The parade, the highlight of celebrations marking the communist capture of this former South Vietnamese capital 10 years ago, started off yesterday in orderly and typically vibrant Saigonese fashion. As the crowd waited in assigned sections in what is now Reunification Park in front of the former presidential palace for the ceremonies to begin, a rock band with three electric guitars, drums and an electric organ provided entertainment.
Order was more or less maintained as about 1,000 dignitaries, including eight of the 13 members of the Hanoi Politburo, watched the procession of troops and civilians: uniformed women, some wearing curlers in their hair, goose-stepping with different colored socks and sneakers, tank and surface-to-air missile crews and women in traditional ao dai outfits waving red paper flags bearing the Vietnamese gold star or the communist hammer and sickle.
Then, in scenes underscoring the contrast between the still comparatively free-wheeling Saigonese and their more regimented countrymen to the north, police began to lose their battle to keep spectators in line.
Many drifted away; others surged forward for a better look. Some tried to speak to foreign reporters, while police tried to prevent them from doing so.
One Amerasian youth who persisted in talking to an American reporter was handcuffed and led away.
Elsewhere along the parade route, police broke up a crowd of children who had gathered around a British journalist by beating them with bamboo sticks.
Despite the best efforts of Ho Chi Minh City's finest, a number of spectators managed to besiege foreigners with pleas to help them leave the country or condemnations of communist rule -- still typical sentiments 10 years after the fall of Saigon.
Through it all, the visiting leaders from Hanoi sat in a grandstand under a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the late and practically deified North Vietnamese president, and waved from under their large straw hats.
Among those present were Communist Party leader Le Duan, President Truong Chinh, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and Defense Minister Gen. Van Tien Dung, who engineered the successful North Vietnamese drive that resulted in the capture of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Among those who did not make scheduled appearances at the parade were former defense minister Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and former Paris peace negotiator Le Duc Tho, who was apparently preparing for his live interview later in the morning with Ted Koppel of ABC-TV's "Nightline" program.
The highest-ranking of about 30 foreign dignitaries from 10 countries was Cuban Foreign Minister Isidoro Malmierca. Smoking a large and presumably Cuban cigar at 7 a.m., he sat behind the aging Le Duan, who left before the parade was over.
IN THEIR public-relations efforts, the Vietnamese authorities at times have been known to lay it on a bit thick. But a visit to a reeducation camp yesterday took the cake.
With a convoy of about 50 foreign journalists in tow -- all in their assigned cars ranging from Soviet Volgas to a 1966 Ford Mustang -- the Vietnamese led the way to "Camp K4" about 60 miles north of Saigon near Xuan Loc in what is now Dong Nai province .
If they had not suspected it before, the journalists knew something was fishy when a sign over a booth at the entrance said: "Entry ticket 5 dong 5 cents , children under 10 free."
Indeed, the place looked more like a tourist resort than a prison camp.
Among its features were a swimming pool with slides, a playground, a man-made lake with a wooden guest pavilion, gardens with carefully labeled flowers and other plants, a movie room with a television and a videotape player, and a zoo.
As reporters arrived, a group of inmates was playing volleyball while others sang to the accompaniment of a band.
According to the camp warden, Maj. Le Nhan, "some like it so much they ask if they can stay here after their sentences are finished."
He said that since the camp opened in 1975, 3,000 out of 4,000 inmates held at one time or another in Camp K4 had written letters requesting permission to stay, but the camp only had room for 150 of them.
Even Vietnamese government interpreters had a hard time keeping straight faces.
Asked if this was a typical reeducation camp, one guide just laughed.
Vietnamse who have spent time in real reeducation camps and later left the country as refugees have described harsh conditions with long hours of manual work and little food.
One refugee recently interviewed in Bangkok said he had been sent twice to reeducation camps for trying to flee by boat.
He called them "forced labor camps" where inmates spent their time digging canals or clearing fields.
WITH NEARLY 200 foreign reporters, photographers and television crewmen present for the 10th anniversary ceremonies, Vietnamese authorities also have made some of their celebrities available for interviews.
Among the most interviewed has been Kim Phuoc, 22, who was burned by napalm in an American air strike when she was 9 years old and was photographed running down a road naked and crying.
Also presented to the press has been Lt. Col. Nguyen Thanh Trung, a former South Vietnamese pilot who made a bombing run on the presidential palace in Saigon on April 8, 1975.
Then there were "heroes of the Vietnamese armed forces," former members of the Vietcong who carried out such attacks as a 1965 bombing of the U.S. Embassy on Ham Nghi Street that left about 20 persons dead, most of them Vietnamese civilian passers-by.
Correspondents who covered that attack, or who saw dramatic film of it, were surprised when Ho Chi Minh City's deputy military commander, Col. Tran Thanh Dam, stated flatly that no civilian casualties had occurred. Vietcong policy was not to inflict civilian casualties, he said, giving the rewritten history of the incident. Therefore, there had not been any.
A civilian official later gave a slightly different explanation: "The bullet has no eyes," he said. It was possible that "our soldiers" caused those deaths, he said, but more likely that they were the result of a machine gun on the embassy roof.