DEPENDING on which side you were on, Saigon either fell on April 30, 1975, or it was liberated. Inside Vietnam, the day is marked as Liberation Day — but outside, among the Vietnamese refugees, it is called Deep Resentment Day. (The resentment is not just over losing a war, but also a country.)
On April 21, 1975, I was 11 and living in Saigon. I turned on the television and saw our president, Nguyen Van Thieu. He had a high forehead, a sign of intelligence, and long ears, indicating longevity. He had a round face with a well-defined jaw — the face of a leader — unlike his main rival, Nguyen Cao Ky, who resembled a cricket with a mustache. Thieu said, “At the time of the peace agreement the United States agreed to replace equipment on a one-by-one basis, but the United States did not keep its word. Is an American’s word reliable these days?”
Growing up in Saigon, I did not witness the war, only its apparatus: tanks, jeeps, jets. I often heard the rhythmic, out-of-breath phuoc phuoc phuoc of chopper blades rotating overhead. As it did for many Americans, the war came to me mainly through the news media. Open a newspaper and you would see Vietcong corpses lying in disarray. Turn on the radio and you could hear how our side was winning. Saigon theaters even showed American movies of World War II. Saigonese could sit in air-conditioning and watch expensively staged war scenes.
We considered the VC little more than a nightmare, a rumor, a bogeyman for scaring children. Once, in Saigon’s Phu Lam neighborhood, I saw four blindfolded men standing on a military truck, but there was no way to tell if they were really VC. If someone took a bad photo, you said, “You look just like a VC!” Only after April 30, 1975, did Saigonese realize there were plenty of VC among them.
Before the government fell, my father arranged for me and my brother to flee the country with a Chinese family. He sent his secretary along to take care of us. This secretary was 22, Chinese, with a very short temper, her face round and puffy. Sister Ha, as I called her, would later become my stepmother.
Before I left, my father gave me $2,000, saying, “Two thousand bucks should last you a year.” American bills, I noticed, were less colorful than Vietnamese ones, though longer and crisper. After sewing the money into the hem of my blue shorts, made of rayon and extremely hot, my grandmother advised, “Whatever you do, don’t take these shorts off.”
Before boarding the plane, I stayed at an American compound for four days. On the evening of April 27, I got on a C-130 to fly to Guam. Sitting next to Sister Ha, I watched a kid eat raw instant noodles. When the plane landed, it was pitch dark. No one knew a thing about Guam; we knew only that we had left Vietnam behind.