For Vietnamese veterans on both sides of the conflict, the violence of war remained firmly with them for the rest of their lives. For the victorious communist troops, the end of the war meant a return home to participate in village life and the rebuilding of a united nation. Compared to South Vietnamese veterans, many northern veterans suffered long isolation from their families whom they had not seen in some cases since the mid-1960s. The communist government forbade the returning veterans to fully take part in village politics due to fears that ex-soldiers would take on increased power through their enhanced status as war heroes. Over the next two decades the veterans fared poorly and received paltry rations of rice, meat, and cigarettes in compensation for their war service. Even more so than for American veterans, Vietnamese veterans were largely forgotten by the government, and the service of women was utterly ignored. Only near the end of the twentieth century did the Vietnamese government fully honor the women who fought as front-line troops during the war.
The five million ARVN veterans (including 500,000 disabled vets) faced difficult choices at the war’s end. Of the 145,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam in 1975, approximately 33 percent were South Vietnamese veterans who, with their families, chose to immigrate to the United States. Most South Vietnamese veterans who fought with the Vietcong were, along with their families, forced into land redevelopment projects, or New Economic Zones, established in the rural countryside to increase land productivity. They comprised nearly half of the one million Vietnamese detailed to the rural projects. Those who survived malaria and malnutrition drifted back to major southern cities when food supplies dissipated. There, many reentered Vietnamese urban society as cab drivers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of these veterans and their families swelled the tide of “boat people” seeking refuge in the United States. Approximately 100,000 South Vietnamese veterans entered the United States in this fashion, though an unknown number perished at sea.
Other South Vietnamese veterans deemed more dangerous were sent to reeducation camps located in rural areas. The estimate of the number sent to the camps was over 300,000 and included army officers, civil servants, teachers, Catholic clergy, journalists, doctors, engineers, and political activists. The system of reeducation involved regular confessions of “crimes” against Vietnam, coupled with readings on American imperialism and Vietnamese socialism. Higher officials and those who resisted were sometimes tortured. Terms of service ranged from a few months to several years. Those prisoners viewed as the most threatening were sent to camps in northern Vietnam, where slave labor was not uncommon. Some of these prisoners were held until 1989, when the camps finally disbanded. The United States estimated that at least fifty camps existed in the 1970s and 1980s, with an average population of four thousand people each. An unknown number of the war veterans perished from disease, starvation, and overwork. Family members who attempted to smuggle food to the prisoners endured great suffering by having to support themselves while they made long trips to the camps. American and Vietnamese efforts led to the release of most of the sixty thousand veterans by 1990.
Vietnamese veterans who fought for South Vietnam and immigrated to the United States secured political asylum beginning in 1988 through the official Orderly Departure Program. By 1997 tens of thousands of veterans had used the program. Many remained bitter, however, over alleged abandonment by Vietnamese and American officials, who failed to provide adequate financial support once the veterans arrived in the United States. Many Vietnamese veterans suffered from substance abuse, joblessness, and underemployment.