“To this day, I am still able to recall the terror of the fall of Saigon. The appalling threat from the communists is still vivid in my mind.”
For most Americans, their country’s long ordeal in South East Asia ended minutes before 8 a.m. local time on April 30, 1975. That’s the moment when a single helicopter rose from the roof of a U.S. diplomatic building in Saigon with the last of some 7,000 evacuees air lifted from the South Vietnamese capital over the previous 24 hours. The episode, which was immortalized in an image by a 33-year-old Dutch photographer named Hubert van Es, heralded the end of a decade-and-a-half of U.S.military involvement in Vietnam. But for millions of ordinary South Vietnamese, particularly the residents of Saigon, April 30, 1975 would be a day of trepidation and outright fear. What lay in store for the inhabitants of the city? Would the conquerors march in as liberators or conquerors? Would they embrace the population or would there be a bloodbath? No one knew. Author CieCie Tuyet Nguyen was just 13 when Saigon collapsed and the world she knew changed forever. Her 2016 book, Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom, documents life for ordinary Vietnamese after the communist takeover. Here, the author describes the tense, terrifying and surreal hours before and after the North Vietnamese Army occupied the city.
By CieCie Tuyet Nguyen
AT AROUND 10 A.M., President General Duong Van Minh announced a total and unconditional surrender. He asked for all armed forces of the Republic of South Vietnam “to calmly cease hostilities and stay where they are.”
The morning dragged on, heavy with suspense after the announcement.
There were people running in panic along the streets in every direction; some were on foot, others on motorbikes. Their eyes were wild, their faces dull and expressionless. All seemed in a hurry to get to their destinations.
There were South Vietnamese Army soldiers passing my house. All looked tired and bewildered. There must have been a first who put down his M-16 on the pavement in front of my house, and then every soldier who went past that point automatically laid down his gun on top of the previous one. By lunchtime, the pile was getting higher. The trickle of soldiers walking past seemed to increase in volume, and more and more hurried by, some even stripping off their uniforms and putting them in a heap next to the discarded guns.
There was not much happening after that. The street was deserted again. It was past lunchtime, but no one was interested in meals. The family did not talk or move about the house but sat around the divan, waiting in silence.
Minutes later, the radio came alive with some unintelligible sound, then a strange voice came on to the microphone with a thick, heavy Northern accent declaring their victory.
President Duong Van Minh followed with his forlorn declaration of defeat.
Face-to-Face with the Victors
After that, deadly silence fell upon the whole city instantly, snuffing out all sounds at once. The strange atmosphere was as unnatural as it may have seemed hours ago, but the eerie silence had increased in intensity after the radio announcement. Reality kicked in with such forceful brutality that the shock was clearly visible on everyone’s face.
The air was still, willing everything to stay frozen in its place. Without a word, everyone moved slowly out to the front door. On both sides of the boulevard there were people standing still. The whole city was standing still. Then, a chorus of fearful “Ohs!” broke involuntarily from the throats of the people, as something materialised suddenly that they were afraid to see. Their terrified gazes were directed toward a very strange-looking armoured tank rolling down the street. The shape, the colour, and the aura were so wrong. Its menacing power was clearly visible. It carried the ominous-looking flags, half-red and half-blue with a yellow star and full red with the yellow star of the National Liberation Front and the Vietnamese Communist Party.
The adults exchanged brief glances; everyone was trying to hide their shock and remain blank. No one dared to say anything, not even a whisper. The stunned and depressed looks of Saigon citizens were somehow unexpected by the communists, who thought they had given the Southerners a victory to rejoice in. That shocked silence was not allowed for long, however; the South Vietnamese citizens were forced to show jubilation and ecstasy in welcoming the Northerners as enthusiastic traitors and conquering soldiers and to restore sound to the sepulchral atmosphere.
The tank continued parading down the boulevard with the entourage of Northern Army soldiers; some were on foot, and others were on heavy Chinese buses and trucks. There were a group of people, unmistakably wearing familiar civilian outfits and obviously traitors of the South, who appeared as if the victory was part of their reward. They were markedly different to the anomalous and peculiar-looking Northern soldiers who carried distinctive AK-47s on their shoulders and wore black rubber sandals. Most soldiers seemed awkward and surprised at their victory, their features somehow as stunned as the Southerners.
“Long Live Uncle Ho!”
On the other hand, the traitors and camp followers were wild with excitement. Their eyes were ablaze with fire. Two of them were holding the large victory flags and running on both sides of the tank.
Amidst the commotion, a commander with a Northern accent was yelling between gritted teeth to get the Southerners to cheer on.
Then another voice answered, with a Southern accent from which I recognized as the cleaner of the school principal of my high school. Snappily, he urged the bystanders to follow his cheers.
“Victory to the National Liberation Front!”
“Long live Uncle Ho and the Communist Party!”
In the camp followers’ hands were bundles of miniature National Liberation Front blue-red and Vietnamese Communist Party red flags, which had somehow clearly been organized well before in secret and now appeared liberally in the open air. They started to distribute these to bystanders, pressing them to wave the flags and cheer on. Their commands were curt and compelling. Hours later, the flags were to be left on the front doors of Saigon residents as a strong reminder to the South of which side had now taken charge of their city.
Moments later, the fierce heat of the April afternoon sun was marked by the sea of red communist flags. Some bystanders resignedly obeyed the orders to cheer on, but their eyes were still dulled by shock and their hands waved the blue-red flags awkwardly. They repeated the phrases with restrained expressions like automatons.
The parade went past. The commotion was short, but it left awkwardness in the rest of the bystanders that lingered on the street for hours later. The Southerners were still reluctant to look at each other; their gazes averted quickly whenever their eyes met. Some turned their back and went inside in slow motion and subdued quiescence. A few stayed still, searching for something familiar, something from the nostalgic past, even though the past was just hours ago. One person on the opposite side of the street was silently scraping the painted-on Republic of South Vietnam flag on his wall. As if on cue, the others followed suit. Then the rest of the street was busy scraping off their walls the symbol of the last government. The past was now truthfully vanishing.
My father looked on and sighed. He turned and urged everyone to come inside the house. No one dared to speak up. Everyone was whispering as if the walls suddenly had ears, as if eavesdropping was a new practice acquired recently by every citizen in the new communist world. From the moment Saigon had fallen, the whole population of the South started whispering. They did not dare to congregate in public. A crowd of more than three or four was considered dangerous and might be accused of conspiring to rebel. And chances were that they would be put in detention without further explanation. They talked in low, quiet tones inside their closed doors with only trusted members of their family or friends. They looked at each other and searched for signs of betrayal. Their careful use of words when talking to strangers was distressing; any misunderstanding and misinterpretation might be followed by disastrous results.
Uneasy Calm; Uncertain Future
The evening was slow. Time passed even more slowly than in the morning.
The street in front was not as busy as it was at lunchtime, as if the curfew was still in place.
That night there was less noise than on previous nights. There was no more bombardment but there was still occasional gunfire to be heard. A feeling of foreboding had fallen on the city since lunchtime. No one wanted to go to sleep. Everyone was staying downstairs near the useless bomb shelters, but not inside. No one wanted to be separated from the family. Perhaps out of fear, togetherness seemed to be important to all of them at that time. Somehow, the terror of facing the Northern Vietnamese Communists increased in intensity with the passing hours. Even the children could sense the naked fear from the adults’ outward appearance.
I was curious about its palpable horror even though it was so obscure, and strangely, the words were just “communist” and “communism.” In my young mind, I could not understand the trepidation were real. To this day, I am still able to recall the terror of the fall of Saigon. From the memory of a young girl of 13, the effect of that appalling threat from the communists and communism is still vivid in my mind.
CieCie Tuyet Nguyen was born in Saigon and witnessed its fall in 1975 when she was 13-years-old. After continuing to live there for three years under the communist regime, she escaped with her family by boat to Malaysia in 1978. She resettled in Sydney, Australia, where she has remained ever since. She graduated with a bachelor of pharmacy in 1985 from Sydney University and has operated her own pharmacy since 1989. Nguyen has self-published two short stories and memoirs in Vietnamese, one in 2011 and one in 2016. Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom is her first novel. For more information about the book, visit Nguyen’s website or her Facebook page. Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom is available for purchase on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers.