Vietnam,1999

In December, 1999, I spent three weeks in Vietnam. My guide and companion was my son, Jonathan. Fluent in Vietnamese, he had been living in Vietnam for almost two years while he gathered data for his doctoral dissertation. I gradually learned how to cross the streets (an act of faith) and sit behind Jonathan as he negotiated the narrow, congested, pot-holed roads on his Honda motorcycle. Our grandest bike adventure was a 220 mile journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. From there we bussed, flew and taxied through Da Nang, Nha Trang, Hue, Tam Ky and Hoi An until we reached Hanoi.
(Jonathan’s bike made that trip by train.)

Tinh the Barber, by Karen Davis

Tinh The Barber, Nguyen Cong Tru St., Hanoi

It was almost dusk when we pulled up to the part of the wall where Jonathan’s friend, Tinh, has his barber chair and business. Of all the people I met, Tinh and I perhaps had the most in common – a passion for photography. Through Jonathan, we talked about the kinds of photographs we enjoy seeing and taking. After he sat for this picture, we switched places and he took my portrait. When I returned to the U.S. I printed one pair for me, one for him.

Auntie Huong, Hanoi by Karen DavisAuntie Huong, Hanoi

Auntie Huong sells tea and cigarettes ten hours a day, seven days a week, at a little stand in front of her house on Hang Chuoi (Banana) St. Above her head, out of the frame of this picture, is a partially shuttered window. Behind it, one can just make out the reclining figure of Auntie Huong’s husband. In his late seventies, he has been bedridden for several years. Her income supplements his meager pension.

Viet Kiu Executive Suite by Karen Davis

Executive Suite, Viet Kieu

Invited to the 8th floor suite of a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) businessman, I was directed to a low couch that faced his desk.  It was then, to my delight, that I saw the antique water puppets. The night before, we attended the Thang Long Theater of Hanoi. There, puppeteers, half submerged in water, hidden behind a curtain, worked their water puppets to traditional Vietnamese music. The stories, passed down for centuries, told of rice growing peasants and their lives on the land.

Election Day Parade, Hue - by Karen Davis

Election Day Parade, Hue.

Postponed for weeks because of November’s deadly floods, local elections were held during our visit to Hue. Here, we came upon a grammar school parade celbrating the day. One Evening in Hue, Jonathan’s friend, a sociology instructor, and her ten year old daughter came to visit us in our hotel. She described a harrowing experience.

First the relentless rain, and then the flood. Before long, they were in roiling water up to the child’s shoulders. They left everything behind and joined their neighbors in a desperate climb to higher ground. There was no shelter, no food. They were outside in the torrential downpours for three days and nights until the rain stopped and the water receded. I later learned that the flooding had caused rivers to overflow in seven provinces. Hue wase the worst hit. The floods caused over 600 deaths.

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Sunday Afternoon in Lam Dong Province

We stopped several times on our way to Dalat. This was a small roadside cafe where several men stood around a table chatting; one held a fighting cock. Children played nearby. When Jon began speaking in Vietnamese, the men were very pleased. Then the usual questions started. They wanted to know how old we were and if Jon was married.

Uncle Cau and Aunt Phuong, Hanoi by Karen Davis

Uncle Cau and Aunt Phuong, Hanoi

Uncle Cau and Aunt Phuong invited us to dinner. Here they are with their youngest grandson in the doorway of their two room apartment. That Sunday afternoon, we sat cross-legged on mats around dishes of chicken, eggs, pork, vegetables and rice that Phuong had prepared. Jonathan told me later that this meal represented a substantial portion of Cau’s weekly earnings.

Cau sells draft beer (bia hoi), tea, cigarettes, and tabacco on Nguyen Cong Tru Street, across from his home. His stand is next to Tinh’s barber chair. (Note: In 2004, the government, possibly in an effort to modernize, declared most street vending to be illegal. This has caused enormous economic distress to many of Jonathan’s friends.)

Cau is from Binh Dinh province in the South. In 1949 he went “tap ket” – to northern Vietnam. His village suffered massive casualties during the “American War.” He, like most Vietnamese who moved to urban areas, has strong ties to his village and returns for extended stays annually.

Wedding Photographers, Ho Chi Minh City by Karen Davis

Wedding Photographers, Ho Chi Minh City

The Museum of the Revolution is a popular place for brides and grooms to come for their wedding photographs. We visited in December, which was an auspicious month for marriage. Teams of photographers- all vying for the best position – directed several soon-to-be-wed couples up and down the majestic stair case.

Museum of the Revolution - Wedding Pictures by Karen Davis

Museum of the Revolution

A bride and groom to-be ascend the staircase as other photographers wait their turn. Young couples in Vietnam have little chance of privacy before marriage. Homes are small and shared by generations of family. A walk in any park will find politely ardorous couples on every bench.

Bau and Jonathan at Uncle Cau's tea and beer stand by Karen Davis

Bao and Jonathan at Uncle Cau’s tea and beer stand.

Bao, is a long distance trucker who makes the difficult 1000 mile trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi every two weeks. In Vietnam there is one national road, Route 1. Seldom more than two lanes, much of it is pitted and potholed. It winds up and down mountains and through countless little villages. (Jonathan and I travelled 20 percent of that road on our motorcycle ride to Dalat.)

Here Bao tells Jonathan that he misses his son, age 22, since he moved to the United States two years before. Bao’s son now works for his uncle in a dry cleaning store just across the Charles River from MIT. The store is less than two miles from my home in Cambridge. When I returned from Vietnam and printed this photograph, I brought a copy to his son.

Pet Dogs for Sale, Hanoi by Karen Davis

Pet dogs for sale, Hanoi

Here a veteran of the French and American Wars complains that his army pension is too small to live on so he supplements his income by selling dogs. He tells Jon that there is a new market for pet dogs in Hanoi. People buy them, in part, as a symbol of affluence.

The Road to Dalat, Rain Delay by Karen Davis

The Road to Dalat

Our motorcycle ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat took 12 hours. We stopped – for rain, for lunch, and even for a side trip to the waterfalls in Bao Loc. The day that started so warm, ended cold and damp. The last dark miles up winding mountain roads I clung to Jon both for safety and as a wind shield.

Tourist Hotel, Dalat by Karen Davis

Tourist Hotel, Dalat

Ten miles from Dalat, long lines of bare light bulbs appeared, breaking the darkness with ribbons of light. They were meant to keep strawberry fields warm. Finally, we arrived at our tourist hotel. The aches receded; in their place was supreme satisfaction with the adventure Jonathan and I had shared.

Nha Trang beachside amusement park by Karen Davis

Nha Trang beachside amusement park

From Dalat, we travelled northeast to Nha Trang. Not ready for the grueling bike ride down the mountains, I took one of the buses that shuttles western tourists between destinations in the country. Jonathan rode his bike. We met at a little hotel managed by a friend he had met in an economic development workshop for small businesses. We spent the next day exploring the town and its beachside attractions.