Journalist Tran Mai Hanh and his memory of April

(VOVworld) – Whenever I think of the historic event at noon on April 30, 1975, at Independence Palace, I always think of events on the last day of the war, April 29.

In the mid-day special news bulletin on May 1, 1975, VOV broadcast an article, the first one on Vietnamese media, about the historic victory of the liberation of Sai Gon on April 30. The article, entitled “Ho Chi Minh City – a golden name”, was written by Tran Mai Hanh, a Vietnam News Agency journalist in Sai Gon. The report was also published in the Nhan Dan newspaper under the title “Entering the Presidential Palace of the puppet regime”.

21 years later, in 1996, journalist Tran Mai Hanh was named VOV’s General Director. I was his subordinate for 6 years. I met him again in April, 2013, and we had frank and open talks about many issues that the public was also interested in. 

More than a decade after his career “disaster”, which had serious repercussions, he agreed to meet with journalists and give an interview. On the 38th anniversary of the Southern Liberation and National Unification (April 30, 1975 - April 30, 2013), with Hanh’s agreement, I would like to make public our talks.

Journalist Tran Mai Hanh and his memory of April - ảnh 1
Late VNA General Director Daoo Tung (center), journalist Tran Mai Hanh (right), and Van Bao
in Tay Ninh forest on 29/4/1975.

** You witnessed the historic moment of Sai Gon’s liberation on April 30, 1975, and wrote a report about it. What was the impact of the event and the report on your life?

38 years have passed. Many events occurred during that period. I have experienced many glories as well as “disasters” and tragedies. During the most tragic days of my life, when I was enmeshed in a legal case, my memory of that glorious, historic moment at Independence Palace on April 30, 1975, and my reporting of it, helped me to find peace of mind, stand firm with an unswerving confidence in the noble ideas of the revolution that I had pursued, and continue to live a meaningful life. 

** What are the most impressive images of April 30, 1975, in your mind?

Whenever I think of that historic moment at Independence Palace on April 30, 1975, I immediately think of the night of April 29, the last night of the war.

It was nearly midnight when I finished hanging my hammock at a temporary military base on the way from Tay Ninh to Sai Gon. Van Bao, a VNA photographer reporter, and I, were left behind because our motorbike had a flat tire and we could not fix it.

We had traveled thousands of kilometers along the combat trail and faced countless bombings and dangers. We and the driver had to push our car tens of kilometers under the scorching sun over immense sand dunes. Once we had to cross a river where the bridge had collapsed. We went to a village to borrow some boats and tied them together to make a ferry. We put our car on it and pushed the ferry across the river.

We came within an inch of death late one night as we were traveling along “terrifying trail 7”. A bomb exploded on the roadside. Dust and smoke blanketed everything.

We had a wonderful stroke of luck when we found ourselves escorted by an artillery squad with armored vehicles in front and behind our UAZ car. They mistook our car, which carried Dao Tung, VNA’s General Director, for the car of Lieutenant-General Doan The, the Commander of the Artillery Force.

The last night before the war ended, I was at the gates of Sai Gon. The earth shook from successive explosions. The sound of machine-guns echoed from Trang Bang, Tay Ninh. Heavy artillery fire lit up the skies toward the front. It was Sai Gon. We had an order to follow the main troops advancing to Sai Gon the next morning to fight the last battle. We, hundreds of journalists from many press agencies, wondered who would be the journalists to take the first photos and file the first reports about Sai Gon in that historic moment? I tossed and turned all night with mixed feelings.

Did you join the Ho Chi Minh campaign from the beginning as a special envoy of VNA?

I was a member of a special VNA reporting team which was formed after the Buon Me Thuot victory and led by VNA General Director Dao Tung. Our group left Hanoi on the morning of April 2, 1975. Another group had left Hanoi one week earlier. We traveled in a new UAZ from the Soviet Union. When we were about to leave, VNA Deputy General Director Do Phuong, who signed the order for me to go in Dao Tung’s group, took my hands and said: “Mai Hanh has to try to write as many reports as possible. You have to try to be the first journalist to file a report about the historic moment which I believe will occur in the near future.”

How did you write the first report? 

At 5 am on April 30, we got an order to advance to catch up with tank brigades entering Independence Palace. We revved up our motorbike to 50 kilometers per hour. Van Bao drove the motorbike to bypass streams of people on a crowded road. 

At 11:45 on April 30, we arrived at Independence Palace, right on time for the historic moment. The victory flag was hoisted on top of the Palace. My younger brother Tran Mai Huong, Vu Tao, Ngoc Dan, Hoang Thiem, and Dinh Quang Thanh, who followed Division 304 and Tank Brigade 203 of Army Corps No. 2, arrived there some minutes before us. They took many photos of the historic moment. The photos “Tanks of the Liberation Army enter Independence Palace on April 30, 1975” taken by Tran Mai Huong were widely used as symbols of the triumphant day.

I immediately gathered important information for my report: When did the first tank crash the gate of Independence Palace? When was the victory flag hoisted on top of the Palace? What was the name of the soldier who hoisted the flag? How did Duong Van Minh, President of the puppet regime, deliver his surrender statement? How did we announce our victory? Then I rushed to the second floor. All the surrendered cabinet members of the Sai Gon administration were sitting there. I asked about the conversation between Duong Van Minh and the commander of the Liberation forces who attacked Independence Palace (later I learned he was captain Pham Xuan Tue, Deputy Head of Regiment 66 of Army Corps 2 and Tank Division 203) When I finished writing the report I couldn’t send it to Hanoi. I had to wait for the vehicle carrying the radio transmitter and telegraphers from the Liberation News Agency to come later that night. The telegraphers installed the transmitter and established the connection. Then I gave them my report to send, not to Hanoi, but to the Headquarters of the Liberation News Agency in Tay Ninh forest.  

It took a long time for the telegrapher to transcribe the report into Morse code. At Tay Ninh headquarters, Dao Tung edited the report before another telegrapher used a higher capacity transmitter to forward it to Hanoi. The report was posted on VNA’s news bulletin on the night of April 30 under the title “Ho Chi Minh city, a golden name”. It was too late for Nhan Dan newspaper to post it in the May 1st edition. Nhan Dan newspaper published the full report on May 2, 1975, after renaming it “Advancing into the Presidential Palace of the puppet regime”.

What name did you sign below your report?

It was a VNA regulation that I always wrote my name “Mai Hanh” at the end of any news story or article. After editing it and before sending it to Hanoi, General Director Dao Tung wrote below the title of my report: A report by Tran Mai Hanh, VNA journalist in Sai Gon. The report broadcast on VOV and published in Nhan Dan later also had my full name.

What did you do after sending your report to Hanoi?

On the evening of April 30, 1975 after my report was sent to Hanoi, we drove our car around Sai Gon to see the city on the first night of liberation. I came back to the VNA office late at night. The next day I applied for a “special work permit” issued by the Sai Gon–Gia Dinh City Military Management Committee. It allowed me to work as a journalist in the whole city and authorized administrative agencies at all levels to help me complete my work. The “special work permit” mentioned the code number of my K54 gun. It might be the first “press card” issued by the revolutionary administration in Sai Gon (the Sai Gon-Gia Dinh City Military Management Committee).

While I getting a work permit, Van Bao found a villa in which to open a VNA bureau in Sai Gon. He hung the flag of the Liberation Front on the front gate and a nameplate in his handwriting that said “Vietnam News Agency in Sai Gon”. There were some abandoned cars near Independence Palace, including a new white Jeep for escorting the puppet President. Van Bao drove them to the VNA office. From the new office I sent a message to the Liberation News Agency in Tay Ninh to report our work to Dao Tung.                      

What was the message about?

I wrote “To: Mr. Dao Tung. We have established a VNA office at 126 Phan Dinh Phung. We have 3 cars. Please send Pham Vy (secretary) and Vinh and Suu (drivers) to Sai Gon as soon as possible. Lam Hong Long and Hua Kiem will also stay here. We face a lot of difficulties, including daily expenditures. We ask for your urgent direction.  If you cannot come in a couple of days, please talk to Nam Xuan about the situation. Sai Gon 1/5/1975. Mai Hanh”.

When did you know that your report had been broadcast or published?

At noon on May 1, 1975, Van Bao and I listened to VOV’s special news while we were driving around the busy Sai Gon streets. After a news story by the Liberation News Agency saying that “Since the morning of May 1, 1975, Vietnam’s southern region has been totally liberated”, the broadcaster read my report “Ho Chi Minh City, a golden name”. We turned it up to maximum volume and listened to the report amidst a sea of people, flags, and flowers. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the 1st May Day of a united nation.

How long did you stay in Sai Gon after the liberation day?

More than a month. On June 6, 1975, I left Sai Gon for Hanoi.

At that time people were eager to move to Sai Gon. Why were you so eager to leave for Hanoi?

The Vietnam News Agency Bureau in Sai Gon was established after Liberation Day. Pham Vy was named head of the Sai Gon bureau. My younger brother Tran Mai Huong, who was unmarried, was assigned to work at the bureau. I was assigned a new task in Hanoi.

How did you travel to Hanoi, by car or plane? Do you remember it?

I traveled to Hanoi on the Dong Nai ship, the first sea route from Sai Gon port to Hai Phong. I traveled by sea because Dao Tung wanted to transport the white Jeep of the puppet President to Hanoi as a souvenir of the historic operation. In the final approval of items I could bring to Hanoi signed by Pham Kim Thao, Head of the Office of the Sai Gon–Gia Dinh Military Management Committee, on May 30, 1975, the Jeep was eliminated. I still have all the related papers. The customs declaration of my personal belongings included “01 Hitachi transistor radio, 01 Sony recorder, 1 Royal handheld typewriter, 2 child shirts, 4 underwear…” Documents that I collected during the operation including a thousand letters were kept in my backpack. 

Can you talk more about the typewriter and documents you collected during the operation?

It was a nice, little Royal brand typewriter from the Office of the Sai Gon Military Command, which I used to type the report. I also used it to write the opening and closing speeches for General Tran Van Tra, Chairman of the Sai Gon–Gia Dinh Military Management Committee to read at the meeting and parade to celebrate the victory on May 15. At that time a portable typewriter was rare and a dream for most reporters and writers.

I still have VNA’s license allowing me to bring the typewriter to Hanoi and use it, but I no longer have the typewriter. In 1981 a fire in my neighbor’s house spread to my house and destroyed everything, including my handwritten draft report from April 30, 1975, and more than 1,000 letters that I had collected along the way from Hue to Sai Gon. At the same time we lost two bicycles belonging to my wife and me and we had to sell the typewriter to buy another bicycle.   

The documents and letters were written by thousands of people, reflecting thousands of fates, stories, and national events. If they had not been burnt, they could have provided material for a great historical novel. I have published some works of literature: “Tình yêu và án tử hình” (Love and a death penalty - Thanh niên Publishing House), “Sụp đổ và tự thú” (Collapse and confession), and “Ngày tận thế” (Doomsday - People’s Army Publishing House). I was close to finishing a historical novel called “Những ngày cuối cùng của Việt Nam cộng hòa” (The last days of the Republic of Vietnam) in 2000. It was serialized in the Literature and Arts newspaper and broadcast on VOV’s midnight story-telling segment. The novel was due to be published in 2002, but unfortunately I was involved in a legal case at that time. I couldn’t finish the last chapter and had to cancel it. 

You and your brother were VNA journalists during the Ho Chi Minh campaign. You are the former Vice President and Secretary General of the Vietnam Journalists’ Association and General Director of VOV. Your brother is the former General Director of VNA, the state’s strategic news agency. Has journalism brought glory to you and your family?

A lot of glory and more than a little bitterness. After the disaster in 2002, at meetings and exchanges with reporters who covered the Ho Chi Minh campaigns, only Van Bao talked about us. No one mentioned the first report of the historic moment at noon on April 30, 1975, at Independence Palace. The people and society have changed. At times people have to be silent and have to learn to be silent. There are things we have to keep until the end of our lives.

Recently, an editor-in-chief expressed his respect for your career in journalism and wanted to write about you. Has it been done yet?

I feel moved and want to thank the editor-in-chief. But I think we have to wait longer.

Is this the first time you have given a press interview during the past decade?

Yes, it is. Over the past decade I have been living silently and working as other retired cadres do.

Do you continue to write?

After the 2002 disaster I continued to write, using the penname Tran Nhat Thi. Some of my reports received public attention, such as The story of the Hau River farm, Farmer’s smile and tear, A touching information channel, Behaving for social interest, and many other reports that have appeared in VOV’s newspaper and on radio. I have used the penname Tran Mai Hanh again since 2010.

Through many ups and downs, how would you characterize your own experience?

After everything, only kindness and human sentiment remain. In the middle of April, talking with you about the triumphant memories of 38 years ago makes me feel melancholy. Dao Tung, my respected boss, Van Bao, Lam Hong Phong, Lam Thanh, and many other reporters who were with me during the Ho Chi Minh campaign have passed away. My eldest daughter, who was 2 when I left for the Ho Chi Minh campaign, is now a mature journalist. She was given the President’s congratulatory letter and honored as an outstanding citizen of the capital city at the 1000th anniversary of Thang Long-Hanoi. My wife, a literature student who had just graduated at the time we were married, is now a retired teacher and a member of the Vietnam Writers’ Association. Time flies and things fade away. No one can hold it. Historical events occur one time and a man lives only once. In order to deeply understand history or to truly understand a person, we need time and maybe more than one evaluation. History and life are endless flows. Our modern life consists of the precious spiritual values of the past and momentum for the future.

Can you talk a little about the past “disaster” and the VOV newspaper on the occasion of its 15th anniversary, since you were its founder?

Please leave that story for another occasion.

VNA has had a great importance to your career as a journalist. What is your most unforgettable memory?

I worked at VNA for 30 years, since leaving the University of Literature. In the last part of my historical novel “The last days of the Republic of Vietnam”, which was published in the Nhà báo & Công luận newspaper in April, 2011, I expressed my deep gratitude to VNA’s late General Director Dao Tung and former General Director Do Phuong, who were my respected bosses, brothers, and teachers of journalism. In July, 2011, I found my recommendation letters for Party membership and employment, signed by Ho Huu Phuoc, Secretary of the Party Committee of Quang Nam–Da Nang Special Zone on December 12, 1969. The papers were kept at National Archives Center III.  I immediately informed Do Phuong and Dinh Trong Quyen, who was Secretary of the Party cell of VNA journalists at the Quang Da front. They held me tight and I was crying.

Can you talk in more detail about that?

In the article “Blood and tears”, published in the Arts and Literature newspaper on September, 2012, and then broadcast on VOV and included in the Nhà báo & Công luận newspaper, I talked about it. I think that’s enough.

You were a student at the University of Literature. You have 50 years of journalistic experience. What is your favorite saying?

Truth is the most valuable asset. José Hérnandez, a famous poet of Argentina, said: “Even a thin hair strand casts its shadow over the ground”. It means a truth as small and thin as a strand of hair cannot be denied.

Thank you for the interview.