Visiting Saigon's historic rooftop - symbol of the end of the Vietnam War

| 19 Nov 2017
, 2 Comments
19 Nov 2017

It may be the most iconic image of the end of the Vietnam War. It was taken on 29 April 1975 by photojournalist Hugh van Es, as US choppers evacuated foreigners and South Vietnamese officials from a downtown Saigon rooftop. It came to symbolise the ignominious end of America’s long and bloody war. Last Friday, I headed back to Saigon’s historic rooftop with author Larry Berman.

No image stands out more as a symbol of the end of the Vietnam War, than Hugh van Es’s iconic shot of a chopper precariously perched atop the lift shaft at what was formerly the Pittman Apartments in downtown Saigon. A CIA residence became one of the hastily designated evacuation points as National Liberation Front aka. Vietcong, and North Vietnamese forces descended on the city on 29 April 1975. The city fell on 30 April.

Van Es’s image shows the US chopper, once a symbol of power and military supremacy, looking impotent and ill-equipped for the task of shifting the huge number of people gathered on the rooftop. It captures the poorly planned evacuation of the city, and the tragic failure of a bloody decade of war.

 

 

Last Friday, I headed back up to the top of the old apartment block with US historian and author, Larry Berman (see video above). Larry wrote the book Perfect Spy, which tells the extraordinary story of communist spy Pham Xuan An. On the previous Wednesday, Larry had given his second talk at The Old Compass Cafe (Rusty Compass's base in Saigon), on his book and his recollections of An.

After training as a journalist in the US, Pham Xuan An worked his way through Saigon's international press corps during the 1960s, and was working with Time magazine when Saigon fell in April 1975. He cultivated the highest contacts in the US military and South Vietnamese government, while providing invaluable intelligence to Hanoi throughout the war.

 

The lift shaft that became a landing pad in April 1975 - Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer The lift shaft that became a landing pad in April 1975 - Saigon
 
 
Saigon in 2017 from the Pittman Apartments rooftop
Photo: Mark Bowyer Saigon in 2017 from the Pittman Apartments rooftop
 

As communist forces approached Saigon, Berman's book dramatically recounts the assistance Pham Xuan An provided to a former senior South Vietnamese government official from the Diem years. Dr Tuyen was delivered to the Pittman building and was squeezed through the shutters before successfully boarding one of the last choppers to leave.

That story gives a sense of the murky and conflicted world An must have inhabited. It was years after the war before it was confirmed to An’s former colleagues in the international press corps, that he had been a spy all along.

It was great to be able to accompany Larry on his first visit to the rooftop, and hear his thoughts in this video - as an author and historian. It's always a moving experience.  Grab a copy of Larry’s book - Perfect Spy. It’s an amazing story.

 

The gallery below from 2011 reflects on two historic sites from America's war in Vietnam - Ap Bac and the Pittman Apartments. Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta was where the first major US battle of the war was fought. It was a spectacular defeat for the US and its choppers. US choppers were at the centre of the evacuation of the city and the Pittman Apartments 12 years later in 1975.

 

Travel information
The building formerly known as the Pittman Apartments is located at 22 Ly Tu Trong St in Saigon's District 1. This is not an "official" tourist sight and no information is available. The fact that it is not an official sight is probably its saving grace. The guards downstairs will likely charge you 100,000VND to get up to the top.



Old Compass Travel runs a daily walking tour of Saigon that covers the city’s most dramatic historical moments. You can read more about the tour here.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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2 comments so far

Hi mark, thank you for sharing this post. My team and I have been showing this site to our customers many times. We hope this building will be not torn down.

  • Nguyen Viet Bao Loc
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Tuesday, 21 November 2017 10:34

Hi mark, thank you for sharing this post. My team and I have been showing this site to our customers many times. We hope this building will be not torn down.

  • Nguyen Viet Bao Loc
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Tuesday, 21 November 2017 10:34