In the early morning on April 30, 1975, when the last American helicopters made their farewell circles over Saigon, leaving behind its Vietnamese fighting fellows and wrote the last words in the shameful page of the history book of the Vietnam War, I knew my last ray of hope was fading away.
At 10:30 AM when the order to give up fighting came from the Presidential Palace, what I had wished not to take place became an undeniable reality. I took my motorcycle and ran home. The streets were crowded with all kinds of vehicles, military and civilian, from bikes to large trucks and all traffic lights went off.
At home, my mother, my wife and my children looked at me with apparent fear for my safety in their eyes. My family home was in a suburb of Saigon, where middle-class and poor families lived together peacefully for many decades.
However, during the War, many peasants from Central Vietnam provinces moved into Saigon suburbs to avoid war risks. Their home provinces had been under severe Communist influence, and people in Saigon had mostly looked at them dubiously.
These people were living in narrow circumstances and many were earning their living by driving cyclos. They used to complain about the unpopular government and their language always made me more convinced that they might have been VC's, or at least they sympathized with the Communist side.
That morning of destiny, I was ready to see one of them doing something against my family and me.
While I was upstairs, completely in despair waiting for the worst thing to come, I heard my mother talking to some young man and inviting him in. I overheard him telling my Mom that he was a corporal in one of our 25th Infantry Division combat units. He had been wounded in his left foot a week before and was in the Cong Hoa Military General Hospital when the surrender was announced.
He was kicked out of the hospital along with the others but he had not a penny in his field dress pockets. Hesitantly, he asked my Mom in s low voice for a little money, together with that given by other families in my neighborhood, to help him go back to his home in Ca Mau, the southernmost province of Vietnam. 150 miles from Saigon.
My Mom called me to come downstairs. He asked my mother if I was her son. My mother thought he would be pleased when she told the poor corporal, "Don't worry, he is an Army Major."
Stepping down the stair, I saw him in his field dress, spotted with blood, a blue pajamas of the hospital on his left arm. At my mom's last word, he instinctually jumped up but failed and dropped again on the tile floor. "Oh, no. I can't see him," he stuttered. "He would scalp me and disdain me. A soldier begging for money. No, he won't stand that."
I quickly stopped him, "Stay there, I'd like to talk to you." He tried to stand up once again, this time pulling himself up with one hand on the door knob, the other leaning on a crutch. He instinctively raised his right hand to salute me, but stopped half way before his hand reached his brows.
I felt like laughing but held back and said to him, "Our republic is no more, our armed forces collapsed, I am no more a major and you no more a corporal. Why do you care?"
The young corporal looked straight at me, I could read a muted protest in his eyes. After a moment of silence, he said with a voice articulated but monotonous as if in a dream, "No sir. I don't think so. Despite 'their' slanderous propaganda, in the hearts of the people where we are living will never forget that you are a major and I a corporal whenever you and I do anything good or bad."
At last, he accepted my mother's gift of VN$ 1,000 (two dollar at the time). The money he was given by my neighbors amounted up to about VN$ 10.000, enough to pay for the bus tickets and boat fare connecting the bus station in the provincial city to his village. One of the cyclo drivers in my neighborhood volunteered to drive him to the bus station where all bus owners offered him and soldiers like him free rides to their home towns.
It was one of the cyclo drivers down the alley from my home who had picked up the corporal on the street in front of the military hospital and brought him back to our neighbors' so he could get help. That cyclo driver told me that he had happened to be in the hospital area looking for his brother living near by when many hundred wounded soldiers - even those on the operating tables - were booted out of the wards.
"Words spread quickly," he said. "In half an hour, hundreds of cyclos rushed into the streets around the hospital and offered the wounded soldiers free rides to wherever they wanted to go. Most were heading for the cross-country bus stations."
With his voice somewhat emotional, he added, "Many cyclo drivers not only gave them free rides but also bought them food. Some even brought them to their homes for a meal before driving them to the stations."
It was quite a surprise to me. But that evening, the cyclo drivers and some poor workers in the alley made me much more surprised when they came to see me and an Army captain a block from mine..
"You should stay home, particularly at night," they said. "If any VC knocks your door to see you, don't let them in till we came to stand by you. You 'd better call us from your second floor windows, we sure can hear you."
I shook their hands with thankful words. One of them whom I had thought must have been a VC reassured me, "You might have thought I am a VC..." He did not continue but I could guess what he meant to say.
"Aren't you afraid of being in troubles because of me?" I asked. "You can't reason with them, but we poor workers can. They have to rely on us to exist unless we do something big against them."
By June 28, 1975, all of the South Vietnamese armed forced and police officers, government ranking civil servants and members of anti-Communist groups were imprisoned in the notorious "reeducation camps." Once in the third week since we were locked up, a team of several North Vietnamese Army colonels came to see us and talked to a group of us who had served in various research and study agencies in our armed forces.
They asked each in our group to write down an analysis about the political orientation of the poor in South Vietnam. They said to us, "Before we took over Saigon last month, we had always thought that all the poor were on our side, at least similar to what we saw in 1954. But to our surprise, we are facing with the increasing unfavorable attitudes of the poor. "
"It seems that the majority of the poor, factory workers or curbstone dealers or street peddlers and farmers in the areas we have just taken over do not welcome us as we had expected. Many refused to sell goods to us and some elder citizens even angrily protested our liberation. It must be the results of the American schemes of political indoctrination..."
We all agreed to request a written order from the highest official from the Communist military administration over South Vietnam before we could begin writing such analyses. We insisted that the order must guarantee that there would be no actions against us based on anything we put down on the reports.
They failed to respond to our request. At the following meeting with them, we could confirm only that the Americans "had never spent a dime for anti-Communist political indoctrination in the USA or abroad."
A least the unforgettable day of April 30, 1975 taught me something: Time had been on our side, only that we were not patient enough, and we were not aware of our silent victories. Moreover, how could a foreigner understand the real situation in Vietnam when I, a Vietnamese living close to the worker class had been misunderstanding our own people so much and for so long?