Vietnamese and Americans both commemorated the Vietnam War on Thursday with two very different ceremonies in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
In the morning Thursday, groups of Vietnamese dressed as laborers, farmers, and soldiers paraded outside of the Reunification Palace, where the arrival of communist tanks marked the end of fighting 40 years ago.
In the afternoon, the U.S. consulate dedicated a plaque to Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, both Marines and the last Americans killed in the Vietnam War.
For the United States, Vietnam has been a tragic symbol of military defeat. For Vietnam, April 30 is a day of victory.
“After 40 years since the country’s liberation, there’s been development and prosperity,” said former soldier Phung Thi Khuyen, who talked from a park bench after the parade ended. “I’m really glad that south and north have been reunited and the country can be peaceful and happy," she said.
U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius said he, too, was happy to see the progress this Southeast Asian nation has made in recent decades.
But the sentiment was mixed with sorrow. “Today’s ceremony is a vivid reminder to all of us who serve overseas that all too often, that service comes with sacrifice,” Osius said, emotion filling his voice.
The small, solemn gathering at the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City Thursday was very different from the loud celebrations happening just hours earlier.
Vietnamese marched through the central city in outfits ranging from sailors’ uniforms to the traditional attire of ethnic minorities. Doves and balloons were launched into the air, as foreign dignitaries from Laos to Cuba looked on.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung kicked off the parade with a speech about how the society and economy have improved, yet still had far to go. He also used the occasion to criticize the U.S. for what he called "barbarous crimes," saying the Americans caused "immeasurable losses and pain to our people and country."
Thousands of Vietnamese students volunteered to set up the parade’s colorful backdrops and floats, including Nguyen Ngoc Lam. He said he was grateful to the veterans who died before Vietnam reunited on April 30, 1975.
“My parents told me they were happy to have a kid who recognized the historical importance of the day,” Lam said. “We contribute what little we can to keeping the memory alive.”
Yet for many people, today was just a day off from work. Ho Chi Minh City was quieter than it has been on other anniversaries after authorities cordoned off much of downtown with barriers that kept the vast majority of ordinary citizens from seeing the parade. They could settle for a TV broadcast of the festivities, but few actually stopped to view the mega screens set up near the city’s Opera House.
For most of the public, April 30 comes and goes. But the government still believes it is important to remind its citizens of the communist victory.
It’s also important to U.S. veterans to remind people of their fallen comrades. Juan Jose Valdez, president of the Fall of Saigon Marines Association, spoke at the consular tribute to fallen Marines, Judge and McMahon.
“April 1975 was indeed a cruel month, filled with total chaos, utter confusion, and people eager to get out,” he said. Valdez, who helped with the final U.S. evacuation, added, “I believe we carried out our mission as best as possible under stressful conditions.”
In Washington, U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives, honoring the contributions of Vietnamese Americans, the service of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces who fought and died in Vietnam, and those who lost their lives attempting to flee the Southeast Asian country.
Meanwhile, the author of Canadian’s Black April Day Act, Thursday strongly rebuffed Vietnam's criticism of the measure.
The Act, passed by Canadian Parliament last week, establishes April 30 as the day to commemorate the thousands of refugees who fled Vietnam in pursuit of freedom. It pays tribute to Canada’s humanitarian tradition of welcoming thousands of refugees during and after the Vietnam War.
Senator Ngo Thanh Hai, author of the bill, told VOA Vietnamese Thursday that the bill "is about a particular moment in Canadian history and has nothing to do with Canada’s relations with Vietnam."
He said, "The Vietnamese government never admits the truth. They always ignore the truth since they don’t want the world know their violating rights and murdering people. They have to admit the truth first and foremost, if not, Vietnamese communists would get to nowhere."
Hanoi said its relationship with Ottawa has been damaged by the bill and summoned Canada’s ambassador to express concern last Friday.
“This is a backward step in the relationship between the two countries, adversely affecting the growing ties between Vietnam and Canada and hurting the feelings of Vietnamese people as well as a great part of the Vietnamese community in Canada,” foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said, according to Vietnam Plus.
Binh added that both countries have taken steps to advance their relationship in recent years and hoped Canada would work to repair the damage the bill has caused.
Tra Mi reported from Washington. This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.