Rising from the ashes Called Saigon during the war, Ho Chi Minh City has grown prosperous.
James Nachtwey for TIME
April 9, 2015 10:59 AM EDT

On April 29, 1975, my father, an American war correspondent, left his home in South Vietnam for the last time. With the fall of Saigon to the Communist North imminent, he shoved away Vietnamese grabbing his arms 
 and legs at the U.S. embassy gates and scrambled onto a helicopter that took off from the roof of the U.S. mission. “My last view of Saigon was through the tail door of the helicopter,” he wrote in the Chicago Daily News. “Then the door closed—closed on the most humiliating chapter in American history.”

Some time later, my father’s home in central Saigon welcomed a new tenant, an officer in the victorious North Vietnamese army. George McArthur, another reporter who had shared the house with my father, had warned me about the man when I first visited the villa in 1999. George had spent the morning of the fall of Saigon on his front doorstep watching the presidential palace being shelled down the street. His email to me maintained the telex concision of an earlier generation of journalists: “Heard the house is occupied by a senior spook of the opposition variety. Be careful. McArthur.”

If I had arrived a few days later in Ho Chi Minh City, as the city is now known, I would have missed the Vietnamese colonel’s family. Amid the detritus of a move—a tinsel Santa Claus, knockoff Barbies and stacks of faded ­documents—I found Cao, the army officer’s granddaughter, packing boxes. Soldiers, even of the possible senior-­spook variety, no longer deserved such plush digs, and the family was being transferred to another home. Cao wasn’t happy. On her grand­father’s advice, she was studying English for a job in tourism, and her commute to school was about to double. “Grandfather learned Russian,” she said, shaking her head at such an exotic, irrelevant language. “But En­glish, I think, is the future.”

Today, more than 15 years later, the house still stands on Alexandre de Rhodes Street, named after a 17th century French missionary whose work helped with the transliteration of Vietnamese into the Roman alphabet. The latest occupant is a property-­development company that specializes in high-end serviced ­apartments—a fitting symbol of the market reforms that have propelled Vietnam on a hybrid capitalist­-socialist path for nearly 20 years.

Vietnam’s changes aren’t fast enough for many in this country of 90 million, more than double the population at the end of the war. One evening in March, I sat at a Czech brewery around the corner from my father’s old house, with Tran Si Chuong, who had left home in 1973 for graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley. Two years later, as South Vietnam fell, his family joined him in exile, part of an exodus of some 2 million Vietnamese fleeing the communists. But after working on Capitol Hill and as a management consultant, Chuong moved back to Vietnam in 1998 and now sits on the boards of some of the country’s biggest businesses. In 2013 he renewed his Vietnamese citizenship. “South Korea and Japan both developed within 20 years of war ending,” he says. “I don’t understand why it’s taking Vietnam so long.”

Four decades after the end of the Vietnam War—known to the Vietnamese as the American War—­Vietnam seems determined not to look back. Given that 40% of Vietnamese are under 25 years of age, it’s perhaps easy to dismiss the war as ancient history. At least 3 million Vietnamese (and more than 58,000 Americans) may have died during the years of conflict, but Vietnam is now an emerging Asian economy that ranks as one of the world’s top producers of rice and coffee. In 2014, annual GDP growth was nearly 6%. The nation’s manufacturing base is booming as young women trade farm work for factory shifts. Life expectancy has increased from 40 years in 1960 to 73 today, even if per capita income still struggles to reach $2,000 a year in a country rife with income inequality.

Near the cities, the verdancy of rice paddies—that haunting hue of Hollywood war ­movies—vies with the green of new golf courses. A billboard in Hanoi, Vietnam’s graceful and reserved capital, announces that Brooks Brothers will arrive this spring. The U.S. and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, and bilateral trade reached $30 billion in 2013, a nearly 135-fold jump from 1994. The prevailing national attitude in Vietnam is encapsulated by the slogan on T-shirts sold to hipster foreign tourists: vietnam: a country, not a war.

Peace, though, is a rarity in Vietnamese history. A sinuous curve extending the length of Indochina’s eastern flank, Vietnam has long served as a prize of empire. “Vietnam’s history is one of many wars,” says retired Colonel Nguyen Manh Ha, the former vice director of the institute of military history at the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy. “For us, war is a way to make peace.” Ha, whose father spent eight years on the Ho Chi Minh Trail supplying the Viet Cong guerrillas of the North, notes that Vietnam has suffered 17 foreign invasions over the centuries. In all but three instances, Vietnamese troops quickly repelled the intruders. (Vietnam was, however, colonized for a millennium by China until the 10th century and for more than seven decades by the French until independence in 1954.)

For Americans, the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Since then, the failures in Vietnam have weighed heavily on every U.S. military adventure, from Iraq to Afghanistan and back again. Yet despite the dire predictions of cold warriors, the domino theory’s communist tiles did not fall. The U.S. continues to keep the peace in the Pacific. Hostilities in Vietnam, by contrast, persisted even after the nation’s reunification in 1975. Hanoi was soon embroiled in two military confrontations, a brief but bloody border war with an invading China that was precipitated by another conflict: Vietnam occupied Cambodia for a decade to rid its neighbor of the murderous Khmer Rouge, who were supported by Beijing. The fighting with Cambodia cost an additional 30,000 Vietnamese soldiers’ lives—a toll unrecorded in local textbooks. Guns were only laid down in 1989.

Vietnam’s desire to shed its bloodstained past is shared by other Asian nations, many of which have pushed ahead with economic expansion even as they lag on political reform. Nevertheless, the kind of big-power politics that tore Vietnam apart more than 40 years ago still has a way of swaying the present. ­Before, Vietnam was a battleground to stop communism spreading in Southeast Asia. Now, Vietnam is a front against the world’s most successful and enduring Communist Party: China’s.

As China steps into its superpower role, Beijing has assertively claimed most of the vast South China Sea as its own, putting it in conflict with five Asian states— most dramatically Vietnam and the Philippines. To counter China’s muscle, Hanoi has strengthened relations with the U.S., even conducting joint naval exercises off Da­nang, the central Vietnamese port city where American soldiers first came ashore in 1965. In 2014, Washington partially lifted a weapons ban on its former enemy.

Americans visiting Vietnam often express amazement at the lack of rancor expressed by ordinary Vietnamese. At a mid-March ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Quang Ngai city in central Vietnam, war ­veterans—most scarred, some missing limbs—joined the city’s deputy mayor in toasting me, the sole American in the crowd. “To friendship with America,” he said, before chugging his overflowing Saigon Beer.

That’s part sentimentalism, part pragmatism. Thao Griffiths was raised in a small town on Vietnam’s frontier with China that was littered with land mines from the 1979 border war in which the Vietnamese expelled the invading People’s Liberation Army. (Even today, farmers and their buffalo occasionally step on buried bombs.) Now she serves as the country director for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which addresses the enduring legacies of war, such as unexploded ordnance and dioxin contamination from defoliants like Agent Orange. “Vietnam has a long tradition of making friends with countries that hurt us,” she says, ticking off France, Japan and the U.S. with her fingers. “It’s not so much out of friendliness but out of necessity because we are a small country that needs to do whatever it takes to survive.”

A New Enemy

The Vietnamese tourists in the one-room museum on the frontier island of Ly Son listen to the tour guide’s description of an imperial aggressor that seized sovereign Vietnamese soil. Pointing to old maps that supposedly prove Vietnam’s ancient authority over the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands, which the Vietnamese call the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, the docent details how the arrogant superpower stole the Paracels from the Vietnamese in 1974, then followed up in 1988 with another incursion in the Spratlys. In both cases, scores of ­Vietnamese ­soldiers perished. The ­tourists—each outfitted in T-shirts that read the vietnamese heart shares the same belief and the same ­determination—shake their heads sympathetically. “We will never forget that this is our land,” the guide says of the disputed outcroppings scattered in remote but resource-­rich waters. The focus of her resolve is not America but China.

Vietnam’s struggle against the U.S. may loom largest in the imagination of Americans, but its oldest and bitterest foe lies to the north. With China claiming roughly 80% of the 3.5 million-sq-km South China Sea as its own, Beijing has engaged in a building exercise, turning tiny spits of land into more sizable islands. Vietnam, along with other claimants like the Philippines, has pushed for international mediation to resolve the South China Sea disputes. But Beijing insists on bilateral negotiations that prevent smaller countries from joining together against a much bigger regional power.

Washington says it isn’t taking sides. But in 2010, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum in Hanoi, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered U.S. assistance in setting up multiparty talks, much to Beijing’s displeasure. Last year China upped the ante by parking an oil rig in contested waters near the Paracels, which Beijing considers its “unalienable territory.” “China believes it is big and strong and is willing to use its power in the East Sea,” says retired Colonel Ha, who now heads the Vietnam Communist Party History Institute. “The U.S. is not happy about this either.”

Conflicts with Chinese boats are nothing new for Ly Son’s fishermen. At an annual temple ceremony overlooking the South China Sea, which the Vietnamese call the East Sea, weather-beaten men dressed in traditional blue silk robes kneel before an altar to pray to a local divinity that takes the form of a whale. They beseech the whale spirit to protect them from storms—and from the Chinese. The head of a Ly Son fishermen’s union, Ng Quoc Chinh, says that last year 13 Vietnamese trawlers from his small commune were boarded by Chinese personnel, who smashed the boats and arrested the 14-­member crews. “I tell my fisherman to show the nationalist spirit of Vietnam to defend their territory,” he says, eyes welling up. “But it’s very dangerous work.”

Nguyen Huu Dat, a 44-year-old fisherman taking part in the temple rite, recalls how Chinese clambered onto his boat, poured oil onto the catch and took potshots in the mess. He says he was blindfolded and held hostage by the Chinese on a nearby island for 15 days until his family paid a fine of nearly $7,000—a fortune for locals. Then the ordeal happened again. “That’s why we must pray to Lord Fish,” he says of the whale deity.

Each weekend, Ly Son’s population of 22,000 swells with domestic visitors who, heeding a call for patriotic tourism, are flocking to newly built guesthouses on an island that only received stable electricity last year. After splashing in the surf and feasting, raw, on the island’s famous mild garlic, the tourists take a choppy ferry ride back to Quang Ngai province, site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War.

Half an hour from the Quang Ngai ferry terminal, amid shimmering rice paddies still plowed by implacable buffalo, is the cluster of hamlets that was destroyed in the 1968 My Lai massacre, when U.S. soldiers from Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, slaughtered up to 504 villagers. Only one American soldier was ever convicted of the atrocity, during which women were gang-raped and children executed at point-blank range. My Lai catalyzed American revulsion and helped turn the public against the war. Rice farmer Pham Danh was 4 years old in 1968, and he lost his mother and sister in the massacre. In March his youngest son enlisted in the Vietnamese navy, and he is now stationed on a base not far from the Spratlys. The threat is now the Chinese. “My son is serving,” Danh says, “because it’s a man’s responsibility to protect his country.”

Fallout

Tran Thi Hoa’s sons will never fulfill such a patriotic duty. La Thanh Toan and La Thanh Nghia used to race around as children, kicking soccer balls and climbing trees. Then both began regressing, their limbs twisting in on themselves, as their muscles melted off their bodies. The family lives in Danang, Vietnam’s third largest city and the center of the U.S. war effort, a 21⁄2-hour drive up the coast from Quang Ngai city. Their savings as coffee-­plantation owners disappeared in a quest to identify the illness crippling their two previously healthy boys.

Finally, a doctor told Hoa that her children were suffering from their father’s exposure as a soldier to dioxin, the defoliant whose generations-­spanning legacy the Vietnam Red Cross says has poisoned 3 million Vietnamese, including 150,000 handicapped children born after the war. (Other experts put the toll far lower, but there’s no doubt that dioxin hot spots fester across Vietnam and Cambodia, especially around former air bases like Danang, where Agent Orange was stored and loaded onto planes.)

Toan, the older brother at 23, now weighs just 18 kg. His arms are the circumference of broomsticks. Determined to educate her sons, Hoa strapped the boys to her motorcycle each day, then carried them to their school chairs. The arduous effort seemed to pay off: Toan was admitted to a Danang university to study graphic design. But college involves switching classrooms throughout the day, often between floors, and Hoa couldn’t spend her days hefting her son around school. To pass the time, Toan now spends six hours a day, every other day, on a computer donated by an American war veteran. The other days, his brother gets to go online. (Toan’s atrophying fingers can no longer handle a keyboard, so he depends on a mouse.) “The computer opens up the world to me, and I get to practice my En­glish,” Toan says in perfect English, his breath raspy. His mother ducks into the second room of their two-room concrete home, blinking back tears. “The doctors,” she says, “think he won’t make it to his 27th birthday.”

After years of questioning the scientific certainty of dioxin poisoning, the U.S. government has begun to fund hot-spot cleanups and to help victims. Congress has allocated $100 million for the cause, up from $3 ­million in 2007. The lingering effect of Agent Orange is a potent reminder that for all of Vietnam’s resolve to move on, the war still resonates. In 1966 a young doctor from Hanoi named Dang Thuy Tram hiked for three months down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Quang Ngai, where villages were caught in the crossfire between the Viet Cong and American and South Vietnamese troops. Tram kept a diary of her time in the jungle, where she treated North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians amid constant danger. “The Americans are upon us like bloodthirsty devils,” she wrote on Aug. 27, 1968, after a particularly harrowing field surgery. “Only when we have chased them all out of Vietnam will our blood stop pouring into the earth.”

In 1970, as Tram walked along a jungle path with three North Vietnamese soldiers, a U.S. soldier shot her in the forehead. “Give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me,” read the last line in her diary. An American intelligence officer saved the book from a bonfire of Viet Cong documents and took the tiny collection of hand-stitched pages home, contrary to military regulations. In 2005 her writings became a runaway best seller in Vietnam.

Tram’s 91-year-old mother Doan Ngoc Tram lives in Hanoi, her sitting room featuring an altar to her eldest daughter. She, along with two of Tram’s three sisters, is a member of the Communist Party. But times change. None of the family’s third generation has applied to join the party. Three of the matriarch’s grandchildren have studied in America; one lives in Silicon Valley working for Google. Her two great-­grandchildren were born in the U.S. and are American citizens. “My generation fought for independence,” she says. “My children’s generation rebuilt the nation. My grandchildren live in a time of globalization. They should be friendly to the world.”

The Return

As Vietnamese go abroad to make their fortunes, others are returning to an unfamiliar home. So many Vietnamese fled in the chaotic days surrounding the fall of Saigon: southerners who had collaborated with the Americans, entrepreneurs worried about socialist redistribution, Catholics terrified of atheist communism. Quynh Pham, owner of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s top contemporary-­art galleries, is too young to remember how her mother clamped her mouth shut, smeared blood on her and hid under corpses to escape the Viet Cong. Fleeing by boat, she and her family ended up at the Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton in California, where some 50,000 refugees were housed.

Growing up as an American, Pham spoke no Vietnamese and had no Vietnamese-­American friends. She returned to Vietnam not to find her roots but because the art market seemed easier to break into than in the States. Free expression can still be perilous in Vietnam: bloggers are arrested, and state censors study artworks to ensure that no samizdat messages are transmitted to the masses. “Of course, there are limitations to what artists can do,” says Pham. “But Vietnam is living completely in the present, and its creative soul is really vibrant.”

Now Saigon—like many residents of Vietnam’s largest city, Pham still refers to the metropolis not as Ho Chi Minh City but by its presocialist name—is home. Viet kieu, as returnees are known, have been crucial to Vietnam’s economic transition, helming everything from real estate conglomerates to the domestic version of Starbucks. One returnee, an American venture capitalist, is even married to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s daughter. Pham’s mother, though, refuses to return, even to visit her daughter. She said her goodbyes 40 years ago.

Generation gaps exist in every society. But the gulf is so much greater in Vietnam. Through much of the 20th century, Vietnam’s youth sacrificed themselves for their country, fighting the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the Chinese. Their individual ambitions were subsumed by the national cause. The West marveled at the fortitude of these young Vietnamese, squeezed for months into the claustrophobic earthen tunnels used to supply the Viet Cong, sleeping through long rainy seasons on the wet jungle floor. Too many families’ older branches are shorn of sons and ­daughters lost to war.

Now the young of Vietnam can thrive on their own terms. Thao Griffiths, who works to clear Vietnam of the physical legacy of the American War, remembers how shocked her parents were when she used her diploma from a top Hanoi university to work for an American NGO, as opposed to taking a safe government job. “My parents dedicated their whole lives to Vietnam,” she says. “But I want to live for myself and follow my own dreams.” —with reporting by Truong Uyen Ly/Hanoin

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