Marking the End of the Vietnam War: Two Sides of the Story

An archive photo shows children crying after a napalm attack on their village in 1972. Photo: UPI/dpa

HANOI (DPA) — The Vietnamese government calls it Liberation Day, but for Nguyen Van Hoang, a wiry man in his mid 60s, the events of April 30, 1975 had different connotations. He recalls the day his life changed forever with a wistful smile.

"I was stationed at a battlefield in the Central Highlands. I was sitting with some of the men when we heard that North Vietnamese troops had entered the presidential palace in Saigon. Later that day we surrendered."

Then 27, Hoang had risen to be an officer after joining the South Vietnamese army when he was 17.

"At the time I was only thinking about my men. The people say the bullet escapes you, not you escape the bullet. It's all about destiny."

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Veterans of the North Vietnamese army during events commemorating the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in Phu Tho province, 100 kilomteres northwest of Hanoi, 20 April 2005. EPA/JULIAN ABRAM WAINWRIGHT

It was a momentous day: the end of the Vietnam War, as it is known in other countries, and the first day of an independent, unified nation under the Communist government. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after North Vietnam's revolutionary leader.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the anniversary was to be marked with incense ceremonies, a special arts programme and a bicycle race anmong others.

But despite the official festivities, the topic remains divisive.

Nguyen Duc Gan, 67, was a North Vietnamese soldier during the war. He was taken prisoner in 1969 and kept in the notorious Phu Quoc island jail until the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.

"On April 30, 1975, I received the news from our commanding officers that Saigon was liberated while I was convalescing in a camp [outside Hanoi]. I was very happy at that time."

Gan says he believes the date should be celebrated, but in a way that would help Vietnam and the US become closer.

"We should not forget the past, we should remind young Vietnamese people about the loss of the war, but in a way that encourages young people to look at future."

He says the way the country has marked the day has changed over the years.

"State media do not talk much about the cruelty of soldiers from South Vietnam or the Americans, but focus on the bravery of northern soldiers.

This view rankles with some.

A sturdy-looking man with a strong Californian accent, who gave his name only as Thanh, was one of the hundreds of thousands of "boat people" who fled the country after the war.

He returns to Ho Chi Minh City sporadically to help poor veterans who fought for the South. He did not want to give his real name because he was concerned it would affect his chances of returning for another visit.

"I don't want to be here to see the official celebrations" on Thursday, he said. "For me and many others it is a very sad day. I will be back in the US then and will spend the day with some friends."

"South Vietnamese soldiers in general have been forgotten. Not just in Vietnam but overseas as well," says Nathalie Nguyen, a scholar from Monash University in Australia who has written about the experience of South Vietnamese veterans.

"From the point of view of the South, the North Vietnamese wanted the whole of Vietnam to be communist and the South resisted. This side of it hardly ever features in accounts of the war. It has been very much dominated by the United States. That's beginning to change slowly," she said.

"There was a whole generation of historians who very much dominated this aspect of the historiography. That's beginning to shift now. It's just distressing that for many of the veterans it's too late."

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A photo made available 27 April 2015 shows Vietnam War photojournalist Tim Page as he visits the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 26 April 2015. EPA/LE QUANG NHAT

The government's partisan portrayal of history resonates with fewer people now, says political analyst and Vietnam expert Tuong Vu from the University of Oregon. This is partly because of the work of overseas Vietnamese who fled after the war.

"They are changing the minds of many Vietnamese about what the war was," he said. "At least part of it was civil war. They are persuading young Vietnamese, especially in south Vietnam, about that."

North Vietnamese veteran Gan says he believes it is not wrong to call it a civil war, but it was a civil war caused by foreign nations, not Vietnam.

"I think people still care about the anniversary of the end of the war now. It is one of the most important days of the nation. Without that day, there would be a no united Vietnam country now. Vietnam would be separated like North and South Korea."

Across the country veteran Hoang says life has been hard since the war ended. He spent nearly three years in a re-education camp and afterwards could not find a job at a state-run company.

"When you do paperwork at any official agency they won't do it for you. They say it's not enough, come back later. They won't say it's because you are a South Vietnamese soldier but I know that's the reason. The only paper I have is the re-education paper," he said.

"On April 30 I will feel sad because I am separate from normal people in society."

Reporting by Marianne Brown

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