Return to Vietnam -- 2006

In the spring of 2006 I returned to Vietnam with my family as a port call on the MV Explorer as part of the Semester at Sea program. It is a large ship that carries 650 college students, 30 faculty, 40 staff, and 90 crew members on an educational  voyage around the world over 101 days. The return to Vietnam was a bittersweet and emotional experience for me. It was a war that we fought with the South Vietnamese government and ultimately lost in 1975 when Saigon fell to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. I watched the fall of Saigon on television in 1975 and thought of the tragedy of millions of Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans who died there in an ultimately  fruitless cause. 

What we saw in Vietnam on this visit was a shock. For a socialist society, capitalism appeared to be alive and well in the thriving southern part of the country. Now renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victors, Saigon is a city bustling with private businesses and many new high-rise buildings. We spent five days in port in Saigon and we had the opportunity to visit many sites in the city, took a trip to see the V.C. tunnel complex at Cu Chi, and traveled with SaS students on a two-day trip up the coast to Nha Trang. These images are just a few of the hundreds that I took during the visit, but they capture the essence of what we saw in and near Saigon. In the end, I was happy to return to Vietnam at a time when we could travel anywhere in the country without feeling constantly wary or paranoid (as we were in 1970-1971). It was a visit of reflection, personal reconciliation, and a time for remembering those who gave their lives there. 

At dawn, the MV Explorer sailed from the South China Sea up the Saigon River past Vung Tau. Many students were up and at the rail to see our arrival in Vietnam.

It was an emotional return to Vietnam after 35 years. The Saigon skyline is in the background.

There was a welcoming committee of young Vietnamese girls in traditional dress to greet the ship as we docked. Today, half of Vietnam's citizens are under the age of 30 and have no personal memory of what they term, without irony, the "American War."

Law professor Jim Kraus, at right, talks with a student as the ship docked near booming downtown Saigon.

Former UPI Saigon bureau photographer Hoang Van Cuong stands in front of a memorial outside his home to photographers who died in the wars in Indochina between 1945 and 1975. Hoang photographed the fall of Saigon in 1975 and then went into hiding as the new communist government rounded up everyone who had ties to the American military or U.S. corporations such as UPI. He was apprehended and spent seven years in a government "re-education" (prison) camp until he was deemed rehabilitated. He now guides tours of Saigon in a restored U.S. Army jeep (see below) and give talks to visitors about Vietnam during and after the war.

Hoang speaks through an interpreter to Semester at Sea students, staff, and faculty about his work as a photographer during the war and about his internment in a prison camp after the war ended. His home is a gallery of wartime photographs by himself and other UPI photographers.

Hoang in his jeep in 2005 giving a reunion tour in Saigon to fellow wartime photojournalists (from left) Dirck Halstead (UPI/Time 1965-1975), Horst Faas (AP Saigon 1963-1975), Hugh Van Es (UPI), who took the well-known photo below, and freelance photographer Bob Davis (1970-1975). In the back is Annir Van Es, Hugh's wife. Photograph by Alison Beck.  See related story in Digital Journalist by Dirck Halstead.

The iconic photo of the helicopter evacuation of U.S. officials and their Vietnamese employees in April 1975 just before the fall of Saigon. The building is not the U.S. embassy as is often mis-captioned, but it was then a hotel in downtown Sagion used to billet CIA officers. The scene has been re-enacted in many films and in the musical Miss Saigon
Photo by UPI photographer Hugh Van Es (see above).

The building today is a renovated apartment house.

The streets of Saigon are more crowded than ever. The population of Vietnam has doubled from 40 million in 1970 (north and south) to over 80 million today.

A Semester at Sea student takes photos of shells, bomb fins, and other armaments at the War Remnants Museum in downtown Saigon. It was formerly called the Museum of American War Crimes, but the name was changed in 1993 with the normalization of relations with the U.S.  Note the A-1E Skyraider fighter-bomber in the background.

The museum contains photos of USAF C-123s (taken by the 600th Photo Squadron) spraying the Vietnamese jungle with Agent Orange, a defoliant that caused many cases of cancer in these areas (Agent Orange contained dioxin, a powerful carcinogen). The use of Agent Orange was designed to deprive the enemy of cover, but it poisoned not only them, but also citizens in the area -- and exposed many U.S. troops and airmen to dioxin and related cancers that developed later in life.

On a tour of the VC/NVA tunnel complex in the heart of the "iron triangle" near Cu Chi, a guide explains how the three-level-deep complex was largely impervious to U.S. bombs and artillery. Note the photo of "Uncle Ho" Chi Minh at left.

A Vietnamese soldier demonstrates how VC and NVA soldiers used spider holes to pop up behind U.S. lines and shoot at American troops. Our son P.J. stands at left -- he was fascinated by this place.


Gone. The spider holes were almost invisible in the jungle.

P.J. with flashlight at the entrance to one of the tunnels. The soil is compacted clay and is as hard as concrete. The tunnel complex contains sleeping quarters, dining areas, medical wards, supply rooms, and is basically an extensive underground city that stretched for miles around Cu Chi.

P.J. and I deep inside one of the tunnels at Cu Chi.  I expected this experience to be unbearably claustrophobic (that's why I joined the Air Force), but the tunnels have been enlarged vertically to accommodate tourists, as this photo shows. During the war, U.S. Army solders called tunnel rats would climb into these underground mazes armed with only a pistol to hunt Viet Cong and NVA soldiers.

A soldier makes "Ho Chi Minh" sandals (as he is wearing) from a truck tire in the exhibit area at Cu Chi. V.C. wore these sandals during the war as they were very durable and "waterproof."

A statue of a mother weeping over her fallen soldier son is located in the center of a military cemetery of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) war dead near Cu Chi. 

The grave of a young NVA soldier at the military cemetery near Cu Chi. Many of the dead here were killed in the infamous Tet Offensive and their markers included dates from the first week of February in 1968. This marker caught my attention because of the photo of the dead soldier and that he looked very young.

This photo of our guide, a Vietnamese soldier (from the army of our former enemy) walking with his arm around my son captures the spirit of reconciliation that we found throughout Vietnam. We returned from the visit there with a new appreciation of what the Vietnamese people have endured over the past 50 years of almost constant warfare and that they can now live in peace - and at peace with us. 

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Uncredited photos by Peter Seel, 2006. All rights reserved.

Subpages (1): Hoang Van Cuong's photos