Forty Years Ago Today

04/30/2015 12:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Forty years ago today the city of Saigon braced itself for an uncertain future. People thronged the roof of the American Embassy. Warships sat out in the South China Sea, the American fleet prepared to let board anyone who could make it out to them. It's amazing to think how much can change in four decades. I myself am forty-one. I left Vietnam in 1974. I was a six-month-old baby headed to Towanda, PA and a new life with every possible thing before me. Like travel (which I never take for granted as I've met people all over the world -- Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia -- who want nothing more than to visit the U.S. just once in their lives but obtaining a tourist visa often requires several interviews and is rejected more than not). This past January I spent two weeks on the coast of Vietnam in the tourist village of Mui Ne. I took a yoga class with an Israeli instructor. I chatted with the Swiss manager who ran the resort. I enthused with a Polish woman living in Australia about having clothes tailor-made. I stumbled through a Vietnamese language class with a Norwegian couple traveling on diplomatic passports.

Mui Ne is four hours up the coast from Ho Chi Minh City by car and renowned for its kite-surfing. Every afternoon I would watch a mix of old hands and new initiates in their crash helmets hoist their kites aloft, each one bigger than a man and able to pull a body across the water or lift her thirty feet in the air, all afternoon the sky filled with color.

Language matters. When a city is overwhelmed by an outside power, we can either call the act a fall, or we can refer to it as a reunification (sometimes we go so far as to claim that those doing the "overwhelming" will be greeted as liberators). Many in the Vietnamese diaspora still refer to what happened in 1975 as Black April. Honestly I have no opinion on this as my life has afforded me the luxury of not having to form one.

On my last day in Mui Ne, I walked to a small cove twenty minutes from the heart of the beach. From there I noticed one red kite off all by itself where no one could see it. I didn't know what to do. Periodically the kite would lift off and then flounder before settling back in the water. I didn't know if it was intentional or the act of someone in trouble.

Since leaving in '74, I've been back to Vietnam on four separate occasions. There are times when I want to get indignant. I read reports about the Vietnamese government's human rights abuses, writers under house arrest, the way Southerners are often passed over for jobs or college admissions, and then I click on a news story about yet another unarmed black man shot by police, or excerpts from the Senate report on the C.I.A.'s use of torture (and it is torture--we dishonor John McCain and all those who were tortured in Vietnam and elsewhere when we say differently), and it's hard to stay indignant.

In 2010 in the central highlands of Vietnam I met an elderly man who'd been a member of the Communist party for more than fifty years. He showed me a one dollar bill an American veteran had recently given him. On it, the vet had written, "To my one-time enemy, now my friend." When we stood up to leave, my guide asked me to give the man a dollar bill and write something on it as a keepsake. I dug through my wallet, but all I had on me was Vietnamese dong. Then I noticed a golden Sacajawea dollar I received as part of my change when I bought a subway ticket in New York a few weeks back. I offered the man the coin, holding it out in my right hand with the palm of my left touching the crook of my elbow as is the polite way. In Vietnam, the currency consists only of bills. There are no coins. The man's eyes lit up.

Today there are only soft estimates as to how many Vietnamese allies we left behind after April 30th, the figure ranging anywhere from fifty to one hundred thousand and more. Men and women who had spied for us, acted as our interpreters, or aided us in a myriad of ways were left on their own to face the music. Today in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's the same story of people who risked everything on our behalf now denied exit visas to the U.S., these people forced to remain in countries where their lives are constantly at risk. After Mui Ne, I spent three days in Saigon. My second day in the city, I passed a man sitting on Duong Le Loi, a major thoroughfare in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. As I walked by, my heart filled with tears. The man held out his hat and smiled. I could see all of his teeth. Every. Single. One. Even his molars as the man had no real lips to speak of. His lips, along with most of his eyelids and ears, had been burned off of him, his hands misshapen as well. I had seen this man before. During my very first trip to Vietnam in 2001 I saw him standing in the courtyard at the War Remnants Museum. Back then he wore a sign around his neck that said he was a victim of napalm. Say what you want but forty plus years ago our country did this. Have we learned?

When I walk back from the cove to the heart of the beach in Mui Ne, I approach the first person who looks like an instructor. He is in the middle of helping someone get in the water. Though I assume he's Russian, as the Russians here are so plentiful many of the signs in Mui Ne are written in Cyrillic, I ask, "Do you speak English?" "No," he admits. "There's someone around the corner in trouble," I say anyway, gesturing with my hands to the spot around the bend. A woman walks by harnessed to a giant kite. The man speaks to her in Russian, and then the woman turns to me. "Someone's maybe in trouble," I say, and she translates.

Who would've thought it? What happened in Vietnam forty years ago and beyond happened in part due to the Cold War and theories about countries toppling like dominoes. Today I can meet a Russian in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and we can both want the same thing. To help someone. The man nods, and with that he turns and walks the twenty minutes up the beach to see what can be done.

Amy Quan Barry is the author of the novel She Weeps Each Time You're Born.