Indian journalist Nayan Chanda recalls waking up in Saigon on May 1, 1975, the day after the city fell to communist North Vietnam. The noise that jolted him from sleep? Nothing.
"There were no longer helicopters buzzing over your head," Chandaa says. "That silence was quite eerie."
He ventured into the streets and found things pretty calm. "Shops were shuttered," he remembers. "People were sitting on little stools on the sidewalks chatting among themselves very quietly, wondering what's going to happen next." North Vietnamese soldiers were everywhere, but kept to themselves.
By day's end, the mood had changed. "I could see a lot of Saigonese out in the street. They were emboldened by the fact that nobody was killed and there was no violence, so they wanted to know where these soldiers were coming from," Chanda says. Many South Vietnamese were originally from the North, so people were trying to figure if the soldiers knew anyone in common. "It was a kind of getting-to-know-you kind of thing."
"What was interesting was Vietnamese living in apartments with balconies, they're watching this and they're throwing down shorts and trousers to these soldiers to give them a cover," Chanda says.
Instead of fleeing with the Americans and many South Vietnamese, Chanda had decided to stay on to see what life would be like in Saigon under Communist rule. But there were immediate obstacles.
Cover photo by Nayan Chanda
The new government also forced journalist to submit their reports first to the post office, which allowed censors to take liberties with them. Chanda was never sure what would actually get through to his employer, The Far Eastern Economic Review.
After the initial days of calm, North Vietnamese officials started taking an inventory of South Vietnamese. "They went around systematically taking a census of people whose houses were abandoned by those who fled," Chanda said. Then people were asked to report those who had worked for the defeated South Vietnamese government. It was the first stage of the re-education camps.
"The low-level employees were taken to some place for one- or two-day lectures on the revolution," Chanda explais. "The second category were senior mid-level officials and they were taken away for six months to a year. And then the third category was, in the Communist view, the most die-hard functionaries of the previous regime. They ended up spending 10, 15, 20 years in re-education camps in the most inhospitable parts of central and north Vietnam."
Tens of thousands died. Chanda says actual numbers "are anybody's guess" but he estimates about half a million South Vietnamese went through the first level of re-education, about 50,000 in the second level and as many as 20,000 endured multiple years in camps.
"One thing is clear: When they finally normalized relations between Vietnam and the United States in 1995, it was agreed that the Vietnamese would let go all the political prisoners still in camps and let them re-settle in the United States," Chanda says. By 1995, about 400,000 officials and their families had been moved to the United States.
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