Northern forces’ tanks at Independence Palace (which it has been called since 1954) at 12.30 p.m. on 30 April, 1975. Photo: Ba Han_Images Archives
Vietnam Heritage, May-June 2011 — Beggars around Ben Thanh Market might have been surprised and wondered why film-makers from the North paid them so much attention. Dens of drug addicts and prostitutes were also our favourite subjects because they were ugly aspects of the old regime, and we had to film them before they were erased.
In early April, 1975, everybody in the North was anxious for news of hostilities in the South. The Vietnam Feature Film Studio made plans to send four documentary film crews to the South. I was appointed director of a crew including Duong Dinh Ba and Tham Vo Hoang as cameramen. Like all film crews except for one led by director Hai Ninh, which was allowed to use colour, we had to use black-and-white film.
Provinces between the 17th parallel, the line that had divided Vietnam into two halves under different regimes, and Nha Trang had been liberated, which allowed us to go south comfortably in four new Peijing cars on National Road 1 that connected north to south. Before departure, our boss said, ‘You comrades, you may meet artists and writers in there. They may have cars or motorbikes while you go everywhere on foot. Don’t get hurt but welcome them with open arms and brotherhood to show our national solidarity.’ I figured that he still thought of a possibility in which the army from the North would go to a Saigon under a coalition government. I didn’t care which scenario would come true. I was only certain that I would have a chance to drop by Hue, my home town, on this trip.
My uncle and relatives were surprised and joyful. Since our departure from Hue 25 years before, no relatives had expected me to come back alone, without my mother, father and sister, who had died in the period. When learning that I was a film director now, everybody fell silent and wordless with disappointment. Nobody in my family had ever thought I could take such an odd job. They all believed I would have become a scientist, or a professor-doctor like my father. After a while, my uncle sighed and said a sentence to comfort the family, ‘Oh come now, it’s the job that allows him to go south early and meet us again.’
In Nha Trang, two crews turned right to take the Truong Son Route to go to Tay Ninh, one crew went to Buon Ma Thuot and my crew kept following the National Road 1. At noon on 30 April when I was in Phan Thiet, some 200 km north of Saigon, I heard the news over the radio that South Vietnam President Duong Van Minh had ordered his soldiers to put their guns down. We immediately got into the car and headed for Saigon.
In the evening on 30 April, we arrived in Saigon. The city was lit brightly. An overwhelming feeling of stupefaction rendered us so breathless that no one could utter a word. There was a long silence before Lang, our driver, broke it, ‘Come on, Minh. You insisted upon going straight away. We are in Saigon now. Where will we go?’ I really didn’t know where to go in this strange and immense city. After calming down, I said, ‘I know a place. It is Independence Palace [this name has existed since 1954]. I’ve seen it in photos. Let’s go there.’
After spending some time asking for directions, turning right and turning left, we finally got a girl on a motorbike to lead the way to the palace. Duong Dinh Ba produced the recommendation but nobody dealt with us because no officer had command of the palace. Each division followed the others and occupied a corner of the yard. The main building was guarded by a tank regiment. They allowed us to wander around the place except for the second floor, where Duong Van Minh’s cabinet met.
Looking around the yard I saw a lot of flames flickering in the night. The soldiers were cooking. Some were bathing and washing in fountains. Some young soldiers enjoyed riding motorbikes around the yard. I told my crew to start work but the cameramen said the light was not good enough. After some searching, we finally found a portable searchlight in the press-conference room of the palace. It helped us produce our first footage in Saigon, which I named Faces in May, because the scenes were made at 1 a.m. on the first of May. Afterward I learned that foreign correspondents in Saigon had been informed of a press conference at the palace on the morning of 30 April and they had crowded around the palace. The conference had not been held. Then a North Vietnam tank had knocked down the palace gate. Some foreign photographers and camera people were lucky enough to record this historical moment, while no photographer or film-maker from North Vietnam was present there to capture the unique scene even from a distance or behind.
That night I lay alone in the ceremony hall on the second floor in a state of shock as in a dream. I didn’t even understand why I had been here on this historic day. I hardly slept a wink. I felt terribly sorry for my dad, my mum, and millions of people who had fallen along the length of the country in past decades.
The next morning, 1 May, the Military Provisional Committee officially took over the palace. The first thing they did was order everybody to leave the place immediately. Thanks to the good French of Tham Vo Hoang, my film crew was sent to the Caravelle Hotel, where the manager was a Frenchwoman.
That evening, on the 9th floor of the hotel, we met most of the foreign correspondents working in Saigon. Over the past tense days, they had all retreated to this hotel, which was considered the safest place, because it was owned by French citizens. After a moment of surprise at our presence, some of them managed to start conversation. The first to make our acquaintance was an [Agence France Presse] correspondent. He said all reporters there had been present at the palace on the morning of 30 April. Someone told me privately that the reporter who had filmed the tank knocking down the gate was also in the hotel and advised me to inform the Military Provisional Committee so they could confiscate the footage. I didn’t do it.
The next day, we went back to the palace to film the release of Duong Van Minh cabinet members, who had been detained since 30 April. President Duong Van Minh said a few words. He repeated what Bao Dai, the final emperor, had said in his abdication ceremony in Hue in August 1945 about the honour of being a citizen of an independent Vietnam. Then, cabinet members left when their cars arrived. I watched the group of luxurious cars streaking for the gate and wondered if everything could end so simply.
From that day, we carried cameras and roamed the streets filming anything we wanted. Two main themes were Saigon residents’ joy at being liberated and remnants of a society under the new-style colonialism. We often bumped into other crews, because all of us wanted to film student rallies to demonstrate the joy and use images of street beggars as a denunciation of colonialism. Beggars around Ben Thanh Market might have been surprised and wondered why film-makers from the North paid them so much attention. Dens of drug addicts and prostitutes were also our favourite subjects because they were ugly aspects of the old regime, and we had to film them before they were erased.
In many families we visited, good traditions were well maintained. I was surprised to see children respectfully folding their arms to greet the elderly, something not seen in the North for ages. Similarly, local residents were perhaps equally surprised by us, as in their minds images of the communists from the North might have been horrible and disgusting.
All the film crews, one after another, arrived at the Caravelle Hotel. In the evening, the rooms were filled with music from Akai or Sony tape-recorders bought by film-makers from flea markets, along with electric fans and radio-cassette players.
After three months, our crew returned to Hanoi. Arriving in Hue, before crossing the Trang Tien Bridge, I heard noisy voices from loudspeakers, and saw a big crowd taking their daily exercise. I knew that the new lifestyle had come to my hometown (loudspeakers and mass exercising were two indispensable and unavoidable things under the new regime). The documentary, Faces in May, was born after the trip and awarded the Silver Lotus Prize at the 6th Vietnam Film Festival, held in Ho Chi Minh City in 1977. It was the first award for me in my career as a cinematographer.
*This article is an excerpt from Dang Nhat Minh’s book Hoi Ky Dien Anh [Memoirs of a Film-maker], published by Van Nghe Publishers in Ho Chi Minh City, 2005n