In the city once known to the West as Saigon, thousands of cheering Vietnamese took to the streets yesterday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their victory over the US. Meanwhile, in Washington, the capital of their once deadliest foe, any commemorations were entirely private affairs.
In Ho Chi Minh City troops paraded down the same route taken by North Vietnamese tanks when they rolled into the city. Watched by government officials and war heroes such as General Vo Nguyen Giap, soldiers, workers and performers marched with red flags.
Hundreds of aging veterans, their chests decked with medals, watched from the sidelines. Giant billboards of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's revolutionary leader, dominated the parade ground and adjoining streets.
In the US too this week, there have been gatherings of veterans to honor the friends that never returned. But in Washington - where the Vietnam memorial on the Mall remains a constant magnet for visitors - there has been little official recognition of the war that cost the lives of 58,000 US troops and more than three million Vietnamese.
It was on 30 April 1975 that Communist tanks barreled through the gates of the presidential palace, the heart of the US-backed Saigon government. The fall of the city marked the official end of the Vietnam War, and a more than decade-long American attempt to halt the spread of Communism in the region. The vast majority of US troops had left two years earlier but Washington continued to support the government of South Vietnam.
"I was listening to the radio with my family and heard that Saigon had been liberated. I was very happy because for many years we weren't free," said Thanh Nghia, 51, a government worker marching in Ho Chi Minh City. "After 30 years we have rebuilt our country. Our land is safe and secure and I think the future will be better."
While Vietnam remains a one-party state, the atmosphere in the country this week has been mostly festive, focusing on the country's recent economic rejuvenation. Memories of the war are little more than anecdotes in history books for most Vietnamese who were born after it ended. "My father and grandfather fought in the war but I was too young," said Nguyen Thanh Tung, an 18-year-old student. "I think my future will be good because they created opportunities for my generation."
In the US, however, the war in Vietnam remains a national sore - an event that, at a psychological level, the country wants to move on from but appears unable to. If ever an example was required of this, look no further than last year's presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate John Kerry was utterly knocked off course by false allegations about his service record in Vietnam.
For many veterans in the US, the current situation in Iraq - with the US engaged in another war against an insurgent enemy that was initially underestimated - is a source of constant reminders. While the numbers of US dead are relatively slight - fewer than 1,600 - thousands of troops are returning maimed and wounded, as they did from Vietnam.
Bobby White, director of the Fort Lauderdale Veterans Center in Florida, was an infantryman in 1969 and 1970 and then went to college in Miami, where he watched the footage of the US withdrawal. "It's not something you forget," he told the Sun Sentinel newspaper. "Knowing you were there, feeling all the pain from the whole Vietnam War and also remembering all your friends who didn't make it."
After years of mistrust, relations between the US and Vietnam have steadily improved despite the refusal of Washington to pay compensation to the millions of Vietnamese who have suffered severe health problems from Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used by US forces. Diplomatic relations were restored 10 years ago.
Despite Vietnam's remarkable recovery from war, most of its largely agrarian population of 82 million remains poor, with per capita income at about $550 (£288) a year. But in relative terms the country is on the crest of an economic wave. Nowhere have the changes been more visible than in the motorbikes and construction that now cover Ho Chi Minh City. And Vietnam's biggest single trading partner today is the US.
Dateline Saigon: when the end came
Thirty years ago the Vietnam War ended in scenes of chaos and humiliation for the Americans, and victory for their North Vietnamese enemies. This is how reporters on the spot saw the fall of Saigon:
Saigon, 29 April - Saigon was in its death throes today. The Americans were leaving and the city that has been the center of non-Communist Vietnam since 1954 was confused, frightened and relieved at the same time ...
Martin Woollacott of 'The Guardian'
Saigon, South Vietnam, Wednesday 30 April - With American fighter planes flying cover and marines standing guard on the ground, Americans left Saigon yesterday by helicopter after fighting off throngs of Vietnamese civilians who tried to go along.
Eighty-one helicopters from carriers in the South China Sea landed at Tan Son Nhut airport and on roofs at the United States embassy compound to pick up most of the approximately 1,000 remaining Americans and several thousand Vietnamese. But large groups of other Vietnamese clawed their way up the 10ft wall of the embassy compound in desperate attempts to escape approaching Communist troops. United States marines and civilians used pistol and rifle butts to dislodge them ...
Loud explosions were heard in the late afternoon in Saigon. They were said to have taken place aboard an ammunition barge burning in the Saigon River, but no damage was reported in the city except at the United States embassy and other American buildings, which Saigonese looted. At the embassy they took virtually everything, including the kitchen sinks and a machine to shred secret documents...
George Esper of the Associated Press
Saigon, April 1975 - At dawn I was awake, lying under my mattress on the floor tiles, peering at my bed propped against the French windows. The bed was meant to shield me from flying glass; but if the hotel was attacked with rockets, the bed would surely fall on me. Killed by a falling bed: that somehow made sense in this, the last act of the longest-running black farce: a war that was always unnecessary and often atrocious and had ended the lives of three million people, leaving their once bountiful land petrified ...
There was no "bloodbath", as those who knew little about the Vietnamese had predicted. With the invader expelled, this extraordinary country was again one nation, as the Geneva conference had said it had a right all those wasted years ago. The longest war of the 20th century was over.
© Copyright 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd