SAIGON, May 9, 1975 (UPI) - I knew the war was over, but it didn't really sink in until I leaned out the window.
Down below, Communist tanks rumbled victoriously down Tu Do Street, a strip of bars that once catered to the desires of thousands of American GIs.
On Tu Do, a half-mile street of seediness where beggars, thieves and whores used to reign supreme, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong tanks now chewed up the asphalt.
You used to be able to get almost anything you wanted on Tu Do, which means "freedom" in Vietnamese.
To South Vietnam's new rulers, the street represented the worst of capitalism.
The U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government surrendered to the Communists April 30, ending three decades of war in Vietnam. Hours later, the first Communist tanks rumbled into the capital.
Alan Dawson, the UPI bureau manager in Saigon, and I watched through the windows of our office as the Communists put down the last pockets of resistance.
The Communists fired at South Vietnamese naval vessels loaded with sailors and their families trying to escape down the Saigon River to the safety of the South China Sea.
As darkness fell, we watched ammunition dumps exploding in the distance and tracer bullets leaping into the flare-lit sky. As the shooting subsided, we awaited a visit to the bureau by the victors.
They never came.
So, we ventured out into the street, grinning at the Communist troops we'd only seen before on battlefields. We were relieved when some of them grinned back.
In the days that followed, we walked the streets freely, observing the curious peace.
Most of the beggars and a few of the hookers returned to Tu Do, but the Viet Cong flags hanging from the shuttered bars convinced me the street would never be the same.
I returned to Highway 1 to find it littered with the gutted tanks and trucks of both sides. Refugees streamed north toward home instead of south toward the safety many of them never found.
Bodies of civilians and soldiers lay along roads to the north and the sick-sweet smell of corpses mingled with the smoke of smoldering battlefields.
In the days without communications, there was leisure to look back on the American evacuation that ended a quarter-century of involvement in South Vietnam.
I met at least a half-dozen Americans who did not make it out on U.S. evacuation helicopters. All were critical of the way the pullout was handled.
Most were bitter about the fate of Vietnamese who had worked for the U.S. government. American officials had warned of a bloodbath but failed to get them out.
There has been no evidence of a bloodbath.
On the night before the end came I saw a lot of Vietnamese desperate to leave. Some of those left behind now ask the few remaining Americans for a way out.
The light at the end of the tunnel has flickered out. For better or worse, the people of South Vietnam have turned toward the other end of the tunnel.
(Leon Daniel is general news editor for Asia at Hong Kong. He arrived in Saigon April 5, 1975, to help cover the war and remained to help cover the peace. He has reported from Asia since 1966, first from Vietnam as a combat correspondent and then from Tokyo, Bangkok, New Delhi and Manila before moving to Hong Kong in 1974. A native of Etowah, Tenn., he was graduated from the University of Tennessee. He joined UPI at Nashville, Tenn., in 1956 and worked in Knoxville and Atlanta before going overseas.)