HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) — This city once known as Saigon was blanketed in red banners on Thursday that read "Long Live the Glorious Communist Party of Vietnam," 40 years after northern forces seized control of the country and America walked away from a divisive and bloody war that remains a painful sore.
Thousands of Vietnamese, including war veterans in uniforms heavy with medals, lined up to watch goose-stepping soldiers and traditional performers parade through the streets of what is now Ho Chi Minh City.
On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam. They crashed through the gates of the presidential palace and hoisted the communist flag. It was an incredible victory for the revolutionary forces that had waged guerrilla warfare for more than a decade against the better equipped U.S., and before that against the French colonialists.
"The tank crashing the gates ... was a symbol of victory for the Vietnamese nation and the Vietnamese People's Army, marking the end of the 30 years of national resistance against the French and then the Americans," said Nguyen Van Tap, 64, who drove Tank 390 through the iron bars and reunited with members of his company Wednesday.
And even after four decades, he said, the winners who fought for the north should be given priority and privileges over those who were branded traitors for siding with the south.
"For the Vietnamese," he said, "April 30 is a day of festivities and national reunification."
For the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies, the day was one of panic, chaos and defeat known simply as the fall of Saigon.
After the government's parade and celebratory speeches were over Thursday, a group of former U.S. Marines who helped Americans evacuate Saigon as it fell gathered at the site of the old U.S. Embassy, now the U.S. Consulate, for a somber ceremony. They dedicated a plaque to two fallen comrades who were the last U.S. servicemen killed in the war: Cpl. Charles McMahon and Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge died April 29, 1975, when their post near the airport was hit by a rocket. Each of the former Marines placed roses in front of the monument before saluting it as taps played.
Some 58,000 Americans were killed in the war along with up to 250,000 South Vietnamese allies and an estimated 3 million communist fighters and civilians.
"We lost ... and I felt that way for a long time," said Kevin Maloney, one of the last Marines out who attended the event. "I was ashamed that we left people behind like that. I did what I could, so I'm satisfied with my own performance, but as a nation, I think we could have done better. And I hope we can learn from that, but I don't think we've seen that."
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled the south in the days and years following the war, with many taking rickety boats in search of freedom. The majority ended up resettling in the U.S. Many have since come home to visit family and to invest in the country, but some have remained feverishly anti-communist and have refused to return as long as the one-party government is in power.
The country still tightly controls the press and cracks down on political dissidents. It jails those who dare to speak out for democracy, including in blogs on the Internet. But much has changed since the early days after the war when Vietnam was plunged into severe poverty and isolation during failed collective farming policies.
Today, Ho Chi Minh City is alive with capitalism, and many of the scars from the war are no longer visible on the surface. It is the economic muscle of the country, and recent and ongoing construction projects have transformed its skyline into glassy high-rises bathed in neon lights. But much of the old traditions remain. The sidewalks are still filled with generations of families hustling out of small shops to earn money while elderly women peddle the country's famous pho noodle soup from street stalls.
The relationship between the former enemies also has warmed and grown over the years. The U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995. More than 16,000 Vietnamese students now study in America, and the U.S. has become one of Vietnam's biggest foreign investors. Bilateral trade exceeded $36 billion last year.
The two countries have also hosted high-level visits, and Vietnam has welcomed military cooperation and visiting U.S. naval ships. China continues to spar with Hanoi and other neighbors over disputed islands in the South China Sea in what is viewed as a growing maritime threat in the region.
AP writer Tran Van Minh contributed from Ho Chi Minh City.
Mason covered Vietnam as an AP correspondent based in Hanoi from 2003-2012. Follow her at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP