Propaganda posters and billboards marking Liberation Day blanket a downtown brimming with construction cranes and new high-rise buildings. City landmarks such as the old French colonial city hall and post office have gotten fresh coats of paint. A massive military parade is in the works and a shiny new statue of the North's iconic leader, Ho Chi Minh, waits to be unveiled on a renovated central square.

Yet even as the now-united country trumpets the North's victory over American invaders during a devastating conflict that left more than 3 million Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 American troops dead, bitter rifts over the civil war remain deep and unresolved.

For journalist and author Huy Duc, the first step towards reconciliation is to acknowledge the very different perspectives on why the war was fought. That has yet to take place.

"Vietnamese people from both sides have to agree on what happened," he said. "People who were sent from the North believed that they fought against the invading Americans and were liberating the South. And many people from the South ... believe it was a civil war, that the South was invaded by the North."

Architect Nguyen Huu Thai, 75, had a front-row seat for the last moments of the war. A student leader in Saigon in the 1960s, he later secretly worked for the North as a member of the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, that fought U.S. troops in South Vietnam.

"The reconciliation clock stopped in 1975," said Thai. "Even 40 years later, I still search for real reconciliation."

At noon on April 30, 1975, Thai was at Independence Palace, home to the South Vietnamese president, as the first North Vietnamese tank came crashing through the front gate — an image memorialized on banners all over the city. He helped a soldier find his way to the roof of the building to hang the NLF flag.

"When we raised the flag, I thought: 'This is not only 30 years of fighting ending, but 117 years,'" he said, counting back to the arrival of French colonial troops in 1858. "Tears were running down my face. It was so emotional, so important."

Afterwards, Thai helped organize the radio broadcast in which South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh announced his surrender over the airwaves. As the day came to a close, he recalled it being the quietest night he had ever experienced: "All of my life, there were no peaceful times," he said. "Until the night of the 30th. It was such a strange thing for me. In the sky, no more planes, no more flares. On the street, no more military cars racing around."

The tranquil early moments after the end of the war did not last long, however, as the new regime quickly began a period of harsh crackdowns and waves of desperate Vietnamese fled the country. "The winners still had the mentality of war," said Thai.

D.M. Thanh, a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, faced the morning of April 30 with dread. "The bright side was that the war had ended, and there wouldn't be any more fighting," he said. "On the other hand, I was very worried. I didn't know what my future would be."

Thanh, like thousands of other South Vietnamese officers, was sent to a re-education camp, where he spent 12 years subject to backbreaking labor, extreme deprivation and Marxist indoctrination. His wife was pregnant with their son when he was sent away and Thanh only saw them twice during his confinement. After he was released, he took over a flower shop his parents owned and has lived quietly since.

Thanh said he doesn't talk about the past with his son, but the memories haunt him. "I forgive, but I can never forget," Thanh said, his eyes welling up.

Vietnam's lack of reconciliation is a theme Duc addresses in his book, The Winning Side, a far more frank and open look at the final days of the war and its aftermath than is found in official Vietnamese literature. The book has not been published in tightly censored Vietnam, but it has been widely read around the country online and in bootleg editions.

"After the war, the winning side did nothing to reconcile the people," Duc said. "They dug the divisions deeper and deeper, even inside the families of the losers of the war. So reconciliation has now become more difficult than on the day of April 30."

One reason the divisions persist is that the ruling Communist Party keeps tight control over the news media so there is no free discussion of the country's past. A recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Vietnam the sixth most censored country in the world, worse than China, Iran and Cuba.

Many born after the fall of Saigon pay little attention to the anniversary or the lasting political wounds. They are more focused on enjoying the country's new found prosperity.

A growing economy

The Communists may have won the war, but the capitalists have won this cosmopolitan city that buzzes with entrepreneurial energy. Alongside the hammer-and-sickle flags are Chanel and Cartier boutiques. Young Vietnamese are as selfie- and Facebook-obsessed as peers around the world, and their focus is on how to take advantage of a growing economy.

"Ho Chi Minh City pays more attention to the economy than political issues," said Nguyen Tuan Thanh amid the whir of blenders and espresso machines in Caztus Coffee, a small café he owns. The 25-year-old, with tattooed arms and a Bluetooth receiver in his ear, was inspired by books written by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to start a chain of cafés specializing in ice-blended drinks.

It would have been much more difficult to start his business — three shops so far — in the North, where personal connections and relationships still dominate the business landscape. "It's much easier to get things done here than Hanoi," he said.

Denise Thi, 30, founder and managing director of a 6-year-old digital marketing firm recently acquired by multinational giant Dentsu Aegis Network, said the anniversary should be a reason to look ahead, not at the past.

"In a way you feel so proud of your country for what we have achieved, for how we fought for liberty," she said. "But there's another way of celebrating. ... I mean, let's talk about the future, not the past anymore."

Journalist Duc argues that the future won't be as bright if Vietnam fails to confront the past and address its long-lasting divisions.

"No matter how strong our economy is, the conflict among Vietnamese people on both sides is still very strong," he said. "So the thing we have to do is not only unify the different parts of the country, but also unify people's hearts."

By Thomas Maresca - USA Today - April 29, 2015


Forty years after fall of Saigon, entrepreneurs return to Vietnam

Henry Nguyen was a toddler when his family fled Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon 40 years ago.

Now he’s back, part of an influx of Vietnamese-born entrepreneurs returning to the country to reap the benefits of its shift to a more market-oriented economy.

Since his return in the early 2000s, Mr. Nguyen has become one of the best-known business figures in the Vietnam. He is head of Vietnam operations for Boston-based fund manager IDG Ventures, and he recently introduced the Big Mac to the country as McDonald’s Corp.’s first franchisee here.

In another sign of the changing times, Mr. Nguyen, the son of a civil engineer who worked with the old South Vietnamese government, is married to the daughter of Vietnam’s communist prime minister. The couple and their twin daughters live in Ho Chi Minh City, the name by which Saigon is now known.

“It’s something I never planned on or anticipated,” said Mr. Nguyen, a fresh-faced 41-year-old American with thick-rimmed glasses and spiky hair. “But looking forward, this is where my life is.”

The fact that Mr. Nguyen has gotten so far highlights how much Vietnam has changed since the South capitulated to Communist forces on April 30, 1975. It also points to the important role the country’s diaspora has played in expanding the scope and scale of what could be one of the world’s next great economic success stories.

As Vietnam’s Communist Party began to loosen its hold of the economy in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Viet Khieu, or overseas Vietnamese helped lead the march of foreign investment into the country.

Seattle-raised entrepreneur David Thai helped blaze the trail when he moved to Hanoi in the 1990s. He became the first overseas Vietnamese to register a private company and open a chain of coffee shops under the name Highlands Coffee. Since then, officials say other expatriate Vietnamese have invested more than $20 billion here, mostly in and around Ho Chi Minh City, still in many ways the country’s economic engine.

Intel Corp. appointed U.S. national Than Trang Phuc to launch a $2 billion chip factory in Ho Chi Minh City in the early 2000s, while other Vietnamese returned from America, France and elsewhere to set up private businesses.

The potential payoff is significant. Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC views Vietnam as the best example of a frontier economy benefiting from rising costs in China. Thanks to multibillion-dollar investments from companies such as Samsung Electronics Co. and Intel, exports of smartphones and other electronics now have eclipsed old standbys such as textiles and footwear, leaving the country comfortably higher up the value ladder than cheaper locales such as Cambodia or Bangladesh.

By James Hookway - The Wall Street Journal - April 29, 2015