Rains Come, Birds Depart

Two eerie signs of the fall of Vietnam were the rains and the birds.

I wrote a few days ago about the three cities that fell as the conquest of South Vietnam approached. In each case, it rained. The first, Ban Me Thuot, was in the highlands. It was monsoon season there; the rains were not unexpected. But the other two, Phuoc Binh and Xuan Loc, were in the lowlands. Both were seized by the communists during the dry season—Phuoc Binh in January and Xuan Loc in April. And yet it rained on the day the North Vietnamese captured each city.

Thanh, the prophetic character in my novel, Last of the Annamese, remarks on the rain and the end of his beloved An Nam, the name he used for Vietnam: “Thanh’s face turned upward again. His eyelids quivered as raindrops splashed down his forehead. ‘The Heaven.’ He pointed upward. ‘The Heaven weeps. An Nam no more. An Nam was. You listen to her weep now.’”

Thanh forewarns that the departure of the birds from Saigon will signal the fall of the city: “‘Cataclysm comes closer. You can smell it in the air. One day soon the birds will abandon Saigon. When they do, the end is at hand.’”

Towards the middle of April—I don’t remember the exact date—as the North Vietnamese encircled Saigon and the fighting came closer and closer, I noticed one day the absence of chirping and bird calls. I looked up and saw that the birds had disappeared from the sky and trees. Their departure was chilling.

Then, on 29 April, the day the North Vietnamese invaded Saigon, it rained again. The monsoons were not due to start until sometime in May, but as I boarded the helicopter for escape to the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea, the heavens opened up and drenched us.

Unlike so many of the Vietnamese I knew, I was not religious, spiritual, or superstitious. I didn’t see the rains and the departure of the birds as a divine or spiritual commentary on the loss of Vietnam. But the consistent behavior of nature in aligning itself to human catastrophe was too pronounced to ignore. It reinforced my sense of irredeemable tragedy.

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