Viet Nam Then and Now: A Veteran Returns
September 25, 1969. The long flight from California with refueling stops in Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines is now descending into Tan Son Nhut airport, Saigon, Republic of Viet Nam. I peer out the window with growing anticipation. I am about to begin my one-year tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force as an English language instructor to the Republic of Viet Nam Air Force. What will this year hold for me? I have a feeling it won't be boring. I'll be proven right.
First Impressions: Heat. Humidity. Strange sights, sounds and smells. Chaotic traffic; predominantly small motorbikes and mo-peds mixed in with bicycles, horse carts, cyclos, motor-cyclos, Lambrettas, ancient French cars and trucks, modern American cars and military vehicles of all types all vying for space on the crowded streets. The air is blue with the smoke from 2-cycle engines. Graceful women glide along arm-in-arm in their ao-dais. Barefoot children running down the streets. Refugees living in huge pipes at the side of the road. Everything looks broken down and in a state of disrepair. Buddhist temples. Hindu temples. Chinese pagodas. Street stalls selling... everything. Soldiers everywhere. A completely different way of life from that in the U.S.
The Experience: This place is going to be fertile ground for my photography, an interest I'd developed in college and furthered by working in a studio prior to the Air Force. Fortunately my work schedule provides plenty of opportunity for picture taking. I only work 5 hours a day, 6 days a week teaching. I spend my off-duty hours roaming around Saigon shooting photos of all the strange and wonderful sights. Everything is so exotic and interesting. What is ordinary to the locals is a constant source of fascination to me. My experience of Viet Nam at that time was not so much of being in a war but rather of being in a country where a war was going on. I was not in combat and didn't feel threatened or in much danger. Perhaps that is why I look back upon it with a great deal of fondness and nostalgia. My photos reflect that experience. What I recorded was the daily life of Saigon as seen by a young American soldier. These pictures are among my most precious memories of that time and I am happy to have the opportunity to share them with your readers.
November 29, 2003. The Cathay Pacific jet slowly descends into Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. After landing I get an eerie feeling staring out the window as we taxi past aircraft revetments left over from the war. I am about to set foot in Viet Nam for the first time in over 33 years. Has it really been that long? How much has changed... and how much has remained the same? I'll get the answers to those questions, and much more, as I embark on a journey I've been anticipating for many years.
First Impressions: It's hot but not oppressive. Modern air terminal. Long lines for immigration. Men and women in green military-style uniforms checking passports & visas. My guy is polite if not friendly. This time I'm just another tourist. Once outside, I'm met by my guide & driver, Phuong. On the ride into town I'm amazed at the transformation. Sai Gon has morphed into Ho Chi Minh City, a modern Asian metropolis. The traffic is still chaotic, and there's a lot more of it. New cars & trucks from Japan & Korea... and millions more motorbikes! Commerce and prosperity are in evidence everywhere. Dong Khoi is lined with upscale shops & restaurants. Department stores are filled with goods. People are well dressed and many of them sport handphones. High-rise buildings have transformed the skyline. Viet Nam is hosting the SEA Games. There is a great sense of national pride and a festive atmosphere.
The Experience: Within a day I'm completely acclimated and feeling right at home. As I go around I find Viet Nam to be a photographer's paradise. After a week in HCMC photographing many of the same places I shot in '69-'70 and a side trip to the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh & the Cu Chi tunnels I fly to Ha Noi. It's a completely different atmosphere. Much more subdued than HCMC. I have a strange feeling; kind of like being in the enemy camp. But everyone is friendly and I enjoy seeing the sights. The highlight of my trip to the north is an overnight boat cruise on beautiful Ha Long Bay. The next adventure is the overnight train to Hue. Hue is beautiful; but wet. It rains the whole 4 days but I make the best of it visiting the Citadel and other locations. Because of the weather (and a sinus infection) I cancel my trip to Hoi An and return to HCMC. Feels good to be back "home" in the warm sunshine. I spend the next several days exploring and shooting more photos before catching the bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia ($5.00!) but... that's another story.
I had a wonderful time on this trip; so many great experiences. Everywhere I went I was warmly received and my interactions with the people were overwhelmingly positive. My only regret is that I waited so long to go back. I was happy to see the great strides being made after so many years of war and hardship. Viet Nam is one of the rising stars of Asia. The spirit, determination, resilience and resoluteness of the Vietnamese people are well in evidence. The Vietnamese are very industrious, hard working and entrepreneurial and I have no doubt that these qualities will carry them on to a bright and prosperous future. It's not perfect, of course; no place is. There is still a lot of poverty, disease and social problems but the most important thing is that progress is being made, and rapidly. Viet Nam is on its way, and no place deserves it more.
Viet Nam has never been far from my thoughts since 1970, in fact, hardly a day goes by that I don't think of it, a phenomenon common to many veterans. This feeling has been reinforced by the strengthening of my ties to the southern California Vietnamese community since I began exhibiting there in 2002. As I continue to develop more relationships in this community I look forward to returning to Viet Nam soon. It's not going to take me another 33 years to go back!
* * *
Michael Burr is a professional photographer who makes his home in Long Beach, CA.
Additional images from Viet Nam 1969-1970, Viet Nam 2003 and other bodies of work can be viewed at: mburrphoto.com.
Prints are available at: printroom.com
* * * * *
Published on 6/19/06