Why Vietnam?

That is a question I frequently hear after people have experienced a showing of my portfolio, Vietnam Unexpected.

They marvel at the country’s vivid colors, rich textures and the vibrant pace of its cities. And I can tell the images open their eyes to new ideas about a faraway place, a place they remember as a remote jungle nation torn apart by artillery, bombs and Agent Orange, and whose people they last remember as badly wounded by atrocities and violence and divided by politics and ideology.

Vietnamese children spend a half day at school, giving them time to help with house chores or work on the family farm. But these boys have stolen some time for some refreshing play in this beautiful river in the mountains near the Vietnamese-Chinese border.

Indeed, the Vietnam War was the war of my generation. But a student deferment, and later, a high draft lottery number, compliments of President Nixon, kept me away from the battle and in college classes at the University of Florida where I studied journalism.

During the war, the intense news coverage and its impact on American politics forged my passion for media and politics and propelled me along my path to become a journalist. With this connection, I knew I would visit someday when the country reopened to tourism. And in 2005 it was my time to go. It was time to see this country that had had a demonstrative effect on my life, even though I had never been there.

For my first trip, I largely focused on shooting landscape images, an itinerary that would take me to many of Vietnam’s most beautiful places. These included Sapa, the mountain town in the far Northwest of Vietnam, and the island-dotted Halong Bay on the Northeast coast. I found these to be magical places, full of color, history and which also conveyed a strong sense of place.

As I began showing these images to people back home, the photos drew an interesting reaction: Viewers expressed great surprise as they squared their war-time impressions with today’s Vietnam. Indeed, while the war ended nearly 40 years ago, it seems American perceptions about Vietnam are still built around the images of a war from nearly half a century ago.

For sometime, the Vietnamese government has maintained a war museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). At one time, it was known as the American War Crimes Museum. But since Vietnam has opened its doors to the West, and its government holds its developing relationship with the United States to be a top priority, the museum has been renamed the War Remembrance Museum.

When I visited the museum on my first trip, there was a pavilion that was filled with wall displays of photographs and news clippings about the war. There was no air conditioning and it was stifling hot. But the photographs and clippings were so compelling it was easy to ignore the heat and humidity. Behind the glass display case the colorful and violent images of war were revealed from history on the pages of America’s big glossy magazines. Life, the Saturday Evening Post and others published big spreads of high-impact images that helped turn American opinion against the war and fan the anti-war movement.  I could vividly remember these layouts of photos and text and the images themselves had never left my memory. This was a moment of serendipity, of spiritual awareness. This was no accident.

This image is one of my favorites because it tells so much about the history and contemporary culture of Vietnam. A woman wearing a conical hat selling food in the streets speaks to ancient Asia. The bread she sells is French, a reminder of foreign occupation. Meanwhile, the motorbikes symbolize Vietnam's rush to embrace a more modern future, as one of the riders dares a glimpse at those who may be left behind. But our subject does not want to be left out. Beneath the conical hat she wears a fashionable western coat, shoes and holds a leather purse.

The forces of the universe had conspired to bring me here, to one of those places where you realize you’ve gone full circle in life. I knew then that my first trip was the first of many, that my interest in Vietnam would not be a passing curiosity. Even though I live nearly 10,000 miles away, I decided to undertake a photographic exploration of this fascinating place. Vietnam seems to exist in two worlds.

There is rural Vietnam, heavily agrarian and where rice paddies are carved out of mountains by hand, women plant and harvest crops and fields are turned by wood plows drawn  by buffalo. And then there are the cities, adorned with construction cranes and streets clogged with motorbikes driven by youthful city workers, sporting western fashions and with their eyes clearly fixed on the future and expectations of a higher standard of living. Lunging toward the future like a giant Asian Tiger, Vietnam has one of the fastest growth rates in Asia. Ho Chi Minh City bustles with the excitement of free enterprise. Luxury hotels open along the country’s beautiful and lengthy shoreline. Young people embrace western music, food and laptop computers.

While I did not know it during my first trip, my lengthy career in daily newspaper journalism would end the next year. Looking back, I can now see that it was among a number of things that have been cleared from my life so that I can pursue this work. So with the 40-year anniversary of the war’s end approaching in 2015, I have developed a portfolio of images that I hope will reintroduce Americans to this Southeast Asian nation that helped shape my life, the lives of 77-million Baby Boomers and changed the course of American history.

In the cities and the countryside of Vietnam I have found friendly people eager to know Americans and who have long since put the war behind them. They are eager for new friendships and relationships that will help lift their economy and standard of living. It is a very young country, with most of the population lacking any first-hand knowledge of the war. And many carry a seldom spoken, but deeply held pride that Vietnam stands as an independent nation after wining the war and expelling the French, the Chinese, the Khmer Rouge – and the Americans.

To be sure, Vietnam is still ruled by an authoritarian regime that in name professes allegiance to the Communist Party. And as that Asian Tiger leaps and bucks like a rodeo horse, authorities cling to power as they try to balance the population’s rising expectations, a punishing rate of inflation and new relationships with former adversaries like America and China.

The government continues to limit free speech, punish expressions of overt religious freedom and protect its one-party political system. But in the Vietnamese people, I find a common humanity that transcends cultural differences and language barriers. Their pride of independence, their work ethic and their passion for a better future are truly shared values. I am grateful that my exploration through my photography has helped me to know and understand this country and its wonderful people. I hope to continue photographing Vietnam, serving as a witness and recorder of this little country’s big history.

(You can see my portfolio of images on my website at www.RobertDodge.com. The images are available as fine art prints, as well as in digital files for editorial and commercial license.)

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