Jul 6, 2008

Hope on the Ho Chi Minh Highway

I spent this past week on the Ho Chi Minh Highway ("DHCM" at the top of the mile marker above), starting at A Luoi and heading north to Khe Sanh. The highway itself runs north to south nearly the entire western length of the country, from Hanoi down to Saigon.

During the war and before it was paved, the Ho Chi Minh Trail served as a vital supply line in support of Communist troops in Southern Vietnam. As such it was a prime target and by early 1965 the US Air Force was flying 300 bombing raids over the trail every day, using a combination of napalm, defoliants and carpet-bombing B-52s. These raids slowed supply lines along the trail but did not disrupt them all together, thanks to the ingenuity and persistence of the North Vietnamese.

I was interested in photographing the generation of young boys who are growing up in such a war-scarred region, wanting to capture the human equivalent to the reforestation I saw last week. Many of the young men I met had fathers who served in the war at their age or just a bit older. Several of them had lost their father to the war, some had lost their mother too.

The area is mountainous and beautiful, only partially replanted but not so severly defoliated as along Highway 49 that I shot last week. There are many areas of virgin land that truly deserve to be called jungle - dense, diverse and incredibly green.

Our daily routine consisted of me of the back of Dung's motorbike (loaded to the gills with equipment, water and film) slowly heading north, looking for teenage boys. Often we didn't have to look; my presence generated a chorus of "Hello!" wherever we went. Once we saw someone of appropriate age we'd stop and Dung would go into his routine, sometimes offering water, sometimes cigarettes, sometimes a bit of food and always a lot of talk. I'd shoot a picture first with my digital camera with the effect of wowing these kids into thinking I was some kind of magician. Their digital pose was often smiley and a bit silly, a marked contrast to when I pulled out my big Pentax 67 and they got quiet and serious. That camera has a presence that even these rarely-photographed kids picked up on.

I'd take just a few shots, sometimes of each kid alone, sometimes of them with another teenage friend. The boys were always either alone or with other boys. Vietnamese society is very gender segregated and only once did I see the kind of co-ed groupings of friends that is so common in the West. I didn't see a single boy/girl couple the entire week.

After I got the shot Dung was inclined to linger for another cigarette or more talk; I usually had to push him to wrap things up and keep moving. Even in the wilds of Viet Nam you can take the boy out of New York but never New York out of the boy. So I climbed on the back of the bike and it was off to find the next.

Although I pushed to get 20 shots a day, by the time I reached about 15 in the late afternoon Dung was clearly anxious to call it a day. It was good work and nice to feel a sense of human renewal in an area that had been so devasted during the war. I'm anxious about whether the portraits captured any of that tentative sense of hope that I felt. Unfortunately shooting film and with no labs here that I would trust with the processing, I'll just to wait till I get back.

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