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What unites us after war

Hope and Creedence Clearwater cranked up on a Vietnam highway

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I met Nguyen Van Thang in February, in a small city named Hue on the central coast of Vietnam. I was on a photography trip, shooting dozens of rolls of film, using my camera as a way to connect with people I'd never met - though our countries had been bound by the sorrows of war.

Vietnam had been woven into the cultural fabric of my consciousness as I grew up in America in the social tumult that marked the 1960s and 1970s. My images of it were shaped by war and profound human loss; for me, words like "Tet" - as in the massive "Tet Offensive" of the final war years - held only military connotations. It wasn't until I planned this trip that I learned that Tet is actually the Vietnamese people's ancient, joyous celebration of the lunar new year.

I had already spent two weeks in Hanoi, by the time I made my way to Hue one sunny afternoon. I'd been overwhelmed by the human kindness I'd encountered while shooting photographs of perfect strangers in northern Vietnam - a daily sweetness that took form in little gifts of fruit from street vendors, invitations into homes of perfect strangers, courtly greetings from older men in berets and fedoras.

I was humbled by their unrestrained good-will, aware that Americans would not be nearly so gracious when confronted with a former enemy. I was finding the connections I'd been seeking - but nothing prepared me for what I would gain from Nguyen Van Thang that day in Hue.

I hired Thang as my driver to take me down the coast to the small fishing village of Hoi An. His English was good, and he was eager to talk. Once he'd learned I was from the United States, the conversation turned, not surprisingly, to the war that we shared in common - the "American" war, as it's known in Vietnam.


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