HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Thirty years after communist tanks crashed through the Presidential Palace gates in former South Vietnam, a convoy of Ford vans poured through the arches Saturday carrying 1,000 Vietnamese veterans to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War (search).
The veterans were dressed in olive green uniforms adorned with gold stars and medals that weighed down their shirts and jingled as they walked. For many, this was their first time back in the former Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City (search), since northern forces captured the city and South Vietnam surrendered on April 30, 1975.
"I'm very moved to be here after 30 years. A lot of my comrades and my people died for this day," said Mai Minh Tiem, who traveled 1,243 miles over 11 days to reach the celebration. "I'm happy to be here today and to see all the achievements of the country and the city."
He said the convoy of 50 vans stopped in the Central Highlands to revisit old battlefields and to burn incense along the Ho Chi Minh Highway where 29 veterans died last week when their bus went over a cliff as they were also making their way to Ho Chi Minh City.
"It's a big loss for the whole country," he said, standing near a replica of a tank at what is now called Reunification Hall (search). "These veterans who fought for the country and sacrificed for the country, they died painfully when they came back to visit their old friends and the battlefields."
Other veterans from Ho Chi Minh City stood in the heat along the parade route in front of the palace, listening to speeches and waving flags as a band played Vietnam's national anthem.
"I got all these medals in the war against the French and Americans," said Do Thi Mien, 67, of Ho Chi Minh City, who served as a female intelligence officer during the wars against the French and Americans. "My job was also to persuade soldiers in the Saigon army to switch sides."
For many, it was a time to see the city they helped liberate for the first time 30 years after. Some met up with old comrades they hadn't seen since the war ended.
"I was here just minutes after the first tanks crashed the gate," said Nguyen Trung Son, 58, who traveled by bus on his own from Vinh Phuc, 25 miles north of Hanoi and met in Ho Chi Minh City with an old friend from the war.
He said Vietnam has come a long way during three decades of peace, but that it still must continue to fight poverty. He paid 5 million dong (US$320) for the trip, equivalent to five months of his pension.
"I'm glad to see my old comrades who fought 30 years ago," he said, smiling. "I'm willing to pay the price."