40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon: Black April or National Liberation Day?


Back in my homeland of Vietnam, 30 April, the day that Saigon fell to the communist army in 1975, the day that effectively ended the Vietnam War, is still being called National Liberation Day.

The Hanoi version of history is that it liberated the South, saving its people from imperialism and destitution.

It is also using that narrative to legitimise its hold on power.

I fled Saigon two days before it all ended with my family, followed by tens of thousands of others, a moment which heralded the birth of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Scattered abroad – mostly in North America and Europe – we have another name for that period in time; we call it Black April.

For us, it remains a raw wound despite all the years that have passed.

It brings back memories of untold suffering in re-education camps, new economic zones, confiscated homes, families torn apart, and of an unprecedented mass exodus out to sea where many died.

Yet 40 years have passed since the war ended, and much has changed.

Here are some facts to mull over.

The population of Vietnam reached 93 million this year, a figure that has nearly tripled since 1975, with two out of three Vietnamese citizens born after the war ended.

With the majority of the population aged between 20 and 25 years of age, the majority of Vietnamese people have no direct memories of the war.

The communist regime gave up its ideological revolution in the late 1980s, abandoning its draconian practice of collectivization and even going as far as to rewrite the constitution to allow private citizens to practice capitalism.

Market reforms in the 1990s coupled with the forces of globalisation – porous borders, intensifying human mobility and new communication technologies, and an integrated global economy – led to newfound wealth and the creation of a middle class.

Vietnam’s economy has, after some bungling and missteps, and despite chronic corruption, been on the upswing ever since the then United States President Bill Clinton lifted the US trade embargo in 1994. Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007 also had a massive impact.

Vietnam’s population, meanwhile, is experiencing far greater personal freedom than people did 20 years earlier.

Many Vietnamese are allowed to travel overseas, while free movement within the country is guaranteed.

And then there’s Vietnam’s digital landscape. Almost 43 per cent of the country is online – and that figure is growing.

Take Facebook, for instance: barely five years since it’s been allowed to operate in Vietnam and the social media website has already captured three out of four internet users.


Enormous changes

As an American journalist and writer now, I have been back to Vietnam many times, and I have seen enormous changes in the last two decades.

But what I also see is the growing discontent against injustice and corruption – and the new communication architecture that has loosened the tongues of the people.

Citizens are becoming increasingly vocal and I’ve seen daring protests against the government stealing land from farmers or against China’s aggression over the South China Seas that could have never happened 20 years ago.

People use their cell phones to report wrongdoings. They record street protests and upload the video onto YouTube and other social media websites.

And more and more people are beginning to question Hanoi’s official version of history.

Once upon a time, owning a fax machine could get you arrested. And when it came to manipulating information, the Communist regime once ran an impeccable machine during the Cold War. But not anymore.

Despite the threat of arrest, the people are expressing their anger and frustration – both on the streets and online.

Hao Nhien Vu, a long-time human rights champion and blogger living in the US said that: “One of the characteristics of this generation of communist leaders is that they’ve realised that public opinion counts for a lot.”

Criticism that reached critical mass has resulted in changes, he added.

“An example involving one of my own pieces of reporting was when the government tried to tax money sent by Vietnamese-Americans to their family in Vietnam. After I broke the story with the BBC Vietnamese Service, it blew up on the blogs, and the government took it back within a day.”

Celebrated Vietnamese journalist Huy Duc, who fought in the North Vietnamese Army, recently wrote a book called The Winning Side which puts forward the argument that it was actually the South that liberated the North, and not vice versa.

The book became the most downloaded Vietnamese book in history. Duc lost in his job but his view is widely shared.

The famed musician To Hai, once a Communist Party member, also recently wrote a book called Memoir of a Coward to talk about his mistaken belief in communism.

On Facebook he posted images of emaciated men in re-education camps to challenge government spokespersons who recently said that the North didn’t mistreat the South. “Who are they kidding?” he asked. “They barked like wild dogs.”

As for the Diaspora, I see that it is no longer a community in exile despite its rhetoric of national loss and its psychic wounds.

Each year, over 100,000 diasporan Vietnamese visit their homeland. Remittances average around US$12 billion dollars a year, almost double the US$7 billion dollars given by the international community in aid.

On top of remittances, according The Voice of Vietnam, Vietnam’s English radio program, overseas Vietnamese have invested in about 2,000 projects, generating about US$6 billion annually.

The combination of overseas Vietnamese remittances and investment amounted to around 18 per cent of Vietnam’s GDP in 2014 – a staggering figure.

What this means on the ground is that a sizable population of Viet Kieu – Vietnamese expats, former boat people and their children – now wield considerable leverage in their homeland.

From opening art galleries to creating start-ups to working as executives for foreign multinationals in Vietnam, expats have become active agents in changing the destiny of Vietnam.

A young Vietnamese-American friend of mine from Los Angeles, whose sister was killed by Thai pirates while escaping the country after the war, recently returned to Saigon, where she is now a thriving entrepreneur.

My cousin, whose family was robbed of everything, fled to France and has returned and married a local woman, raised a family, and sells French wines.

He is prospering where his father once suffered in the country’s malaria-infested reeducation camp.

That was, in a sense, his best revenge.

So is 30 April Black April or Liberation Day?

Regardless of how one remembers that date, who won and who lost the war, as the population of Vietnam and its diaspora are in dialogue with one another about the future of their country, and as more people call for transparency and political reform, perhaps the answer to that question is becoming a moot point.