whom the diplomats try to track ­ and they could be in or out of jail at any given time.

Thirty years is a long time and the authorities have wasted a lot of it with poor economic policies. Now the warrior generation, with its fixation on war and the past, its unwillingness to forgive and forget, is dying off and younger, pragmatic apparatchiks are ready to take over. And the children of the elite are studying all over the world so that, too, will bring change at home.

There doesn't seem to be any upsurge of pent-up frustration with the status quo ... maybe the population has learnt it's best to be docile. The only prediction I'd make is that if I return for the 50th anniversary in 20 years' time the Communist Party will still be in control.

Those desperate last hours in a city full of chaos and cowardice


On the last morning [as it turned out], I woke up before dawn feeling stiff, the result of running about while scared 48 hours before. I had been covering a firefight on the banks of the Saigon river.

The windows of my room in the Caravelle were vibrating to the heavy thump of shells falling on Tan Son Nhut airport, five miles away. This was about the time the last American general in Vietnam was using thermal grenades to burn $3m in cash as he abandoned his headquarters, called Pentagon East, beside the airport. The money was too big to fit in his Huey.

In front of the Caravelle we tied a Union flag to the radio aerial of the Fifties American sedan we had hired, one of those Sunset Boulevard specials with huge rear fins. All over downtown Saigon groups of looters were carrying and dragging furniture and other trophies from government offices. President Thieu had already left the country. No one bothered us as we filmed the evisceration of the US embassy from which the CIA and proconsuls had sanctioned heavy bombing, counter-terror and free-fire zones in a failed nation-building effort, hoping to turn South Vietnam into South Korea.

On half a dozen rooftops within a one-mile radius of the embassy lines of southern civilians stood looking at the sky as if they were devotees of an ancient ritual for the gods. Two hours passed and they remained. But by then the flow of US Marine helicopters had trickled almost to a stop. Nearly all Americans had already been plucked from the embassy grounds. The Vietnamese still on the rooftops were among thousands who had worked for US agencies, intelligence and military, and had been promised evacuation. But on this last morning the US had run out of time. It was an act of betrayal, but as these southerners waited they must have known that ahead lay incarceration and many years inside communist re-education camps.

We drove away from the embassy agreeing that evacuation was now a dead issue. Forty-eight hours before the BBC governors had issued a well-intentioned order that all staff must leave Vietnam. This message had reached us in blackly comic circumstances while sitting in a Saigon Radio studio during an air raid ­ a squadron of South Vietnamese air force bomber pilots had defected to the north and returned to bomb the Saigon palace.

The studio shook, plaster fell out of the ceiling and the microphone, vertically suspended, swung like the pendulum on a clock. I listened through the headphones to the instruction. There was no way I was going to conclude six years of living dangerously in Indochina by fleeing from the biggest story of my life.

Slowly we drove to the northern edge of Saigon. There was total uncertainty.Suddenly from a bunker at the roadside, southern troops jumped out, led by a colonel who was literally frothing at the mouth. I was in the back reading General Giap's Theories of Guerrilla Warfare, not ideal literature to possess as the colonel, freaked to the point of madness, poked his M16 in our faces and accused us of spying for the advancing North Vietnamese. He was on the brink of shooting us ­ myself, camerman Eric Thirer and our colleague, the poet and war correspondent James Fenton, who drolly wrote about this in his book All the Wrong Places.

At gunpoint we had to move the car across so it blocked the way to Saigon, then we walked away. A few hours later the colonel was killed and our car was demolished by leading tanks in the Viet Cong blitzkrieg.

We hitched a ride back to the Reuters office and still felt screwed by the berserk colonel. I heard the rumble of tank tracks and a burst of cannon fire. Fenton sprinted towards North Vietnamese armour we could see advancing on the palace. Like an Olympic hop, step and jumper he pulled himself on to the back of a tank as they smashed through the gates. We ran past President Thieu's honour guard, now on their knees on the lawn, hands in the air. The men from Hanoi had finally arrived, carrying a huge red flag with a yellow star. I found myself standing beside General Big Minh, Saigon's last president, as he surrendered.

Not long after we were back at Saigon Radio describing the drama live to the BBC. There was a thunderous knocking at the door. Two polite but unsmiling North Vietnamese officers stood there. "Gentlemen, this radio station is now closed, we have taken over," one of them said. That was the last broadcast anyone did from Saigon. The war was over.

Brian Barron is an award-winning television correspondent who reported the Vietnam War for BBC News from 1969 until 1975. Currently he is a BBC correspondent in New York.