Four years ago, with trepidation and a little excitement, my husband David Lamb, a foreign correspondent for the L.A. Times, and I, left the comforts of our home in Alexandria, VA to live in Vietnam for four years. Dave’s mission was set up the first major newspaper bureau in Vietnam. I quickly got acclimated to the new city and, as I had done many times before in places like Africa, Europe and Asia, I embraced this new adventure, looking for a mission of my own.
I quickly fell in love with Vietnam. I became more and more involved in the Vietnamese culture - the customs, the day-to-day life of the streets, and the beliefs and attitudes of the people. I loved it all - the bustling, constant motion of Hanoi, the noise of the chickens, the bread sellers, the fishermen in the morning. The more I learned about the Vietnamese people and their culture, it became so clear to me, it was essential to tell the story of the Vietnam War and Vietnam today from the Vietnamese perspective. One of the facts that you quickly learn is that we saw 58,000 Americans die in the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese lost three million. We had 5,000 servicemen listed as MIAs, they had 300,000.
As I began to dig deeper, I found stories everywhere, stories of Vietnamese people who had overcome great hardship to begin new and happy lives; stories that reinforced her central theme that Vietnam was no longer a war, but a thriving country full, made of resilient people and a younger generation striving to change the current system. As the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approached, I realized the celebrations in Ho Chi Minh City would provide the perfect backdrop with which to start this newest journey.
Vietnam is filled with such rich culture and everyone in the country was touched by the war, so I wanted to wide range of characters to fully convey the various sides of the story. I looked for men, women, people from the north and the south with all different perspectives. I only had two main criteria: they had to have been in Saigon when it fell on April 30, 1975, and had to be living in Ho Chi Minh City today.
My research led me to a hundred potential stories, and after interviewing twenty-five people, I narrowed it down to six. With the help of Tran Le Tian, the cameraman and translator who had been assigned to me by the Foreign Press Center, I interviewed and selected the characters that would eventually become the characters of the new film.
The final mix, with their varied roles at the time Saigon was falling were compelling: a Viet Cong spy trained as a pilot in the U.S., a widow who sent her children to safety in the U.S. during the war's final days, a young Vietnamese boy who was befriended by the Marines, a balladeer who protested the war in song, a Vietnamese photographer working for the Americans who captured the suffering of his people, and a young woman who was arrested and tortured for her activism against the South Vietnamese regime. Even more compelling were the varied roles they played in Vietnamese society, circa 2000.
As I started to put the story together, it became clear that I was missing a critical element to tie the story together. My job was to give my American audience a new perspective on the war, but I realized that to do that I needed an America 'guide'. So I added a seventh character – my husband, David Lamb. Dave started his career as a foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War with the American wire service UPI. Now he was the South East Asia Bureau Chief for the LA Times, based in Vietnam. His career had been book-ended by his two Vietnam experiences."
His perspective mirrored not only my own but the perspective of all Americans. The Vietnam War resonates so deeply with Americans, I knew it would be too much to ask of any audience to grasp the names and experiences of only Vietnamese people. Since Dave covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 and then returned more than 20 years later to cover Vietnam today, the idea is that the audiences' understanding will evolve just as his did.
The program presented other structural challenges. The Vietnam story is not monolithic. There are six people with very different lives. The challenge was how to tell so many different perspectives without confusing the audience and making them understand that the story can't be told from a single perspective.
There is drama within each story, but I needed to find the dramatic architecture for the entire program." It became clear as I began to put the story together that I could not retell the war six times, in each subject's sequence. I needed to tuck each of the individual stories into the broader story of the war in the first act. The Fall of Saigon ends the first act. The second act details the peoples' hope and ultimate disillusionment with the policies of the new Vietnamese government. The third act weaves each character's story of hope - and that of Vietnam - to resolution.
I’ve tried to let the stories tell themselves without putting my own commentary on them. It's a story of incredibly important historical record. This is the first film that accurately documents Vietnam 1975-present, and that shows the hope, determination and resiliency of the Vietnamese people.
The process of making this film is a microcosm of my overall experience in Vietnam. I set out to do something. Things evolved. It became a love affair with making films and a love affair with the country. In retrospect, it's no surprise that the last four years were some of the best years of my life, both personally and professionally.