HO CHI MINH CITY - Vietnam marked the 40th anniversary of Saigon's fall Thursday with a huge military parade celebrating the moment communist forces ended a decades-long conflict and delivered a painful blow to American moral and military prestige.
The centre of Vietnam's usually bustling southern business hub was seal\ed off so that regiments of goose-stepping soldiers in dress uniform could march past all the country's flag-waving top leadership as a marching band played.
Elaborate floats, including one bearing a giant portrait of founding president Ho Chi Minh, made their way slowly through the city streets, celebrating the moment 40 years ago when tanks smashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in the then southern capital of Saigon - now named Ho Chi Minh City.
"The April 30 victory was a golden turning point for the Vietnamese people," Army Lieutenant-General Nguyen Quoc Khanh told the crowds at the event, which is being broadcast live nationwide.
The victory is a symbol of the country's hard-won independence, he said, adding that the army "is ready to sacrifice" anything to defend this.
The Northern victors reunited the country under a communist government after a war which eviscerated much of Vietnam, killing millions of its people as well as 58,000 American servicemen.
The conflict was also bitterly divisive in the US and still haunts the country.
As the first Cold War conflict to be extensively covered by the Western press - and the first to be lost by a modern superpower that thought itself unbeatable - it remains seared into the public imagination, most often as a tragic waste.
No American official will attend the anniversary parade, but the US Ambassador will attend a small ceremony at the consulate in HCMC with The Fall of Saigon Marine's Association, embassy spokesman Terry White told AFP.
Victory means 'legitimacy'
The winning side has also struggled with the meaning of the war as the nominally communist government deepens its embrace of market capitalism.
For decades, Hanoi has celebrated its military victory as a means to legitimise its ongoing authoritarian rule.
The communists' 1975 victory was a moment of global historic importance, said Vietnam expert Jonathan London, at City University of Hong Kong.
With the parade the party is trying to both commemorate victory and "erase any possibility that its achievements over the last 40 years have fallen short of the mark", he said.
Vietnam has come a long way since the end of the war, and especially over the last 20 years since the adoption of market reforms, London added, but wartime anniversaries still play a key role for the older generation.
Yet increasingly, the public is indifferent or even hostile to such shows of official patriotism.
"I don't care about this parade - it's bad for business," said Nguyen Thi Dieu, 25, a vendor who sells cold water and snacks in the city centre told AFP.
"The parade is just for the TV cameras and for the top leaders, not for people like me." Tuong Vu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, said perceptions of the war had evolved in Vietnam.
Once, people saw the war "as one for national liberation and unification... these days most Vietnamese perhaps believe that the war was a tragic event during which Vietnamese killed other Vietnamese - a civil war," he told AFP.
"The communist party is no longer seen as patriotic or invincible," he said, adding that many people saw the anniversary celebrations as a waste of money.
Vietnam remains a one-party state where dissent is not tolerated and all media is state-controlled.
Local press has run fawning stories ahead of the anniversary, heavy on wartime heroism.
But online, where many citizens now prefer to read their news, criticism of the anniversary is more widespread.
"Let the past go, it's been 40 years," wrote businessman Tran Minh Chien on his Facebook page in a typical comment, urging the government not to waste time and money on a major military parade.