Battlefield reporters – the souls behind Vietnam War

Peter

When Peter looked up, I asked:

“So what is your favorite picture?”

He stopped for a moment:

“Favorite? No not “favorite”, but I think the ones that impressed me is the ones showing the brutality of wars”

Upon saying that, Peter was referring to the collection of war crime pictures exhibited on 2nd floor of War Remnant Museum, Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. This 35-year-old Museum has been an excellent bridge connecting the gaps of history awareness (or lack thereof) from  both sides. Despite some criticism of being biased, I felt touched by various pictures shown here, taken by the brave men behind the cameras. Today I want to explore their stories, what led them to the battle fields, their impacts on public and the reverse impact on their own lives after fame.

Troublesome Risk-Takers

Tim PageBritish, the danger craving man

 

1. Tim Page
“War is hell”, Tim Page

I should not have chosen “War is hell” photo to present here since my eyes are glued at this solder’s mesmerizing look and not the tiny sentence on his hat, but it is good attraction leading me to an interesting War Reporter called Tim Page.

As the person behind haunting photos of Requiem Exhibition in War Remnant Museum, a collection of pictures from photographers who died in the Vietnam War, Tim Page is also the inspiration for the journalist played by Dennis Hopper in the famous film Apocalypse Now. However behind the glory he also suffered from PTSD and attempted suicide 2 times. At the later period of life he shifted his focus to portray war veterans and wrote about their stories, mainly as a self-therapeutic act.

Requiem collection portrayed not only brutality but also humanity in this War:

4. Tim Page
A Communist Guerrila being executed in a Saigon street

 

5. Tim Page
An identified U.S. Army personnel wears a hand lettered “War Is Hell” slogan on his helmet, June 18, 1965, during the Vietnam War. He was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)
Vietnam The Real War
In the first of a series of fiery suicides by Buddhist monks, Thich Quang Duc burns himself to death on a Saigon street to protest persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, June 11, 1963. The photograph aroused worldwide outrage and hastened the end of the Diem government. With the photo on his Oval Office desk, President Kennedy reportedly remarked to his ambassador, ÒWeÕre going to have to do something about that regime.Ó (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne) FOR ONE-TIME USE ONLY IN CONNECTION WITH THE BOOK AND/OR EXHIBIT “Vietnam: The Real War” (Abrams 2013)

 

7. Tim Page
U.S Marines carry the injured during a firefight near the Southern edge of the DMZ, Vietnam, October 1966

 

8. tim page
A picture that caught my attention in War Remnant Museum. Is that a man/ woman, why is that one smiling? The strange moment may unfold an interesting story, reserved for next part covering Vietnam War reporters 😉

To be fair, Tim Page is not a “Vietnam” war photographer, but rather an Indochina War & Middle East war reporter. His photography is self taught in the years he was in Laos working for AFP when he was only 17, which earned him a staff position in Saigon Bureau of the news agency in 1965. He was severely injured in war 4 times.

2. Tim Page
Tim Page under fire with Martin Stuart Fox in Vietnam, 1966

 

What brought  Tim Page to this career was not burning passion at first for either war or photography but rather a string of incidents, notably his near-death experience following a 1960 motorcycle accident:

“I had died. I lived. I had seen the tunnel. It was black. It was nothing. There was no light at the end. There was no afterlife. Nothing religious about any of it. And it did not seem scary. It was a long, flowing, no-color wave which just disappeared. The mystery was partly resolved, all the fearful church propaganda took on its true, shameful meaning. I was content. I was alive. I was not dead, and it seemed very clear, very free. This was the dawning, the overture to losing a responsible part of my psyche. A liberation happened at that intersection. Anything from here on would be free time, a gift from the gods”

That incident might not be the only factor, but definitely an important one which helped Page to swing himself into brutal, exhausting, emotionally turbulent scenes he faced.

In this interesting interview by Talk Vietnam, Page shared about his reason why he came to Asia in the beginning

TIM PAGE– At 17 years of age, you decided to leave UK to come to Asia. Why did u decide that?

  • – I think my whole life has been a series of falling over, accidents, and then becoming lucky. When I was 16 I died. I was in a motorcycle. And I lost 6 liters of blood from here, I thought I was dead. I think when you see the other side, death, whatever this is, ended now, when you come back, you are changed. So I run from England and it was mind-opening.

– So you would go on to shoot your very first war photos eventually in Laos, and you never thought of becoming, you know, a photo journalist, let alone a war reporter.

-In Laos, I lived with a man who became a correspondent for UPI, United Press. The war in Laos, in 1963-1964 escalated, so they sent my friend to Tokyo to learn big time correspondent, and I am UPI’s Bureau chief in Laos. I am 18, I am bureau chief in Laos, right, so the bureau chief in Saigon comes in

“Hey kid, how do you like your job? 3 days later I am in Saigon”

Tim Page’s totally unpredictable life turn brought him to Saigon and War reporting in general, which pushes him to hone his skills as the requirement of the job and exposure brought after that, just like the characters in the book of Carl Newport . It is not the idealist image I have in mind about passionate people who believed in justice and meaning and looking for something to change the world but much more complex, and because of that, much more interesting. The stories of people with extraordinary works but very vulnerable and normal at the same time.

I can’t help thinking the lady interviewing him already having certain story in mind though, a polished plot for television.

The next war reporters I want to explore are Henri Huet from France, Kyochi Sawada from Japan, Larry Burrow from Britain and Luong Nghia Dung from Vietnam. How are their stories different from Tim Page?

 

 

 

Is happiness your goal?

When Mark, the man behind Saigon’s philosophy school  walked up the stage with his suit and introduced about philosophy terminology with all of us as a way to start the discussion, Yuzo whispered:

Oh, so, this is how it is conducted

I asked:

– What do you mean?

Uhm, we had similiar workshops in US

Guessing his impression from the semi-formal atmosphere of the room, I smiled. “It is too early to tell. Let’s wait until the end of the workshop“, Yuzo nodded and we decide to refrain from drawing any too early conclusion. Will this be a stiff lecturing session?

As a newbie in philosophy exploration, I can relate to how Yuzo feels. With burning desire to explore basic human questions but fear the stiff vibe of academic world, I am afraid that I would not be able to relate. I want to discuss about things in daily life using philosophy as tool, and if that requires going back 1000 years to dig what a German mind or a Chinese mind thought, I would go for it, but definitely not the other way around.

How democratic is democratic?

The session we had that day was about happiness, facilitated by Emmanuel from Scotland who was into philosophy before coming to Vietnam. Out of many philosophers, Emmanuel chose the two classic, Aristotle and Plato to share their views about happiness, then asking us to give our ideas about happiness to see if we agree or disagree with their opinions

In my dream, affected by a series I watched a few years ago, the fantasy of philosophy discussion is like this

michael

In my fantasy, philosophy discussion will be led by a charming professor with an articulate manner, perfect posture and soft but convincing voice, listened by hundreds of stubborn and incredibly smart students filling up a beautiful hall.

In reality, our group is like this 😉
saigon

There are around 15 to 20 people attending each session (40% locals, 60% expats), divided into groups to exchange ideas so my fantasy remained a fantasy, but I loved it.

Small groups allowed us to express our opinions more clearly, but more importantly, we are not Harvard students. With various backgrounds, profession , level of philosophy knowledge, our only common referring point is current living place and the curiosity on basic questions. There is more tolerance, more empathy shared by skeptical but considerate minds.

“Are you happy” – A “NO” answer and the intimacy of strangers

cat ba
Are you happy, humans?

The second question we were asked in the session was

“Do you consider yourself to be happy ? How do you rate your happiness in a 10 point scale? Why?”

Now imagine this scenario: You are in a park, suddenly a stranger with a serious face approaching you, asking if you are happy. You would laugh your head off and tell him to go away, Crazy head. (Because, even you have never asked that question yourself, let alone telling it to an intruding stranger). Maybe only Brandon of Human of New York has that ability (We are in Vietnam for Buddha’s sake)

 

hony2
Okay, great, but most people are not Brandon of HONY, sorry =))

But in the session, we were in an atmosphere to be intimate, even intrusive with strangers, asking and answering very personal and sometimes very uncomfortable questions. I remember a Vietnamese member told the rest that he is not happy, and he claimed that people who think too much tend to be unhappy. Our definitions of happiness vary, some think happiness is a positive state of mind, another thinks happiness is about sharing and receiving and one member claims agency, to him, is happiness. These perceptions must have stayed with us for quite a while and we pretty much don’t change our opinions about this topic after the workshop.

We didn’t come to agree with each other. We come to express our views, to know each other’s views and come back with more diverse perspective. We remained the same, and at the same time, we have changed a lot.

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Who are we when the world is shrinking?

mary

Mary looks over the window when it started to rain, claimed:

“This looks like a part of Philipines”
“Yeah, it looks like my hometown too, actually”, I replied.

We kept conversing in English about frequently discussed topics about Vietnam and Cambodia, when Sang, the Khmer tour guide on Mekong Express bus came closer and started talking in Vietnamese to me then in English to Mary.

sang in Mekong Delta
Sang holding water coconuts in a trip in Mekong Delta, Vietnam

 

After talking, each of us stares at our phone surfing FB with similar newsfeed probably filled with international news everyone reads.

Then images kept flashing back to my mind. On the trip to Phnom Penh, I saw backpackers on the bus holding classic history books about Cambodia, which is just like what my tourists did on the bus to Vietnam when they held books like Tunnels of Cu Chi

Most Vietnamese and Cambodians never read those books or having curiosity to. In other words, the images they have in mind about us and the image we have in mind about our countries are two worlds apart. People travel seeking difference, while locals just want to move forward, ending up following the path of globalization. In the case of South East Asia, our generation is becoming more similar than ever.

You come here to drink coffee on street, but we look for fancy cafes to stay in.

You come here to see National Museum, but most locals never set foot there.

A feeling of awkwardness surges inside me. Should I be happy about this? Should I be happy about the easy conversations we are having, or should I be disappointed that we are blending and turning to boring clones with no identity, including national identity? Even worse for people working in industries which depend on culture preservation because culture is diminishing faster than ever before. Soon enough, what is different about each country will just retain in museum or set-up tourism context.

Should we cling to nationalism or should we be grateful about the dynamic communication landscape we are granted thanks (due) to Internet that is clearing national borders with speed of light?

And as always, travel is overrated. Stay home people, we are all alike.

 

 

Phnom Penh puzzle pieces

When the bus of Mekong Express strolled around passing by Independence Monument at night, Phnom Penh shined like a golden princess. Without any fixed plan to really explore this neighboring city in my second time here, Phnom Penh patterns just emerge themselves naturally in a spontaneous path, telling the story of a strange development entity.

Cool Motorbike army

Compared to where I come from, Phnom Penh seems to be the heaven of cool motorbike hipsters. On the way to attend a casual meetup event organized by my friends, a mysterious Khmer woman in her unique suit with purple lipsticks passed by on a black motorbike, stopped at the red light and smiled at me. I was charmed just in seconds @@. That lady easy rider is just one of a cool motorbike army scattering all around this capital, maneuvering streets in a deadly dangerous yet attractive manner.

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Urban Planning and the grid navigating system

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Pnom Penh is fairly easy to navigate even for a person like me who has no sense of direction or never cares where the sun is. When I was on the bus from Saigon, Amrak, a new Khmer friend sitting beside already told that it would be easy to move around since nearly all signs are bilingual (Khmer- English). Not only are all signs navigation-friendly, streets are numbered in a grid system.

For an outsider, the grid layout saves a lot of time and mental energy. Whether being the legacy of French colonization or progressing work of smart urban planners, this system seem to help avoid the overwhelming chaotic scenes often encountered in neighboring cities in Asia.

Cambodia National Museum

With typical Khmer architecture, Cambodian national museum is a huge collection of Khmer history and culture from Pre-historial era to modern time in 3 layers. Yet with an impulsive, impatient personality, I could only linger there for 45 minutes before getting out with a plan to read about its history online, a plan likely to be left dusted, as promising as my ignorance about Vietnam’s history.

Banks and an emerging economy

An stupid incident with ATM card led me to an expected, heated walking tour to different banks in the city. From big international banks to local ones with a modern look, the city is full of financial entities.

What does that fact say about the economy here? Maybe it is time to read some reports and be more informed about this fast-changing neighbor.

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Hip cafe culture

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In its adjective-packed introduction, Lonely Planet claims that Phnom Penh has a world-class coffee culture. Well, when Lonely Planet authors have to use the word “world-class” or “one of…”, it means they have no idea what they are talking about anymore. The coffee here is just like in Vietnam, with a mix of international coffee franchise invasion and its own funky, hippy cafes being set up all around. Combined with riverside bars and pubs occupied by stylish youngsters, the drinking scene is very vibrant, with so many choices that we can be paralyzed, in a lovely way 🙂

 

When I can’t escape

Felix exclaimed:

“Hi May, where are Luke and mom?”

My heart skipped a beat. The mom and her 10 year old child slowly dragged their bikes towards us with a frustrating look. The chain is falling out and the derailleur is broken in half, with the second half lying nowhere to be found

chain falling out

“I have searched for it everywhere. I didn’t see it”

I was panicked. Since the beginning I have acted the role of a poised, know-it-all guide very well whom won their affection and trust. Can I say something funny to twist their perspective of this shit – that I don’t know how to fix a broken derailleur?

The normally romantic rubber plantations are at their worst time of the year: rainy season when tree branches fall off, creating a messy backdrop.

From all corners mosquitoes are screaming, waiting to eat us alive. Two little boys, 10-year-old Luke and 7–year-old Felix are losing their cheerful face. I called numerous people for a few minutes when Felix started his rambling

Why does it take so long? Uh huh, ahhh, mosquitoes

 

Their mom says nothing.

Deep down I know they have all the rights to complain. I am delivering a service and this should not happen. In this case, they need a problem solver and not an entertainer as usual. I happen to be in a situation when I don’t have what it takes to solve and people who can solve are out of reach.

When you are expected to be a problem solver

Normally, I am an escaper. I just do things I like and meet people I care about. If there is any hint of mess or discomfort, I just say NO.

No. You deal with it. That is not my shit.

No, I will not meet you (because I have no interest at all)

No, I will not meet you (because I have so much interest that I am scared of rejection)

But there are cases when I have no choice but standing in front lines. Being a tour guide is one of that. I talk obvious things in different ways to entertain people and when bad surprises happen, I am expected to be a problem solver.

Problems expose our vulnerability

kids

If things go right, I will just make fun with Luke & Felix, listen to them eagerly sharing about their life in Singapore, act like I am so interested and then look at their satisfying mom’s face, happy that somebody is caring about her kids.

If things go right, I will just be poised, comfortable and in control. The mess kicked me out of that driver’s seat and just in seconds I became passive and frustrated. I felt so vulnerable, and somehow I feel that is a good sign. It shows me what I know I lack and force me to face it, find a way to deal with it, seeking help from others and grow from them.

If we feel stupid and vulnerable, that is a good sign. If we always feel confident, we are in the wrong environment.

Reflection, how much is too much?

Here I am, sticking my face in front of a computer in an internet cafe, attempting to write something, reflect on something.

As a matter of fact, I have been in that reflecting mode for nearly a year, and I am mentally exhausted, like a zombie. Or, like my friend puts it, in “a limbo state”.

I trade off living for reflecting

 

These pictures are memories of my trip for 3 days in Lan Ha bay, my second home. It was ecstatic: 3 people in a private boat in which I had the choice to tell the captain to go wherever and do whatever. With books, tea, wine, coffee, fresh food and nothing but endless emerald water and ultimate peace surrounding us, everything seemed surreal. We just came out, lay in the sun, sipped coffee, talked about anything and everything, and when the time comes, taking kayak for a venture out.

It was cold then, I remembered the feeling of wrapping the green scarf around my neck and seeing my breath turning foggy in the chilly winter weather. Everything was fresh and real, and I enjoyed it not picturing how I would write about it later.

 

sa pa

Or when I was in Sa Pa with volunteer friends just enjoying things without trying to make much sense of what we are doing. There is pure beauty of not thinking.

It was lively then. I was not thinking about anything, not reflecting anything. I was purely enjoying whatever surrounding. Just chill.

Somehow, I cannot do it anymore. I lose my ability to truly relax.

Reflection- from being healthy to being sick

I started writing about a year ago when the accumulation of impulses brought me trouble with family and study. So I went from a person who is totally spontaneous to someone who hesitate in doing anything.

Based on past experiences, I project it to everything I am about to do and every person I meet. Somehow I have the feeling I have lived enough for a lifetime and the rest is just the drag of it. I become conservative and solid too early. No, I haven’t traveled the world, but somehow I feel it should be over and I have tasted enough.Though I still enjoy simple existential pleasures like eating and sleeping, I really lost the desire or ambition on anything.

I am not actively looking for job.

I drop people I care about easily, not chasing them.

I try to make sense of everything and be overwhelmed by it.

I quit before even starting. In fact, I am scared of engaging in anything.

Everything seems meaningless.

I spend most of my time reflecting and not living. I question people’s motives before spending time with them, and I basically see no point in working for anyone. It puts me in an endless paralysis. I cannot count how many mornings I wake up and just want to lay in bed all day long, hoping to be immersed in an endless dream. I don’t know where I want to live: I have been living in islands, mountains, cities, with all the bliss those places bring. I have met enough interesting people to be grateful for. I am torn between traditional values and open Western values, with their own confusion. “What next?“question scares me.

I see no point in anything

sapa hope center

This is taken from Sapa Hope Center. Normally, anthropology entities like this thrill me. Yet I have spent a sweet time there and I am afraid that when I come back, I will ask questions:

– Why am I here?
– Why are these people here?
– What do they expect?
– What is really happening?

The more questions I ask and the more I find out, the more meaningless things seem to me and I cannot raise a finger to involve in anything with pure enthusiasm and energy like ever before. I want to see “the big picture” and at the same time I know I will just be disappointed when layer after layer is peeled.

I lost it. I trade living for reflecting and now reflecting is killing my beautiful innocence.

 

 

 

Saigon Writers’ first meet up

Aside from the very unrelated bicycle 😉, First meetup of Saigon Writers turned out to be an enjoyable encounter, with different characters trying to reach demographic, ehm, sorry Ellen ‘Digger’ Jones, democratic atmosphere ^^.

Due to heaps of free time with nothing to do, I came there earlier than expected, texting Ellen and found her already there in the middle of 20 seat line.

“I booked 16 seats only, I knew people are late and some may not come. If more come we can always drag more chairs.”

Thanks to low expectation on turning up number, we were happy in the small circle. People started to chit chat randomly and introduced about their writing.

“It has been years since I stopped writing frequently”

Then Steven came, asking:

“Is this a group of writers?”

“Well fair enough, we just talked about how rare we write, haha”

The demographic of this democratic event is interesting, with many nationalities (British, Vietnamese, US), some are professional writers like Kris and Huong Thi, some wrote very early like Ellen but stopped upon coming to VN due to tight working schedule, some write short stories and politial essays like Steven, some just write personal journal like me and An, or Trang Pham (who is, by the way, an outbound tour guide in South East Asia). We even had Shandy, a Philipino with perfect US accent and great sense of humor. Shandy wrote a travel blog about her trip to India and now more active in story telling and standup comedy events.

We were also shared a book club (female only) called “Wine and book” in Saigon and about to do research on quiet venues for next meeting and how to combine strengths of members in either freestyle topic or specific topic discussions.

The community is there, depending on how willing we are to interact.

***

I am given the privilege to be writing here: surrounded by students and non students, with well-selected books to read, water to drink and (big-screen) computers to use in a view looking over Saigon Cathedral. Yeap, somehow big screen computers matter ^^. Now me myself prefer to use the name Saigon over Ho Chi Minh city, in a biased way 🙂