HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — When Luu Dinh Trieu was drafted into the South Vietnamese army, he literally went to war against his father.
His parents had moved quickly to the north in 1954 to support the communist cause after the country was split in half. Trieu, just a baby then, and his sister were raised by their grandmother just outside of Saigon. She warned him to tell everyone that his mother and father were dead; his father had become a high-ranking official in the north, and that knowledge could have been dangerous for the family he left behind.
When Trieu was called to go to war in 1972, the 19-year-old wasn’t thinking about his father. He knew only that if he refused to leave law school, he could be jailed or sent to the front lines, where death was almost guaranteed. So, he took up arms against the Viet Cong southern insurgents and rose to the rank of second lieutenant, earning metals for his bravery and for the injuries he endured.
He didn’t know his actions would separate his family—let alone that their struggle would also reflect the pain that still continues to divide north and south.
“For most of the students in southern Vietnam at that time, we were drafted and did not want to fight,” he said this week from his quiet, breezy home in a new housing complex just outside the central hub of what is now called Ho Chi Minh City. “All we wanted was to be slightly injured and be decommissioned.”
The Vietnam War, known here as the “American War,” ended with the US-backed South Vietnamese capital of Saigon falling to northern forces on April 30, 1975. Many Vietnamese in the south feared an imminent bloodbath. Amid panicked chaos, they fled by US helicopters in the final days leading up to the end of the war. Hundreds of thousands more left on rickety boats in the years that followed, with many resettling and building new lives in America.
As the north closed in, Trieu was told he, too, should leave the country. But he didn’t want to flee. He wanted the family reunion he had longed for since childhood.
“After 21 years apart,” he said, “I was willing to suffer anything to see my parents again.”
That happened less than two weeks after the war ended, but the meeting was not as joyous as he had imagined.
Trieu’s parents had earlier learned that he had fought for the south. It was the last thing his father, a top official in the Communist Party’s propaganda unit, had wanted.
“He was frustrated and my mother was also frustrated,” he said. “She cried for a week after learning that.”
Trieu’s father told him to study hard and remake his life, but just a couple of days after their reunion, Trieu was sent to a re-education camp.
Those who served as officers in the South Vietnamese army or worked closely with the Americans were rounded up and sent to camps where they were indoctrinated with Marxist dogma and subjected to backbreaking hard labor, often with little food or access to medical care. Many have said they were beaten and denied access to their families, sometimes for years.
Trieu’s sentence was six months. He was forced to learn about revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh and the new communist system. He farmed vegetables and cleared timber in sweltering heat during the day and sang nationalistic songs at night. There wasn’t enough clean water to take a bath, and food rations were thin.
He learned that his father could have intervened to reduce his sentence, but did not. Rather than visit his son at camp, he sent him a letter telling him to work hard.
“At the time, I was very angry with my father. The first time he abandoned me and my sister when I was 1 year old,” Trieu said, adding he felt shunned again. “I cried and I tore up the letter.”
Life was hard in Vietnam after the war. A US trade embargo isolated the country as Hanoi embarked on failed socialist policies of collective farming, plunging its people deeper into severe poverty and isolation. By the mid-1980s, the Communist Party began introducing economic reforms that would open Vietnam up to capitalism and eventually to the world.
Trieu wanted to become a journalist, but was told propaganda school was reserved for party members or those who fought for the north. Discrimination ran rampant, and southerners with ties to the South Vietnam government were barred from getting jobs or being accepted into colleges.
Trieu turned to his father, and eventually he got accepted at the school, where some classmates taunted and ostracized him for having fought for the south. He moved to Hanoi, where he only saw his aging father on weekends, but during those years, he said the relationship warmed and he realized that his father had never truly given up on him.
“I thought there was always love even though with my father there was a gap,” he said. “But over time, the love of the father for the son could overcome that gap.”
Trieu went on to a long career in newspapers, which are still controlled by the government and heavily censored.
Over time, the country has softened its stance toward southern supporters. Overseas Vietnamese, or Viet kieu, eventually began to slowly trickle back with their American dollars. The government has relaxed visa policies to make it easier for them to come home, and resentment and skepticism have gradually faded.
Today, overseas Vietnamese send back US$12 billion in remittances and are important foreign investors. Even Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung—himself a former guerrilla fighter—has a Vietnamese-American son-in-law who fled the south at the end of the war with his family.
But a deep divide still exists. In Vietnamese high school textbooks, the war is explained as “resistance against the Americans for national salvation,” and the South Vietnamese military is referred to in some places as the “henchmen army.” There is nothing written about why the south was fighting or its desire to remain a separate state free from communism.
A former South Vietnamese military cemetery in Binh Duong province, just outside Ho Chi Minh City, houses up to 18,000 graves. It is a tangled mess of leaves and overgrown weeds, strewn trash, broken headstones and mounds of dark earth with missing or broken markers.
About a kilometer away, a finely manicured graveyard for Viet Cong and northern soldiers is filled with neatly arranged, matching headstones. The shady grounds are scented by sweet plumeria trees and surrounded by giant statues that boast of the country’s war martyrs and the sacrifice mothers gave to the country.
Hanoi refuses to say how many South Vietnamese soldiers died in the war; some US estimates have put the number as high as 250,000. The government has said about 3 million communist forces and civilians perished during the conflict. Some 58,000 Americans were killed.
War statues and monuments honoring North Vietnamese fighters pepper the country, but nothing exists for the south.
“The greatest and most sacred monument always lies in the heart of each Vietnamese person,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh, referring to dead South Vietnamese soldiers as “those people who passed away.”
The wound also still festers among many Vietnamese who fled to America and remain staunchly opposed to Hanoi’s communist government.
“The younger generations of Vietnamese-Americans are growing up steeped in this,” said Steve Maxner, director of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University. “Both sides seem to be still entrenched in 1975. It hasn’t gone away.”
Trieu, now 61 and retired, said his own experience is proof that time and understanding can heal the past—eventually.
“If they did it right after the war, it would have been easier,” he said of the north recognizing the south’s role in the nation’s history. “As more time passes, it becomes more difficult. It could be five, 10 years to accept that fact. It could be 50 years.”