On April 28, 1975, Saigon was under curfew as North Vietnamese forces drew near. The capital city that for years had evaded attack was now characterized, TIME reported, by “a strange blend of serenity and fear.” Some streets were clogged with a cavalry of bicycles, pedicabs and trucks heading for anywhere but where they were. In other corners, life went on as though it weren’t about to change irrevocably.
The following day, helicopters began airlifting evacuees as Americans and South Vietnamese clamored for spots. Some residents holed up in their homes and waited while others desperately sought a way out, whether by air, by sea or by the benevolence of strangers. One 18-year-old girl placed a classified ad in the Saigon Post, seeking “adoption by or marriage with foreigner of American, French, British, German or other nationality.”
At 10:24 on the morning of April 30, Duong Van Minh, president for all of two days, announced the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam. At midday, tanks stormed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, where Minh waited to cede what power he had left, and a war that had raged for two decades was over.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.