Within minutes, the chopper was over the South China Sea. The U.S. Seventh Fleet came into view as Saigon faded from sight. For the first time since the French attacked Danang in 1858, Vietnam was free of for¬eign influence. For the first time in a generation—since a Cold War com¬promise divided the country at the 17th Parallel—there was no North Vietnam and no South Vietnam—only Vietnam.
For some this date—April 30, 1975—would represent a hopeful pro¬logue to a lifetime of aspiration, for others, a dreadful epilogue to a decade of dashed dreams, broken promises, and unachieved goals. But no one—Vietnamese or American—would be untouched, and to this day Vietnamese in the South speak of the fall of Saigon as a milestone that divides everything in life into two eras: “before ’75” and “after ’75.”
“OF COURSE I REMEMBER IT. My life changed that day. All our lives did.” This was from Duong Cu, a former South Vietnam Supreme Court justice. He was sixty-five years old now, a scholarly man with a trim white beard and a professorial manner. His home, not far from the city center, had a garden patio off the second-floor sewing room and a bedroom lined with bookshelves. Neatly displayed on them were countless volumes on law, philosophy, and literature. Except for a few minor consulting jobs, Cu had not been able to find work for years.
I had come to Ho Chi Minh City just prior to the twenty-fifth an¬niversary of Saigon’s fall, taking a two-hour jet flight from Hanoi, to ask people what they remembered of the day the communists won the war and what had become of their lives as a result. Cu said he had stayed home that day, caring for his sick wife and listening to the radio for news. After the shooting subsided, the streets fell so still he found the silence scary. His younger brother arrived on a motorcycle and suggested he take Cu to a Catholic monastery for his safety. Cu refused. “I’m in no danger,” he said.
Despite widespread fears of a massacre, some Saigonese like Cu thought the North would be gracious in victory, and in fact the invading peasant army acquitted itself with discipline and professionalism. There was no killing. Cu also thought Hanoi would reach out to all Vietnamese, whether they had supported North or South, to nurture forgiveness and healing and fulfill the last promise Ho Chi Minh made to his people in 1969: “Once the American invaders have been defeated, we will rebuild our land ten times more beautiful.”
He chuckled at his naivete. On May 2, he was ordered to report to the university with a curriculum vitae and his official papers. “I thought it was just a formality, like a census,” he said. “I didn’t think I was in any danger because I wasn’t a military man and I hadn’t done anything wrong.” Six weeks later he was packed off, carrying only a change of clothes and a day’s rations, to one of the forty reeducation camps the communists set up to hold South Vietnam’s 400,000 “false soldiers” and “false authori¬ties,” some for seventeen years. For the first eight months he attended po-litical lectures. It was a disturbing experience. His teachers had little in¬tellectual capacity and knew almost nothing of the outside world or of the subjects he held dear, like philosophy. He was not beaten or mis¬treated, but the days passed with a deadly tedium. He studied in the morning, discussed ideology with his mentors in the afternoon, and wrote self-criticism in the evening. There was no debate, and no opinions were to be expressed. To curry favor and be judged “reeducated,” one needed to repeat the “truth.” Cu’s diet consisted of bad rice and rock salt. After six months he was allowed to receive a gift. His family sent instant noodles, tobacco, and dried meat.
Released after six years because of failing health, Cu returned home to find that his four brothers and sister had joined an exodus of boat people, a transformative flotilla that would carry 1 million South Vietnamese— about 5 percent of the South’s population—to North America, Australia, and Europe. He considered himself lucky to find a job as legal adviser to an agency the communists established to attract foreign funds. His salary was $5 per month and food stamps. “I was so delighted,” he said. “I thought I’d be able to get back in touch with my overseas friends.” But he was forbidden to use the telephone or have any contact with foreigners. It was the penalty for being a southern “puppet.” He quit after one year and, like most educated Saigonese of his generation, knew that his career was over.
“A lot of people think the war was a fight between communism and democracy/capitalism,” Cu said. “But it wasn’t that. The North’s point of view was there was one Vietnam. The South thought there were two. The reality is we were just protecting ourselves in the South. Our system wasn’t perfect. Human rights were abused. The legal system had flaws. There was a lot of corruption. But people will fight to protect what is theirs.”
Cu spent his time now at home reading and researching law as a hobby. Sometimes he wondered how far his career would have taken him had events taken a different direction. But over many years pondering works of Western philosophers in his bedroom library, he had made his peace.