Once mortal enemies, two Vietnamese now live in peace

In the last days before the fall of Saigon, Nguyen Thanh Trung was a pilot with a mission to bomb the Presidential Palace and United States Embassy. Thirty years later, his ambition is to pilot the first direct Vietnam Airlines flight to the United States.

Nguyen Huu Co was a general in the last South Vietnamese Cabinet and, after the war, spent 12 years in a communist labour camp, surviving on a few mouthfuls of rice a day and an occasional sliver of meat. Now, at 81, he’s off to Omaha, Nebraska, to see his granddaughter graduate from college this month.

One ended up a hero and the other endured defeat, yet their parallel lives provide a resoundingly upbeat note for their country as it marks 30 years since the end of the Vietnam War on April 30.

They live less than tw kilometers apart in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the communist founding father. They are on friendly terms, speak good English, and in separate interviews say they have no regrets—that they chose their side and still stick by the ideals that drove them to fight each other so long ago.

Co, a former South Vietnamese defense minister, was recalled to the Cabinet on April 29, 1975—just one day before communist tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon.

Arrested and sent to a camp to be re-educated as a communist, he was forced to cut trees in the jungle while his wife knitted clothing for sale to feed their 11 children.

In the camp, officials would tell the inmates “that the Soviet Union would rule over the world and capitalism would disappear,” Co recalled, sitting at his kitchen table wearing a T-shirt with a Washington, DC logo. Thin and bald, he remains sharp and steady, still walking a mile (1,6 kilometres) every morning.

Trung’s story is more complicated. As a US-trained pilot flying F-5E fighters in the South Vietnamese Air Force, he dropped hundreds of bombs on Viet Cong strongholds. But he was in fact a communist agent whose father had been killed by South Vietnamese forces in 1963. He had been planted in the air force by the North Vietnamese for the specific task of bombing the palace and embassy when so ordered.

That day finally came on April 8, 1975.

His first two bombs missed the palace, but the second two went through its roof. However, that left him with nothing to drop on the US Embassy. He landed on a communist-occupied airstrip just north of Saigon and was reunited with his comrades before going on to bomb Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport days before the city fell.

His motivation, he said, was always “to stop the war ... save the blood, save the people on both sides.”

Since then, Vietnam has been through rigid communism, isolation from the West, US sanctions, a huge refugee exodus, a border war with China and an invasion of Cambodia to topple the murderous Khmer Rouge.

But that was another Vietnam. Today, the streets are filled with young people chatting on cell phones and riding shiny motorbikes, with foreign tourists taking snapshots of old tanks and planes on public display. The official ideals remain socialist, but the nation’s instincts are capitalist and the economy is open to the world.

The atmosphere makes it easier for old enemies to reconcile. Six years ago Co met Trung by chance in the Presidential Palace, and the pilot took the general on a tour, pointing out the red circles marking where his bombs fell. They continue to meet occasionally, but prefer to avoid politics and talk about the future.

After the war, Trung endured years of poverty, sometimes living on uncooked rice grains and raw potatoes. He says he could have kept his communist identity secret and fled to America like other South Vietnamese officers. But “I had to stay with my country because I love my country.”

Today, at 58, he is vice-president of Vietnam Airlines, the national carrier. Trained to fly Boeing 777s, he hopes to pilot the maiden commercial flight from Ho Chi Minh City to San Francisco this year.

His youngest son is in Australia, also learning to be a pilot.

Co also could have gone to America, but it would have meant leaving his large family behind.

He and his wife of 57 years live in a comfortable house, and two daughters in America send them money every month. Co never adopted communism, and says he’s pleased to see how the capitalist system he served 30 years ago is emerging in the Vietnam of today.

Vietnam’s advances, however, do not include multi-party elections or free speech. In Co’s view, that should be the next objective. “In other countries surrounding Vietnam, like Thailand, there is already freedom and democracy,” he said.—Sapa

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