Ex-South Vietnam soldier regrets life 50 years on from defeat
By Eric San Juan
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Mar 29 (EFE).- The withdrawal of United States troops from Vietnam, which marks half a century Wednesday, meant the communist north’s victory and hardship for the Vietnamese who fought on the American side but were unable to flee the country after their defeat.
One of them is Mr. Dien, a 79-year-old man who, dressed in his US Army vest and South Vietnamese tank driver’s beret, asks tourists to pose for a photo with his camera in front of the Ho Chi Minh City Post Office.
“An American colonel gave it to me and I’ve kept it ever since,” he said proudly of his vest, which he has only worn for about 20 years, after Vietnam reunified and opened up to the world, leaving behind the disputes of the civil war.
After the victory, his 14 years of service to the South Vietnamese Army closed his employment doors. He spent two years in a re-education camp, his house was confiscated and he now lives a precarious life he says will live with him until the end.
Dien does not remember the exact moment when he was told of the US withdrawal, but he did understand very soon that this would mean the defeat of the side he had volunteered to join since he was 17, convinced that if he did not enlist himself, they would force him to anyway.
“When the Americans left, I knew we could not win the war. I knew the military commanders and I knew that the South could not resist. It was a disappointment,” he said, without, half a century later, feeling any grudge toward the Americans for their abandonment.
The final defeat did not come until Apr. 30, 1975, when communist forces from the north concluded their unstoppable advance with the fall of Saigon, but Dien had already conceded defeat two years earlier and was taking steps to protect himself.
During the conversation, he shows the stump of the index finger of his right hand, which he cut himself with a knife to simulate punishment for deserting the Southern Army, obtaining the mercy of the victors.
“Everyone believed the Viet Cong were going to kill us. I was afraid of torture,” he said.
By the time Saigon fell, Dien had already burned all his legal documents, disposed of almost all his possessions, and kept barely half a dozen photos from his youth, from when he was still called Phong and had not yet adopted his current name to avoid reprisals.
He believes that all these precautions served to free him from torture, but he could not avoid spending two years locked up in a re-education camp or recover his home, requisitioned by the winning side.
In the extremely poor post-war Vietnam, Dien, separated from the family he had formed in the 1960s, worked for a time in the fields and later dedicated himself to driving buses, until, with the opening of the country in 1992, he began to engage in photography for tourists.
During the conversation he sometimes talks about the already fading hopes of fleeing to the US, as some of his companions did in the frantic last days before the fall of Saigon or even years after.
“I saw the helicopters and the people leaving, but I didn’t dare to try it, I didn’t know where they were going to take them. I didn’t think it was possible for me. Now I regret it,” he said.
Having already discarded the American dream that he nurtured for decades, Dien’s desires are much more modest today: to earn enough to be able to eat daily and find a roof, because in a month he has to leave the house where they have let him stay for free.
“I have had a very hard life since 1975. These are the last years of my life, maybe I will die in a year or two. I have already prepared the altar photo for when I die because I feel weaker than before. I hope someone can help me in the last years of my life,” he said. EFE