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The Fall of Saigon, 30 Years Later

Aired April 27, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: The last hours of Saigon. Thirty years later, soldiers and civilians remember the dramatic day that Vietnam's Communists won the war.
Hello and welcome.

One of the Americans who fought in Vietnam used a phrase to describe the U.S. war there, a phrase that has since taken on a life of its own. He called the ideas, explanations and excuses that brought the United States to Vietnam and kept it there bright, shining lies.

The bright, shining lies of the U.S. crusade to defeat Communism in Asia ended 30 years ago when the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, surrendered to North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces on April 30, 1975.

A series of events were set into motion in Southeast Asia and halfway around the world in the United States, but the most dramatic moments were in and around Saigon itself. On our program today, CNN's Mike Chinoy presents a full edition report on Saigon.


MIKE CHINOY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The last days of the Vietnam War. South Vietnam's army, cutoff from further American aid by a United States that wanted nothing more to do with Vietnam, unraveling in the face of a North Vietnamese offensive. Millions of terrified refugees clogged the roads and ports desperate to escape the advancing Communist forces, hoping and praying for sanctuary in Saigon.

Among those caught up in the chaos was teenager Sujsan Vanh Vo (ph).

SUJSAN VANH VO (ph), VIETNAMESE REFUGEE: I was homeless for about I think three or four days, and I found my way back to Saigon on the helicopter which took food from Saigon to the camp for refugee people.

CHINOY: In the capital, Andrew Lam was 12, the son of a South Vietnamese general. Like many in the city, he saw the panic building among his friends.

ANDREW LAM, VIETNAM REFUGEE: I remember very clearly one of my closest friends said that his family was planning to committee mass suicide when the Communist came in.

CHINOY: Hanoi's drive caught the United States by surprise.

KEN MOOREFIELD, FMR. DIPLOMAT IN VIETNAM: People could sense that it was all going to come crashing down around our ears, and it was a matter of at that point, you know, weeks, even days, before, you know, the North Vietnamese juggernaut was going to close in on Saigon.

CHINOY: Ken Moorefield spent four years with the U.S. army in Vietnam. Now as a young diplomat he took charge of evacuating people from Saigon's (INAUDIBLE) Airport.

MOOREFIELD: It was very stressful, because it didn't stop. I mean, it went on hour after hour, day after day, and the demand was insatiable.

CHINOY: Saigon was surrounded. The fighting got closer and closer.

JIM LAURIE, JOURNALIST: We didn't know whether it was going to be days, weeks. We certainly didn't think it was going to be more than a couple of weeks, so Neil Davis (ph), my cameraman and I, said we're going to stay.

CHINOY: Jim Laurie was a young war correspondent for NBC News.

LAURIE: All of the networks and all the news agencies had ordered their people out. Davis and I were told by NBC that our insurance policies were cancelled. If you're going to stay, you're on your own. We can't take responsibility.

CHINOY: With panic spreading, Andrew's mother took him aside.

LAM: She asked me to burn all the family photos, because of my father being a general in the South Vietnam army, and I put them all in a garbage pail and burned them all. And I couldn't believe I did that now. I mean, I still live with that regret. And what I brought was my stamp collection because I loved my stamp collection.

CHINOY: Andrew Lam's father got the family to the airport.

LAM: And then in the morning you just sort of leave without any kind of saying goodbye or the -- the incense was still burning in the alter and the dog was still sleeping in the courtyard.

CHINOY: As Andrew's family flew out, a battle erupted on a crucial bridge near the capital. Boi Quang Than (ph) was a North Vietnamese tank commander.

BOI QUANG THAN (ph), FMR. VIETNAMESE SOLDIER (through translator): My tanks reached the northern side of the bridge leading to Saigon. The situation was so chaotic. Civilians were running, escaping from the fighting.

CHINOY: On the South Vietnamese side was Lieutenant Colonel Bui Van Giang.

BUI VAN GIANG, FMR. VIETNAMESE SOLDIER: This is the last bridge come into Saigon, so I try to keep this bridge, but not destroy it, so we can use it for reinforce our troops.

BOI QUANG THAN (ph) (through translator): The soldiers of the Saigon regime had organized some resistance against our attacks to the city, and on the Saigon River there was a lot of shelling and fighting. The combat was very fierce.

CHINOY: Saigon was about to fall.


MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, Mike Chinoy picks up the story with the desperate exodus out of the city.


MOOREFIELD: People were in an absolute state of panic. Remember, the city had been rocketed all night, so people had died. People were wounded. People were terrified.



MANN: At the war's peek in 1969 there were more than half a million American troops fighting in Vietnam. But back home the United States was being torn apart by the war and the deaths of what would ultimately be 58,000 of its troops. American forces withdrew and left the South Vietnamese to fight and lose the last battles of the war on their own.

Welcome back.

By the time the North Vietnamese and Vietcong entered Saigon, there were very few Americans left. On April 30, there were probably fewer, in fact, than 1,500. What a hand full of them had to decide was what to do about everybody else.

Mike Chinoy picks up the story.


CHINOY: April 29, 1975, the last 24 hours of the American presence in Vietnam. Option 4, one of the largest helicopter evacuations ever staged, got underway.

LAURIE: Very early in the morning, when there was a prearranged signal from Radio Saigon -- they would play "White Christmas" on the radio, and that was going to be the signal for everybody to gather at evacuation points which had been arranged in advance by the U.S. embassy.

CHINOY: But the evacuation buses were mobbed by terrified Vietnamese.

MOOREFIELD: People were in an absolute state of panic. Remember, the city had been rocketed all night, so people had died. People were wounded. People were terrified.

CHINOY: Holed up in her brother's house, Sujsan Vanh Vo's (ph) fears were typical.

SUJSAN VANH VO (ph): I remember one time my father told me, if the Communists take over the South Vietnam, you have to run and don't look back.

CHINOY: Thousands mobbed the U.S. embassy desperately seeking seats on outgoing helicopters.

MOOREFIELD: They were letting people come up over a back wall, one by one, if they could somehow demonstrate that they had an American passport or some documentation, something that indicated they had the right to be there, but aside from that, it was impossible to get inside the embassy.

CHINOY: Everyone, it seemed, was trying to escape, but when Sujsan Vanh Vo (ph) decided to go, her brother said no, not without her parents permission.

SUJSAN VANH VO (ph): I went in to open his cabinet, took $10 U.S. from him, without his permission, and walk out, I told him, I said I was going to buy an ice cream, and I left and I never came back.

CHINOY: Sujsan (ph) and a friend headed for the river. But the Port of Saigon was mobbed.

LAURIE: There was pandemonium at the docks as people tried to get out by boat, but the North Vietnamese were just across the river. There was a lot of gunfire in that area.

SUJSAN VANH VO (ph): As we sailed out to the sea, I heard all this gunshot going on behind us in the city and I looked up and I remember I'm very lucky that I get on the boat and I leave the country, even though my family stayed behind, it was OK.

CHINOY: Yet as Saigon collapsed and many South Vietnamese soldiers discarded their uniforms, Lieutenant Colonel Bui Van Giang, despite frantic appeals from his wife, refused to leave.

BOI VAN GIANT (ph): I say no, I must stay for my troop. The safety of my troop and the safety of my people, which is very important. I can't go. I stay.

CHINOY: Back at the U.S. embassy, Ken Moorefield made his way to the roof.

MOOREFIELD: From the roof, I counted about 400 to 500 personnel still in the courtyard, most of whom were not Americans. We were going to abandon them and to actually face up to the reality of people, you know, that you are looking at eyeball to eyeball that you're going to leave, is especially emotionally traumatic.

CHINOY: By now, the U.S. choppers had flown hundreds of sorties carrying nearly 1,000 Americans and several thousand Vietnamese to safety, but time was running out.

MOOREFIELD: Well, the helicopter landed and the helicopter pilot said I've been given orders that the ambassador has got to be on this helicopter. So I went to talk to the ambassador and told him what I had been told. He had been (INAUDIBLE), so I was not sure how steady he was at that point.

In any event, I put him on that helicopter, and I put the four or five officers that were with him, and they left.

CHINOY: An hour later, Ken Moorefield too was choppered to U.S. Navy ships deployed offshore. The U.S. involvement in Vietnam had come to an end.


MANN: We take another break. When we come back, Communist tanks roll into the city.

Stay with us.


BOI QUANG THAN (ph): After I finished hoisting the flag I was so happy, so excited. At first I wanted to throw the flag of the old regime away. Then I thought I should keep is as a souvenir.



MANN: One of the first things the North Vietnamese did when they took control of Saigon was to rename it. Ever since it's been known by the nom de guire (ph) of a revered Communist leader who fought the Japanese during the Second World War, Ho Chi Minh.

Welcome back.

For long years after the war, the Communist government set out to punish, imprison and reeducate thousands of southerners and seized their property. A feared bloodbath never materialized, but there was very real panic as the city was changing hands.

Once again, here's Mike Chinoy.


CHINOY: Saigon, early morning, April 30, 1975.

LAURIE: At just about 8:00, we watched one more Chinook take off from the roof of the embassy, and that, as it turned out, was the last helicopter.

We raced up to the roof of the embassy, and there were hundreds of Vietnamese, just sitting there on the roof, waiting for more helicopters.

CHINOY: The crowd began to rip the embassy apart, looting it floor by floor.

LAURIE: We were filming. Immediately I started to talk to people.


(on video): I understand that the Americans are gone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I know that, but I must go, just in case.

LAURIE: But there's no way, because all the helicopters are gone.


LAURIE: There is no way I can help because we are staying here.


That sense of anger was coming out, that sense of betrayal. The Vietnamese felt that the Americans had created this situation and now, in their great hour of need, were cutting and running.


(on video): What is left of the American involvement in Vietnam. The U.S. embassy behind me has been completely looted. The South Vietnamese obviously are angry at the American withdrawal. Many of them have said that they were left out in the evacuation. They were unable to make the helicopters. Many of them were American employees. They have had to stay and they will now have to stay and cope with Communism in South Vietnam.


CHINOY: And the North Vietnamese were now entering the city.

BOI QUANG THAN (ph) (through translator): We had never been to Saigon before. We didn't know the city. I had no idea where the presidential palace was. I stopped a young woman on a motorbike. I stopped her to ask where the presidential palace was. She was really scared. She said if I show you will you let me go. I said, of course you can go. I won't keep you.

CHINOY: At the presidential palace, Jim Laurie and cameraman Neil Davis (ph) were waiting.

LAURIE: The first tank burst through the front gate.

BOI QUANG THAN (ph) (through translator): I had to hit the gate three times. Finally it broke down and other tanks came. I saw a correspondent filming us crashing through the gate.

LAURIE: There was a tremendous amount of gunfire. One of the North Vietnamese soldiers got off his tank and raced to the balcony of the palace to put the flag on the balcony.

BOI QUANG THAN (ph) (through translator): I told the soldiers in the tank, if you don't see me in five minutes, open fire on the palace. I was nervous. I feared troops of the old regime would fight back.

After I finished hoisting the flag, I was so happy, so excited. At first I wanted to throw the flag of the old regime away. Then I thought I should keep it as a souvenir.

BUI VAN GIANG: My soldiers say (INAUDIBLE) we have orders to surrender. The people who live in the village bring the radio for me. They say, sir, can you hear this. I tried to hear, but my teardrops were (INAUDIBLE).

CHINOY: After 58,000 Americans dead and by some accounts nearly 2 million Vietnamese, the war was over.

Today the presidential palace in what is now called Ho Chi Minh City is a museum where Boi Quang Than's (ph) tank is proudly displayed, but Vietnam is a very different place than it was 30 years ago, open for business, welcoming back those who want to return.

Sujsan Vanh Vo (ph), who a decade after the war met and married Jim Laurie in the United States, comes back frequently. So does Andrew Lam, now a writer on Vietnam. And Ken Moorefield returned as a diplomat after the United States reestablished ties with Vietnam. But Bui Van Giang, who spent a decade in a reeducation camp before being free to go to the United States, refuses to visit.

In Vietnam today, nearly three-quarters of the population are too young to remember the war. Displays of old photos and captured U.S. military hardware at museums like this one among the few reminders of what happened here 30 years ago.

(on camera): None of this means the war has been forgotten, but both sides now have a common goal of putting the past behind them and working towards a very different kind of future.

BOI QUANG THAN (ph) (through translator): No one wants war. War means suffering. It means loss. It means hardship. I don't want my sons to fight in a war. I love peace.

CHINOY (voice-over): Mike Chinoy, CNN, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


MANN: Life in post-war Vietnam was difficult, but there were an estimated 50,000 children born to Vietnamese mothers and American fathers, and for them it was almost unbearable. These children were branded bastards of the enemy and they were abandoned, bullied, barred from jobs and forced to beg.

Thousands of Amerasian children were eventually allowed to emigrate to the United States.

One last time, here's Mike Chinoy with the story of one woman who stayed behind and built a happy life in Vietnam.


CHINOY: In a tiny studio in Ho Chi Minh City, Phuong Thao sings a haunting song of loss, a reflection of her own traumatic childhood.

Phuong Thao is Amerasian. Her father was a GI whose brief affair with her mother, a secretary at a U.S. army base, ended before Phuong Thao was born in 1968. In Vietnam, Amerasians were known as children of dust, abandoned by their American fathers, outcast in Vietnamese society.

PHUONG THAO, AMERASIAN: They laughed at me and many other people looked down on me.

CHINOY: But Phuong Thao discovered she had a gift, she could sing. She met and married a young composer, Nuc Lay (ph), with whom she now has two children. Overcoming discrimination, she became one of Vietnam's top pop stars. And then in 1996, after a three year search, with the help of an American writer researching Amerasians, she located her father, Jim Yoder (ph) of Farmville, Virginia, who came to Vietnam to meet her.

PHUONG THAO: He held me and I cried. I cried like a baby. He was surprised because I am a singer, and he said in his family, no one can sing.

CHINOY: Phuong Thao's good fortune was, however, the exception. Few found their fathers. But because U.S. law allowed Amerasians to go to the United States, many were exploited in scams aimed at getting other Vietnamese to America.

JIM NACH (ph), U.S. REFUGEE COORDINATOR: The easiest way to do that was to attach the ethnic Vietnamese to an Amerasian, either as an alleged parent of the Amerasian or as a family member.

CHINOY: Things go to bad that in 2001 the United States stopped issuing Amerasian visas. Only recently has the program resumed. But that's not a problem for Phuong Thao, because she wants to stay in Vietnam.

PHUONG THAO: Vietnam is my country. So I stay here. Because many, many people love me and love our music.

CHINOY: And her father, who married an American woman after the war, comes to visit regularly and has even reconciled with Phuong Thao's mother.

PHUONG THAO: They met as friends. My mom stays here with me. My daddy come here and stay with me three weeks, almost three weeks. In the morning, my mom cooks. In the evening, my American mom cooks. My daddy just eats. He is very lucky and happy.

CHINOY: It's no surprise that family is a recurring theme in the music that Nuc Lay (ph) composes and Phuong Thao sings. Their daughters, Nanna (ph) and Nam (ph), often appear with them, a rare happy ending to one of the saddest chapters in recent history.

Mike Chinoy, CNN, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


MANN: And that's INSIGHT for today. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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