Saigon, here we come!
In memory of the liberation of Saigon on April 30, 1975
Time flies. It has been 44 years since the historic April 30, 1975, when the North and the South of Vietnam were reunified and the triumphal song was hymned across the country on the reunification day.
Memories are still kept fresh and vivid of the historic day among cinematic artists, who are lucky enough to join the liberation army to enter Saigon, allowing them to record epic pictures and films on the happy ending of the country’s 21-year fierce struggle to gain independence and reunification.
In the memories of artists who had the honour to go to the Southern front on the historic days of April 1975, they shared the same feelings: anxious, agitated, and excited with the premonition of victory.
Veteran film director Dang Nhat Minh reminisced that the Vietnam Feature Film Studio was ordered to establish four documentary-making teams to join the Ho Chi Minh campaign.
Minh was assigned to be a director of a team with other members including Duong Dinh Ba, Tham Vo Hoang and To Thi.
The three remaining teams grouped Hai Ninh – Hoang Tich Chi – Nguyen Khanh Du, Tran Vu – Banh Bao – Pham Ngoc Lan, and Bui Dinh Hac – Luu Xuan Thu.
Among the four teams, only one led by Hai Ninh was given the priority to make coloured footage, while the others filmed black-and-white documentaries.
The artists, equipping themselves with cameras, and boxes of 35 mm film, got in four spanking new command cars, heading to National Highway 1. The cars could travel in the daytime as there were no longer US aircraft flying overhead.
Following the assignment, two teams of directors Hai Ninh and Bui Dinh Hac received orders from the Central Office for South Vietnam before joining the army troupe to head to Saigon, which was nicknamed as ‘the Pearl of the Far East'’.
Meanwhile, Tran Vu’s team went to Buon Me Thuot and Dang Nhat Minh’ team was sent to the 5th Military Region.
In the meantime, a team of director Thanh An from the National Documentary and Scientific Film Studio was stationed in Da Nang after finishing the making of two pressing documentaries entitled ‘Duong Qua Hue Giai Phong’ (On the way to liberate Hue) and ‘Giai Phong Da Nang’ (Liberating Da Nang).
In mid-April 1975, a message was sent by comrade To Huu, reading: “All artists present in Tri Thien area (which is now split into Quang Tri and Thua Thien – Hue provinces) and the 5th Military Region head to the Southern front now, without delay.”
Meanwhile, soldiers-filmmakers of the Military Film Studio received the order to go to the South earlier, between late 1974 to early 1975, after completing a documentary named ‘Chien Thang Phuoc Long’ (Phuoc Long Victory), which had been popularised throughout the northern region. Dozens of film crews were established and sent to the Southern front.
Accordingly, a team comprising of Pham Hanh and Nguyen Huu Xuan advanced directly to the 5th Military Region and the Central Highlands region, duo Nguyen Manh Dung and Pham Quang Dinh were sent to Central Highlands, and then Da Nang and the south of Hai Van Pass, while Do Manh Duong’s team headed to Tri Thien area.
The team of director Dang Xuan Hai were the luckiest crew as they won a ticket to join the troops who rolled to the Independence Palace, the stronghold of the US-backed Saigon regime.
Director Dang Nhat Minh distinctly remembered his touching emotion when his command car rolled along Bien Hoa Highway by 4pm on April 30. The closer they reached Saigon, the longer the traffic jam they were stuck in.
Two hours later, the car arrived at the Palace.
Whenever the liberation army’s divisions came into the Palace, they found a place and trooped together. The main building, in particular, was guarded by the tank regiment.
The film makers were allowed to film everywhere but not on the second floor, which was used to detain the cabinet of the President of the Saigon regime, Duong Van Minh.
However, none of the Vietnamese film makers could record the historic moment when a tank of the liberation army bulldozed through the main gate, not even a scene from behind the tank.
It was captured by foreign photojournalists, who were present at the Palace from 10am to wait for the President’s announcement.
While they were gathering on the first floor of the building, they clearly heard the sound of the tanks’ chain, thus they instantly mounted their camera and captured the moment when the tank smashed through the Palace gate.
Meanwhile, the crew of director Thanh An were operating along National Highway 1A, where fierce battles between the liberation army and the Saigon regime’s troops were still taking place.
The crew filmed valuable documents featuring members of the last cabinet, Vice President Nguyen Van Huyen on the way to his office, and the preparation for a motor parade to celebrate the formal announcement of President Duong Van Minh’s cabinet, which was scheduled on the morning of April 30.
For director Hai Ninh, the victory day remained to him as an eternal source of sorrow and pain.
“From Tay Ninh, we sped up to catch up with the liberation army to advance directly to Saigon. We met a truck carrying newly recruited soldiers on our way and exchanged several greetings to them. But only five minutes later, we heard a ground-shocking blast. A mine went off, blowing up all the young men and leaving us dumbfounded as they wouldn’t live long enough to witness the steps towards peace. On the brink of peace, losses and pain still remained.”
On the brink of peace, losses and pain still remained.
Entering Saigon on the morning of May 1, director Bui Dinh Hac could sense an atmosphere of anxiety in the city. Gunfire was still going on sporadically in the city, and fear could be seen in the handful of faces.
However, more and more people flocked to the streets weaving through the liberation army with flags.“I was impressed and moved to tears to witness the ‘the Pearl of the Far East'’ was not destroyed but flooded with flags, flowers and bright smiles,” he recalled.
A few hours after the significant milestone, all of the acclaimed artists gathered together in downtown Saigon.
Savouring the taste of victory, they flocked to every corner of the streets to capture as many scenes as possible, with the thought in mind that the moments were so valuable that it would be immoral to let them fade away.
“Every morning, we went to the streets and filmed anything we wanted to film. It came as no surprise that the documentaries shared a common theme on the joy of the people in a city which had just been liberated, and the leftovers of a neo-colonial society,” Dang Nhat Minh recalled.
Every morning, we went to the streets and filmed anything we wanted to film.
During the making of ‘Sai Gon Mua Thu 1975’ (Saigon in Autumn 1975), director Thanh An seized an opportunity to interview a number of high-ranking military officers of the Saigon regime. He still kept in mind the miserable image of General Tran Quang Khoi.
The General burst into tears like a child full of resentment and bitterness. He said that never did he imagine his military career could end up in such a tart way.
He had no idea where his wife and children were at the time when he surrendered to the liberation army.
The most impressive memory of director Hai Ninh is Duong Van Minh, the last President of the Saigon regime.
Eyed as a main character of the documentaries, Minh was followed closely by cameras at all times and from anywhere.
Aware that he was being filmed, the President got confused and tried to hide from the cameras. He seemed to undergo great stressful pressure.
As for director Bui Dinh Hac, ‘Saigon in Autumn 1975’ witnessed the overwhelming joy of reunification among families.
The film featured Bui Quang Than, who jumped out of his tank on April 30, 1975, to plant the flag of the National Front for the Liberation of Southern Vietnam on the roof of the Independence Palace and Bui Van Tung, the political commissar of a tank regiment.
The film also recorded the unyielding soldiers who returned from Con Dao Prison, dubbed "Hell on Earth", and the reunion moments of those travelling from the North to the South to find their relatives.
Many of the filmmakers-eyewitnesses have passed away. However, their documentaries, which were made during those days of triumph, remained valuable references as they provided vivid visual layers on the country’s history, fuelling national pride and patriotism among viewers whenever the country cheerfully celebrates the day of reunification.