I committed a minor faux pas not long ago when mentioning to a Vietnamese friend the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. I referred to the occasion using those exact words, in Vietnamese, and she said, “No, no, you mustn’t say 40 years since war. We say 40 years of peace.” Ky niem 40 nam hoa binh.
That would be the politically correct phrase, and it makes sense. Vietnam is preparing to celebrate April 30, the day four decades ago when northern communists captured Saigon and ended the Vietnam War. The day that rang in four decades of peace. History is written by the winners, of course, and the victorious leaders now running Vietnam want people to focus on a positive history. They want citizens to remember that the north and south have been peacefully reunified since 1975.
I live in Ho Chi Minh City now, but as a Vietnamese American, I grew up in a different environment. At college in New York, I joined the Vietnamese Students Association, which had a discussion about how to refer to April 30. Do we call it the “fall of Saigon,” as is common in the United States, the refuge of millions of Vietnamese from the losing side of the war? Or do we call it the “liberation of Saigon,” the official line of the Vietnamese government today?
It is hard to have such a discussion here in Vietnam. Certainly, there are Vietnamese who are pained when they look back on the war and continue to feel that the United States abandoned them with its withdrawal. These people will not be celebrating April 30 this year. They were on the unlucky side of history, so their bitter voices have been drowned out.
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This makes it hard to truly gauge public opinion. It has become almost a cliché in Vietnam, for Vietnamese to say that they are tired of conflict and look only to a bright future. This optimism could mean one of two things. First, that people actually have forgiven old enemies and moved on from the war. Or second, that those defeated have not moved on but their views go unheard. Both are probably true.
As we mark anniversary after anniversary, Vietnam will be forced to move on eventually, whether everyone wants to or not. Those who lost the war will make up a smaller part of the population. They will be replaced by people born long after it ended. That period won’t even be a distant memory to later generations, who will be concerned with their peaceful future more than anything else, more than any thoughts of war.
Lien Hoang is a Sacramento native and journalist living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia.