A look back in pictures and in words of Old Saigon

On September 23, 1969, 11 days after my 23rd birthday, I stepped off a Braniff 707 at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon to begin my one-year tour of duty in the U. S. Air Force. My father, who had served in the U S Army in WW II, gave me some sage advice: “Do not join or let yourself be drafted into the Army.” At the time they were also drafting into the Marines and I knew I didn’t want to go down that road o I elected to enlist in the Air Force reporting for basic training on May 1, 1969. They were looking for people with an AA degree or better (I had a BA) to be trained as English language instructors in Vietnam. Not wishing to spend 18-24 months in some Air Force tech school I volunteered. After a six-week course on how to teach English as a foreign language and 30 days leave it was off to Vietnam.

Cho Lon Pharmacy

Cho Lon Pharmacy

Fortunately, the assignment came with a lot of free time. We worked one of two shifts; 07:00-12:00 or 13:00-18:00; five hours a day, six days a week with Sundays off. I had developed an interest in photography in my latter years of college and had been working as an apprentice in a photography studio between graduation and being drafted. I put these budding skills to good use, spending a large portion of my off-duty hours roaming the streets and alleys of Saigon shooting over 1,500 black & white and color photos. Saigon was, and still is, a very rich visual environment and I thoroughly enjoyed the many hours I spent capturing street life during that era.

This was my first trip outside the US and for a “country boy” raised in a rural area of upstate New York it was quite an eye-opener; almost like being sent to another planet. The sights, sounds and smells were very foreign yet at the same time very intriguing and as the year rolled on and I became more acclimated I found myself spending more and more time on the streets shooting. Saigon is where I honed my street-shooting skills, learning to capture fleeting moments and preserving them in time.

 

Sai Gon 1969-1970

Sai Gon 1969-1970

Water Taxis at Bach Dang

I arrived in the country with a Pentax H3v camera body, a completely manual camera with no built-in light meter and three lenses; I think a 35mm f/2, a 50mm f/2 & a 135mm f/3.5—all gifted to me by my former boss. I very quickly learned how to “eye-ball” exposures and enjoyed a pretty good success rate using traditional techniques, for example, the Kodak guides on how to evaluate exposure based on film speed and lighting conditions. Film was purchased at the Cho Lon Main PX on Nguyen Tri Phuong. B&W film was usually readily available; color slide film not so much so 75 percent of my shots are in B&W.

Sai Gon 1969-1970

Sai Gon 1969-1970

Dai Lo Le Loi

One of my roommates was also an avid photographer. We converted the bathroom in our BEQ (Bachelor Enlisted Quarters) into a darkroom by blocking out the window and sealing off the door once inside. B&W film was developed in daylight tanks in 90° Saigon unfiltered tap water, not the most optimal conditions. Photographic paper and chemicals were sent to me by my former boss in the US. Prints were made by placing a small 35mm-only enlarger on the toilet seat and the developing trays on the shower floor. The biggest print we could make was an 8”x10”. These were sent back to the US or given to our colleagues and Vietnamese friends. After one disastrous experience having my color slides developed in Saigon (the color was way off ), I started sending my color film to Australia in those Kodak yellow mailers. Fortunately, only one roll failed to make it back.

Orange Vendor

Orange Vendor

On September 22, 1970 my tour was up and I returned to the US. After my 30 days leave I reported to my new duty station and in May of 1971 I was discharged from the Air Force. I became a hippie, moved to Puerto Rico where I lived for nearly six years before returning to the US in the autumn of 1977 to pursue a career in professional photography in California, which lasted until May of 2016. In November of 2003 I returned to Vietnam for the first time since 1970. I made two subsequent trips in 2005 and 2006 visiting Cambodia and Laos as well. Based on those experiences I decided that when I was able to retire I would come and live in Vietnam. I emigrated here on March 1, 2017 and love every minute of it. I’m comfortably ensconced in a penthouse apartment in the Co Giang Ward in District 1. Since moving here I’ve been to Cambodia, Singapore and Bali, and in March I escorted two people from the US around Vietnam from Hanoi to the Delta and on into Cambodia by boat. I plan to live out my days traveling around Southeast Asia creating more beautiful photos.

Text and Images by Michael Burr