For the people who had fought for years to keep communist forces out of power in Vietnam, what happened in Hanoi was a bitter defeat. And yet, in hindsight, that moment might be viewed with a certain wistfulness by all sides involved.
The moment in October 1954, in which Vietnam's colonial French rulers vacated the city to make way for communist forces, was the product of about a decade of fighting but the conflict in question was much older than that. The French had been in what was then called Indochina for nearly a century, but the uproar of World War II had offered occasion for many in Vietnam to decide to take up arms — especially in a group known as the Viet Minh — against Japanese and Vichy French aggression. When the World War ended, Vietnam's fight did not. As the French struggled to regain control of their colony, the seeds of a new war were planted.
By 1954, after sustained fighting wore down opposition, it was decided at peace talks in Geneva that the nation would be split along the 17th parallel, with the Communist forces taking the north half and French Union forces in the south. Thus, at least in theory, would end the years of fighting between French colonial forces and those who rebelled against their rule. The idea was that, by two years later, general elections would decide on one single government to reunite the two sides. Of course, that is not what happened.
But in that moment, before the Vietnam War as Americans know it, there still seemed to be a possibility of peaceful resolution.
LIFE photographer Howard Sochurek was there to photograph the Communist takeover of Hanoi for the magazine, and several of his images (those seen below) appear in Sunday night's premiere episode of the new series The Vietnam War, from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
And what Sochurek saw, as evidenced by his notes, which are preserved in LIFE's archives, was a relatively smooth transition. An early wave of Viet Minh soldiers and civil servants came to town to overlap with the French, to avoid an interruption in public services. "Many of the Viet Minh carry little note pads with them on which they assiduously take notes when being briefed on their new jobs," Sochurek noted for his editors.
And yet, even then, it was clear that any idea of an entirely seamless change was mere illusion. For example, the agreement gave civilians a period to choose which side of the DMZ they would rather live in, and nearly a year to go to the society of their choice. Of course, even a choice like that is not much of a choice, as families might find themselves (and their homes and livelihoods) on opposite sides of the line.
About 900,000 refugees fled South, by Burns and Novick's count. Many were Catholics who feared for their ability to practice their religion in a Communist nation; others merely sought the political system of their choice. But many who might have otherwise wanted to move stayed put, for the reasons anyone would do the same, and prepared to weather the consequences — consequences that, at that point, they could not have foreseen.
"This is my home," one man in Hanoi told Sochurek. "I will never leave it."