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In March of this year, I returned to Vietnam for a 12 day stay for Fortune Magazine. It was the first time in five years that I had passed through Customs at Tan Son Nhut, and was surprised how in those five years even passing through customs had become, like much of Saigon, so modernized. I lived in Saigon from 1970 to 1972 working as a free lancer for Time and Life (then a weekly; then existing, for that matter). My trips back in '94 and '95 were more focused, more rushed (9 days, and 2 days respectively), and now I had almost two weeks to see the city again, to feel it, listen to its cacophony (even when I didn't particularly want to), and smell its smells. Each day started with crackly, overly volumed tapes screeching across the waterfront as hundreds of older Vietnamese would begin their morning ritual exercises at 5:30 am. I was drawn there nearly every morning to watch the sunrise, and was never disappointed.
And at that early hour, the friendliness of the Vietnamese people started, and didn't subside throughout the day. Smiling greetings everywhere, visual games that had no words, and the kind of contact that you relish having everyday at home. Living in Washington, and often visiting the Vietnam Memorial, I’m well aware of the pain that still follows many of the American vets and their families when the subject is the War. What is amazing in Vietnam is to see just how they have societally decided to move on from the War. Half the country is less than 25, true, but half the country is well over 25. And that no doubt creates problems. More than once I was reminded by an elder of the difficulty of actually trying to make the younger generation understand the struggles Vietnam suffered through during the war. But despite the museums, despite the studies in school, despite all the family memories, one has the impression that the children are already living in a truly post war world.
On my first Sunday I stumbled into an enormous gathering of grade school children on the grounds of Unification Palace (Thieu's Presidential Palace), where thousands of kids were playing group games, snacking (something that seems to be a national sport), and generally running and yelling a lot. Grouped by their classes, I also saw parents, often dressed very nattily in J Crew style threads, looking over some kind of standardized test, and their skeptical reactions seemed to say, ‘‘of course my kid got it right, the teacher must be wrong!’’. I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other, but it reminded me of the little yuppie parental gaggles that form in front of schools in the States before the kids are released. It was jarring for me to see the hundreds of kids climbing on the memorialized tanks and fighter planes which had heralded in the new regime twenty five years ago. To the kids, the tank was just another jungle gym toy in the park.
My last day, I took a car out to Cu Chi to see the famous tunnels where, amazingly , thousands of Viet Cong troops lived, moved and attacked from. The tunnels have become a big tourist attraction for both Vietnamese and foreigners. After the trip to Cu Chi, I had the driver head up the road about 15 km to a village called Trang Bang. Approaching the village, I kept trying to find little hints of the place that would remind me of just where I'd been when I was last there. It was in this little town in the summer of 1972 that VN Air Force Skyraiders accidentally dropped napalm on a group of villagers who had taken refuge together from the fighting. It was in this group that Pham Thi Kim Phuc and her family had been when the bombs hit. She ran with her brother out of the brush onto the paved road, and towards us, her skin terribly burned from the heat. The few journalists there had hung just outside the village, waiting to see what would happen, and I remember Nick Ut sprinting off from where we were standing the moment he understood just what had happened. He was followed moments later by Alex Shimkin, a Washington Post stringer who died in an ambush a few months later, while I, changing film in an old Leica, stayed there a few extra seconds trying to load my camera. I then ran down the road and shot some pictures, and later returned to Saigon. I had been working for the New York Times that day, and ended up at AP to have my film processed. It's seldom when you are at an event that you truly know a special picture has been made. And at Trang Bang that day none of us did. But when Nick walked out of the darkroom with a dripping wet 5 x7 print, Horst Faas, who had temporally returned to Saigon to help run the AP picture operation, looked at the first image of Kim Phuc, and said sardonically, "Nick Ut, you do good work today." It was that simple. We knew it was a damn good photograph, but sometimes you have to wait for the world to respond to know how a picture has touched people. I sent my negs to LIFE that night, having wired a picture to the Times, and included a note to New York to "check with AP for an original print, because one of their guys, Nick Ut, took a very good shot." Indeed.
Now in 2000, trying to find that piece of road in what is now the prospering and peaceful town of Trang Bang was not easy. I had not brought my contact sheets with me, and had to drive up and down the road a few times, until I approached a bridge and turned, seeing the roof of the pagoda through the trees. That is what I remembered, and it was still there. We stopped, and I got out and walked around for while. Just outside the town, the only sounds were slowly building revs of the motor bikes which were headed my way. That, and the laughter of the school girls in white ao dais pedaling their bikes home from school. No signs that I could find. Nothing to mark the spot. Just a sense of a place which, 28 years later, bears no trace of the calamity. I kept thinking about that moment in Nick's picture, when the horror is so evident. And as much as no one under 25 may know anything about the war, no one over the age of 35 will ever forget that picture. The world changes and moves in ways that we cannot always imagine, but as a picture will sometimes remind you, there is a memory we the public share of a certain moment which will live far beyond its place.
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