On April 30, 1975, slightly after noon, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, capital of the South Vietnamese regime.
Hours earlier, the American military operation "Frequent Wind" was coming to an end. Photos of the last helicopters leaving the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon evacuating the last U.S. citizens out of the country, became the symbol of America's defeat.
In a broadcast to the nation that day, South Vietnam President Duong Van Minh announced the unconditional surrender of the Saigon government and its military forces.
After three decades of fighting, civil war in Vietnam had ended. The blue and red flag with the golden star—the flag of the Vietcong—was raised. Saigon would be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the communist leader.
>> Read the English translation of RFA's Vietnamese language service interview with two soldiers who recall that time. One, a North Vietnamese soldier, the other, from South Vietnam.
>> Read and listen to their story in Vietnamese.
Vietnam has now spent the same time in recovery as it did in civil war—30 years. It has had full diplomatic relations with the U.S. since 1997 and the country has worked hard to develop global economic ties.
“There have been so many surprises,” Raymond Burghardt, a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said in an interview. Vietnam is reporting strong seven percent annual economic growth, he said, “and we believe it’s real.”
Burghardt, now at the East-West Center in Honolulu, gives Hanoi significant credit for reorienting itself and “joining the world” through trade agreements and international associations since the collapse of its onetime patron, the Soviet Union.
“The government has a lot less control over people’s lives now than it did 10 or 15 years ago,” he said, citing the explosive growth of the Internet and proliferation of mobile phones. “But I don’t foresee multiparty democracy any time soon.”
Vietnamese authorities got an abrupt wake-up call around 2001 when international financial organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund came in and urged privatization and foreign investments to create the needed 1.5 million to 2 million new jobs annually, he said.
The first American ambassador to Vietnam after normalization and the first ever in Hanoi, Douglas “Pete” Peterson, described Vietnam as “a very vibrant economy.”
“You have a country now that sees itself as a potential player in the world community, and as a player in the sense of being a constructive element in building relationships throughout the world that are based on mutual understanding,” said Peterson, who was held for six years by the Viet Cong and tortured after his plane was shot down.
That may offset the kind of brain drain that other Asian countries have suffered, he said, although Asian exiles tend to maintain beneficial ties with their native countries.
Vietnam is well acquainted with the phenomenon of brain drain. In the closing days of what Vietnamese call “the American War,” and for years afterward, legions of Vietnamese fled by boat across the South China Sea.
At the time, the world deemed most of them refugees as defined by international criteria—meaning that they faced political, religious, or other persecution if they returned to Vietnam. Many were well-educated and they arrived in the United States at a time when new immigrants could still work their way up the economic ladder,
Those who fled in later years comprised a different demographic. Many were northerners and less well educated than their predecessors—and many of the unskilled jobs that once constituted a first rung on the economic ladder to the middle class no longer existed or required some fluency in English.
At camps throughout Southeast Asia, they had to prove they were refugees fleeing political, religious, or other persecution rather than economic migrants merely searching for a better life outside Vietnam.
The 2000 U.S. Census identified more than 1.2 million people in the United States of Vietnamese ancestry, just under one-half of one percent of the U.S. population, but their contributions to the country "are tremendous," Burghardt said.
>> Read the story of Nguyen, who fled Vietnam via boat in 1989.
Original reporting in Vietnamese by RFA's Vietnamese language service. Written and produced in English for the Web by Catherine Antoine, Sarah Jackson-Han and Maggy Sterner.