A tank float decorated with ornamental lights rolled down a street in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday as part of a parade celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Communist victory that ended the Vietnam War.
By Seth Mydans , May 1, 2000
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, April 30 -- The aging long-haired singer and the bearded artist rattled the ice in their glasses and contemplated the transformation of their nation.
Old warhorses as surely as the veterans who paraded this morning with their medals, the two men -- antiwar heroes of the past -- talked of peace, progress and the spirit of the nation today on the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
Loud rock music echoed down the old French colonial boulevard as tens of thousands of holiday strollers jammed the central streets of this fast-changing city, the former Saigon.
But the two comrades, their whiskey bottle almost empty, could not seem to get away from an image that still haunts them: the rich American man walking down the street hand in hand with the beautiful Vietnamese woman.
During the war, said the singer, Trinh Cong Son, that image symbolized the nation's poverty and moral degradation, although -- still a romantic -- he conceded that love might also have been involved.
Today, said the painter, Trinh Cung, it is the best example of the pragmatism and materialism that have gripped the soul of Vietnam: "Getting money, more and more, is what people want. They want to have a new life, a new rich life, and quite frankly they don't care what society says about them."
On this night of remembrance, just a few blocks from the site where the last American helicopters fled the city a quarter of a century ago, it seemed a luxury to complain about morality and materialism, the concerns of a nation at peace.
"Now, really, I have nothing to protest," said Mr. Son, who was famous in the 1960's as his country's Bob Dylan. His antiwar songs, banned by the South Vietnamese government, were circulated and sung by everyone from the cities to the battlefront.
"I continue to write songs," he said, "but they concern love, the human condition, nature."
The morning's victory parade had been endearingly lackluster, as the marchers -- soldiers, students, stevedores, gymnasts, bank tellers, doctors with their stethoscopes -- chatted and laughed together as they dutifully waved their little red flags. A youth group dressed as bumblebees carried signs warning against AIDS. A posse of waiters rattled cocktail shakers.
If this was meant to be a cross section of Vietnam's Communist society, its message was heartwarming. No one paid attention to the amplified propaganda that filled the air and the patriotic songs with lyrics like "Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!"
Around the city, residents say, quite a few people have "forgotten" to display the red Vietnamese flag with its gold star, as their local Communist Party watchdogs have ordered.
As Carlyle S. Thayer, a Hawaii-based expert on Vietnamese politics, likes to say, "Vietnamese ideology is in a muddle and hardly taken seriously by the 97 percent of the people who are not party members."
That is not to say that there was not a mood of real pride and patriotism today in a nation that has shrugged off centuries of foreign domination and is determined now to carve its own path into the future.
Even for people too young to remember the war -- and that is most people here -- there is a keen sense of the preciousness of peace.
"Of course, I was born after the war, but I treasure the achievements and the sacrifices of the older generation so that we could have independence," said Nguyen Thi Tuyen Hong, 24, a saleswoman in a gallery. "War terrifies me."
The curious thing is that Ms. Hong's father worked for the American government during the war and was imprisoned by the victors in 1975. Later, she said, he tried to escape with his family to the United States but failed. But that, quite genuinely, did not seem to affect her patriotic feelings.
"After the war, life was harder for a time," she said. "Even so, today is wonderful, more than wonderful. That's really true. I don't say everyone feels that way, but most people do. We in the younger generation have lots of opportunities to live and do business in an atmosphere of peace."
Some older people said the anniversary today brought back strong feelings from the past.
"It's a long time since I've felt this excited," said Mai Thi Van, 39, who lived in North Vietnam during the war and now runs a motorcycle parking lot in the center of Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnamese women march in front of the presidential palace of the former Saigon regime during a parade marking the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City.
When someone whispered, "Come on, you can tell him what you really think," Mrs. Van insisted: "No, that's really the way I feel. When I saw the celebration on television this morning, it reminded me of how great it felt 25 years ago."
But her friend, Vo Thi Ngoc Anh, 46, who lived in the south during the war, was more reticent, simply smiling and shaking her head when a reporter asked about her feelings.
Whatever the official pronouncements may say, southern Vietnam is still a society divided by its past and its memories.
"Today there are many happy stories, but also many sad stories," said Le Minh Truong, who was a war photographer for the Communists, "because today is a day of remembrance of the deaths of many people, of soldiers on both sides."
He is one of the happy ones, he said. "But I myself am doing nothing today. I watched a bit of the parade on television, but I'll leave the task of celebrating to the government."
Many other people did not pass up the chance to celebrate even if their festivities had little to do with the history of the day.
From shop to shop throughout the city, a peek behind half-closed shutters showed groups of men lounging comfortably on the floor with cups of homemade rice wine and plates of snacks.
Many others headed for the beach or for retreats at Buddhist temples.
But the heartbeat of the day was in the core of this charismatic city -- the streets that link the central market, the opera house and the Roman Catholic cathedral -- where people strolled late into the warm night just for the pleasure of being here.
There were quail eggs and grilled meatballs and shrimp crackers and spring rolls to be had, and pineapples and lotus seeds and sugar cane juice and sour green mangoes.
There were small children carrying smaller children on their hips as they hawked postcards and chewing gum.
And there were hints of the old, dark Saigon: pickpockets, pimps, crippled beggars dragging themselves along the sidewalk with their hands, women carrying limp, sleeping babies as they ran after foreigners shouting, "You give me money."
Above all, there was the evening moment at the cathedral when, as it has for as long as Saigon has been here, the sun suddenly sinks as if trying to catch the city by surprise.
Orange lights go on outside the old French post office, the sky turns radiantly pink and hundreds of swallows wheel around the twin steeples of the red-brick church. Couples, young and old, sit at tiny tables near the statue of the Virgin Mary, sharing a bowl of soup or glass of juice.
Two modest red banners with a yellow hammer and sickle now hang near the church. Nothing else has changed.
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 2000 by Neil Mishalov