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24 August 2021

From the NS archive: The day Saigon fell

5 May 1975: As the Viet Cong pour into the city, the Americans fly out.

By James Fenton

The poet and journalist James Fenton was in Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – reporting on the last days of the Vietnam War, when the city fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong on 30 April 1975. American combat troops had left Vietnam two years earlier but still marooned in Saigon were residual troops, US embassy staff and thousands of South Vietnamese who had sided with the Americans. The scramble to leave the city was rushed and undignified, and culminated in the helicopter evacuation of the last remaining US personnel from the embassy compound itself. Ambassador Graham Martin was on board the final helicopter to fly out – the marines had orders to arrest him if he refused to go. Several hundred sympathisers were left behind in the compound. The image of the last helicopter out has become a defining image of the Vietnamese misadventure.

***

Last Tuesday morning I was woken by the doorman, who came into the bedroom carrying one loaf of French bread, two cubes of local sugar and some Coca-Cola. He returned a little later with ice, and insisted I get up and eat. Next came a young man looking for an American who had promised to get him out. He had been planning to leave from the new port the night before, but the place had been under attack. I told him he should not leave, since this was his country, and if he went now he would never get back. He said, misunderstanding: “I like going to the country. My family always goes to the country for holidays. We go to Rach Giá and Hà Tiên.” I said that Hà Tiên was now in the hands of the Vietcong. He said: “Do you think people are happy in Hà Tiên?” I said I thought so.

The 24-hour curfew seemed not very strict so I set out to find the other journalists. Saigon looks beautiful when the streets are deserted. Families were standing in their doorways, smiling. A group of soldiers passed, smiling. A beggar girl with a tattered white silk blouse, to whom I have given some money, runs laughing along beside me. She is young, with a slightly idiot look and no teeth. Of course she would be out during the curfew. Why not? There is a Sunday morning atmosphere. I feel very happy. But I just wish there were a few Sunday papers.

I meet one of the Popular Defence Force who tells me that the airport was attacked during the night. I appear to have slept through everything. At the Hotel Continental all the journalists were talking about the previous night’s fighting at the airport. They had seen planes shot down by Strela missiles and it was clear that the American evacuation was about to begin. As it turned out, many of those who had airily said they would stay decided to leave, whereas some who had been reluctant to stay finally did so.

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I drove to the airport with a colleague and we were stopped by the ARVN soldiers at the gate. Many families were being turned away. Beside us was a hole made by the artillery of the night before. In the distance, a column of black smoke. But there was at that stage (about ten in the morning) no sign of an actual ground attack. There was no noise of small arms fire, excepting the shots fired over the heads of those, like us, who were trying to enter the airport. Back in central Saigon the streets were quiet, with soldiers lounging at crossings and no one actually enforcing the curfew.

I went to move from my hotel and was several times asked why I had not left. “Are you French or Australian?” people asked. One small restaurant was open, in which a group of lieutenants were drinking Scotch and eating Chinese chicken. They asked me to join them. One, called Minh, insisted that they would all be killed. I tried to say that I thought they were wrong but when I explained why there was a certain degree of hostility. “How long did you spend with the communists?” they asked. I said I hadn’t been with the communists. We began talking in French. They were amused, they said, that when I started speaking in French I began to tremble.

I moved first to the Continental Hotel, but then there was pressure from the journalistic community to cross the square to the Caravelle. The American evacuation had begun and the foreigners and accomplices of the war were assembling at the various prearranged points around town. The new Prime Minister had officially told the Americans to leave Vietnam in the next 24 hours. Everybody assumed that the majority of them had already gone when, in mid-afternoon, it became clear that there had been a tremendous hitch in the plans.

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In the American Embassy even the diplomats were worried about the fact that the big helicopter had not yet arrived. People began to wonder whether the North Vietnamese would start shelling the embassy. But outside the gates the crowd had not yet grown to alarming proportions. There were shady Koreans, a few stranded Americans and a few hundred Vietnamese waiting around. ARVN officers in mufti would sidle up to you and say “Excuse me”, producing an embassy visiting card, “I’m a good friend of Mr so-and-so. Do you think I could get in?”

There was a sound of automatic fire nearby, and around the embassy the police would occasionally fire into the air when some angry man became too importunate. The ice was finally broken when one of the officers asked in Cambodian whether I spoke Khmer. A little, I said. Then we were able to begin. I thought, not for the first time, how much better educated such people were than their equivalent in say a European country. No doubt if I had wanted to communicate in written Chinese, it would have been possible.

I reached out for a piece of the chicken, and nonchalantly picked up the head. Inwardly horrified, I bit in the eyeballs with great gusto and sucked out the cerebellum. I asked them why they were afraid of a communist takeover. They were well aware that in Phnom Penh the people had greeted the Khmer Rouge with open arms. But they said that that was only a kind of presentation. Afterwards, there would be a settling of accounts. They insisted they were going to die.

I asked what they were going to do now. One man said: “I’m going to do just what De Gaulle did in the Second World War in London.” Another man said: “De Gaulle wasn’t in London, he was in Paris.” I bade farewell. They said they were going to sit there all day, until they died.

But as the evening progressed, and the helicopters began arriving, the mood of the city suffered a terrible change. Everything accelerated at the same pace. The helicopters circled round and round in the sky. The sky began to darken. It began to rain, looting began. People looted the most extraordinary things. Bed-heads, wardrobes, mattresses, part of this, bits of that – and then the sensible things like canned beer from the Brinks Building, the oldest centre of American operations in South Vietnam. It became at this point rather frightening; for the first time I found that the youths on motorbikes were shouting “Go back to your country” and other slogans indicating that they presumed all white faces were American. What people are afraid of here, as they were in Phnom Penh, is a pogrom by the “friendlies”.

Even if Saigon had not been falling, even if crowds and crowds were not trying to get out, it would have been enough to see the helicopters. The evacuation was so public, so noisy, so inaccessible, and took such a very long time. At about seven in the evening the panic, however, was partially curbed when the electricity failed and everyone began to go home. Returning to the hotel, I noticed that there were very few soldiers left on the street corners. By ten, however, the police had got things under control. The pace of the war seemed to have slacked off. I came with a plain-clothed police escort to the Reuters office to file this, and although the distance is not great we did not encounter any danger. We walked down the middle of the road, hand in hand, we were rather like the butcher and the baker in “The Hunting of the Snark”. It is now 11 o’clock and the sound of the war has begun once again. We know that Hanoi has demanded an unconditional surrender and we know that must come soon.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)