Double Take: Photojournalists Revisit Vietnam
"Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods."
That is how writer Michael Herr described the coming of age of the photographers and reporters who covered the Vietnam War.
Last month, 30 years after the North Vietnamese drove their tanks through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, ending a 15-year conflict between the forces of the United States and the communists, some 60 journalists returned to the "The Paris of the Orient" to reconnect with their friends and memories.
More than 70 western journalists lost their lives there. It was probably the most costly war in terms of journalist casualties in history. At a memorial service in front of the cathedral in the center of Saigon, AP's Richard Pyle and Glen MacDonald, a former ABC correspondent, commemorated the toll.
Photographers Dickey Chapelle, Bob Ellison, Oliver Noonan, Gilles Caron, Dana Stone, Sean Flynn, Kyoichi Sawada, Henri Huet, Larry Burrows, Kent Potter and Michel Laurent were some of the names that were called out to their colleagues who had gathered in the square in 100-degree heat.
Some haven't changed that much. Tim Page, who was the model for the Dennis Hopper character in "Apocalypse Now," and Al Rockoff, who was portrayed by John Malkovich in "The Killing Fields," were pulling out tins of grass on bus tours and in private parties.
Every night was a party – ranging from the stately Majestic Hotel on the riverfront, to the roof of the "Rex," a famous American officers' quarters during the war that was blown up at least once, to a cruise on the Mekong River aboard the three-level "Saigon" cruise ship.
Among the photographers who attended were Nik Wheeler, who has gone on to produce travel essays on the Caribbean for books; Nick Ut, who photographed the Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of the young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm strike; Hugh Van Es, whose photograph of desperate Americans and Vietnamese clambering aboard one of the last helicopters during the evacuation became an icon; Bob Davis, who went on to create a photo agency in Hong Kong; Steve Northup, who became an editor of the newspaper in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Matt Franjola, and of course, Horst Faas, the recently retired European Photo Editor for The Associated Press, a two-time Pulitzer winner, and now an editor for The Digital Journalist. I joyously joined my friends, who dated back to the time I opened the UPI picture bureau in Saigon.
I had hired Tham in 1965. He had been a night watchman for the UPI bureau at 19 Ngo Duc Ke. I taught him how to process film, and he soon became the UPI darkroom man.
For the next 10 years Tham either slept in the darkroom, or moved around in the shadows. When the North Vietnamese took control and started to look for people who had worked for the Americans, Tham was nowhere to be found. He had melted back into the shadows. For the past two decades, Tham has been taking pictures of tourists around the central square of Saigon. Somehow he had slipped under the eyes of the party, and being no threat to Hanoi, has managed to continue his photography.
Another Vietnamese photographer, Hoang Van Cuong, after spending years in reeducation camps, bought an old U.S. Army jeep, had it restored to prime condition, and now escorts journalists and tourists around Saigon.
What all the photographers found was that Saigon really hadn't changed that much. The bars along Tudo Street that used to beckon servicemen during the war were gone.
But the stately street, laid out in classic, wide-open French- style, was still there, with the cooling breezes from the Mekong River and the essences of the Orient. There were more great restaurants, more luxury hotels, but Saigon was still Saigon. And we were still 30-year-old journalists with the world in front of us.
Horst Faas and Edie Lederer, the AP U.N. bureau chief, had organized this reunion. Horst went on to Hanoi to start the second IMMF workshop for Vietnamese photographers. He had no sooner gotten there than he was stricken by a burst blood vessel near his spine. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the doctors in Hanoi, he was stabilized and evacuated to Bangkok, where he underwent treatment for paralysis from the waist down. Horst has since been transferred to a rehabilitation clinic in Bavaria.
What he and Edie gave to all those journalists who returned to Saigon for this reunion, and were able to reconnect with their youth and former friends, may be one of his greatest gifts.
© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist
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