Bao Ninh, an NVA soldier from Hanoi who was in Saigon that day, would write of his protagonist, Tien, in The Sorrow of War. “In later years, when he heard stories of V-Day or watched the scenes of the fall of Saigon on film, with cheering, flags, flowers, triumphant soldiers and joy¬ful people, his heart would ache with sadness and envy. He and his mates had not felt that soaring, brilliant happiness he saw on the film. True, in the days following 30 April, he had experienced unforgettable joys after the victory. But on the night itself, they had that suffocating feeling. . . . And why not? They’d just stepped out of the trenches.”
That night, in their small home on Saigon’s Nhieu Loc Canal, two tai¬lors, Le Van Vang and his wife, Vang Hui Huong, arranged four bags filled with clothes and rice, preparing to flee if Hanoi’s troops went on a vengeful witch hunt, as Pol Pot’s murderous communist guerrillas had done in Cambodia two weeks earlier. But there was no witch hunt, no bloodshed. The young ho dot soldiers had not come for retribution. And soon the Vangs unpacked their bags and went back to stitching.
I found the Vangs in the same house by the canal where they had lived since 1963, the year they exchanged vows in an arranged marriage. “Our parents knew each other and Huong and I both did the same job, tailors. So they said we should marry,” Mr. Vang said. His wife added: “That was the tradition then. But our children wouldn’t stand for such a thing to¬day.” Their home was at the end of a three-foot-wide lane where little houses stood shoulder to shoulder and a maze of alleyways meandered in all directions. It was the type of poor, working-class neighborhood that was often a Viet Cong stronghold during the war.
Huong did most of the talking while Le Van sat at her side, nodding occasionally in agreement. “My father joined the Viet Minh,” she said. “He was killed fighting the French. But really 1965 to 1975 was pretty nor¬mal here. I had no idea about anything political. I didn’t think about Americans being in Vietnam. We hardly ever saw them. They must have been at other bases, outside Saigon. Mostly people here just cared about working and making business.”
She said Le Van had escaped the South Vietnamese draft by hiding between two walls and never venturing out of the house during the day. He did that for almost a decade. If the police came to inquire about his whereabouts, she would tell them he had already left for the front.
For the Vangs, the bad times came after the war. The communists banned the wearing of the traditional ao dai dress as bourgeois, and sewing ao dais had provided most of the Vangs’ income. Making a profit was deemed antirevolutionary. The markets ran low on food. To survive, the Vangs sold everything: the radio, then the refrigerator, their clothing, even the material for ao dais. “Finally we had nothing left,” Huong said.
Their lives did not recover until the government started implementing free-market reforms in the late 1980s. The ban on ao dais was lifted, as was the taboo on turning a profit. They got the refrigerator back and bought a TV and two Honda motorbikes. Four of their seven children graduated from college. One of them had become an engineer. The Peo¬ple’s Committee was beautifying the neighborhood, cleaning up the waste-filled canal and installing streetlights on a new pathway along the waterway. “Really, life is so much better than it was that we have no com¬plaints,” Huong said.
FOR AMERICA THE FALL OF SAIGON was an ending, for Vietnam a beginning. But when the curtain came down on the Second Indochina War, the Vietnamese did not find the peace they sought. Old rivalries and suspicions reemerged, and retribution was still to be meted out. Neither did the Americans find they were able to reclaim the innocence and faith of a past era. In a 1964 Lou Harris poll, 76 percent of respondents said they trusted their government “to do the right thing in almost all cases”; by 1976 it was 34 percent.
For years Americans would debate the question, Who “lost” Vietnam? “We really meant to help and to stabilize,” Admiral Noel Gayler, com¬mander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, said after Saigon’s fall. “But things went awry in a lot of ways.” Was it the press that lost Vietnam? The politicians? The soldiers? The antiwar activists? Perhaps, in the end, Vietnam simply wasn’t there to be “won” in any conventional sense. The United States had come to extinguish a revolution and ended up nourish¬ing one. It had come to build and ended up destroying. It came to the jungles of Vietnam to win hearts and minds, and in fighting its longest war—the first war the United States had ever lost—discovered the tools of war were no substitute for the vitality of nationalism. History, not ide¬ology, shaped the future.