First Battle of Saigon
Although Saigon was the focal point of the offensive, the communists did not seek a total takeover of the city.
Rather, they had six primary targets to strike in the downtown area: the headquarters of the ARVN General Staff at Tan Son Nhut Air Base; the Independence Palace, the American Embassy, the Long Binh Naval Headquarters, and the National Radio Station. These objectives were all assaulted by small elements of the local C-10 Sapper Battalion. Elsewhere in the city or its outskirts, ten Viet Cong Local Force Battalions attacked the central police station and the Artillery Command and the Armored Command headquarters (both at Go Vap). The plan called for all these initial forces to capture and hold their positions for 48 hours, by which time reinforcements were to have arrived to relieve them.
The defense of the Capital Military Zone was primarily a South Vietnamese responsibility and it was initially defended by eight ARVN infantry battalions and the local police force. By 3 February they had been reinforced by five ARVN Ranger Battalions, five Marine Corps, and five ARVN Airborne Battalions. U.S. Army units participating in the defense included the 716th Military Police Battalion, seven infantry battalions (one mechanized), and six artillery battalions.
Faulty intelligence and poor local coordination hampered the communist attacks from the outset. At the Armored Command and Artillery Command headquarters on the northern edge of the city, for example, the communists planned to utilize captured tanks and artillery pieces to further support the offensive. To their dismay, they found that the tanks had been moved to another base two months earlier and that the breech blocks of the artillery pieces had been removed, rendering them useless. One of the most important Viet Cong targets was the National Radio Station. Communist troops had brought along a tape recording of Hồ Chi Minh announcing the liberation of Saigon and calling for a "General Uprising" against the Thiệu government. The building was seized and held for six hours but the occupiers were unable to broadcast due to the cutting off of the audio lines from the main studio at the tower (which was situated at a different location) as soon as the station was seized.
The U.S. Embassy in Saigon, a massive six-floor building situated within a four acre compound, had only been completed in September. At 02:45 it was attacked by a 19-man sapper team that blew a hole in the eight-foot high surrounding wall and charged through. With their officer killed in the initial attack and their attempt to gain access to the building having failed, however, the sappers simply milled around in the chancery grounds until they were all eliminated or captured by reinforcements. By 09:20 the embassy and its grounds were secured.
Throughout the city, small squads of Viet Cong fanned out to attack various officers and enlisted men's billets, homes of ARVN officers, and district police stations. Provided with "blacklists" of military officers and civil servants, they began to round up and execute any that could be found. On 1 February General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, chief of the National Police, publicly executed Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem captured in civilian clothing in front of a photographer and film cameraman. What was not explained in the wake of the distribution of the captured images was that the suspect had just taken part in the murder of one of Loan's most trusted officers and his entire family.
Outside the city proper, two Viet Cong battalions attacked the U.S. logistical and headquarters complex at Long Binh. Biên Hòa Air Base was struck by a battalion, while the adjacent ARVN III Corps headquarters was the objective of another. Tan Son Nhut Air Base, in the northwestern part of the city, was attacked by three battalions. Fortunately for the allies, a combat-ready battalion of ARVN paratroopers, awaiting transport to Da Nang, went instead directly into action and halted the attack. A total of 35 communist battalions, many of whose troops were undercover cadres who had lived and worked within the capital or its environs for years, had been committed to the Saigon objectives. By dawn, most of the attacks within the city center had been eliminated, but severe fighting between Viet Cong and allied forces erupted in the Chinese neighborhood of Cholon around the Phu Tho racetrack, southwest of the city center, which was being utilized as a staging area and command and control center by the communists. Bitter and destructive house-to-house fighting erupted in the area and, on 4 February, the residents were ordered to leave their homes and the area was declared a free fire zone. Fighting in the city came to a close only after a fierce battle between the ARVN Rangers and Viet Cong forces on 7 March.
Except at Huế and mopping-up operations in and around Saigon, the first surge of the offensive was over by the second week of February. The U.S. estimated that during the first phase (30 January – 8 April), approximately 45,000 communist soldiers were killed and an unknown number were wounded. For years this figure was held as excessive, but it was confirmed by Stanley Karnow in Hanoi in 1981. Westmoreland claimed that during the same period 32,000 communist troops were killed and another 5,800 captured. The South Vietnamese suffered 2,788 killed, 8,299 wounded, and 587 missing in action. U.S. and other allied forces suffered 1,536 killed, 7,764 wounded, and 11 missing.
Except for Hué, the most serious city fighting was in Saigon. Once a gracious, languid island in the midst of war, Saigon last week was a city rimmed by fear. Every half-hour the radio grimly warned: "The Saigon-Cholon area is not considered secure. Firefights and sniper fire are expected to continue. Do not travel on foot. All vehicles must have an armed escort." Flak-jacketed American MPs, weapons at the ready, roared along the tree-shaded boulevards. Trigger-happy police fired frantically in the air to halt vehicles approaching checkpoints and barricades strung about the city. Tough ARVN marines and paratroopers blasted their way through narrow alleys in running gun battles with the Viet Cong, 700 to 1,000 of whom were believed still mingling with the city's population.