Living a quiet life on one of downtown Saigon’s busiest and most expensive streets is perhaps one of Vietnam’s most underrated wartime photojournalists.
Hoang Van Cuong, a former photographer for UPI (United Press International), is an old man now but 40 years ago he was young and full of passion, and counted journalists Peter Arnett and Tim Page among his friends and colleagues. Yet while Arnett and Page became famous and their works globally recognized, Cuong remains in anonymity. It is not because of a lack of talent, rather one of circumstance.
Though he only worked as a photographer for 12 years, Cuong has a long resume. When he was 15, he photographed the first 400,000 American GIs to land in Vietnam with a secondhand Pentax camera and next to zero knowledge on photography. When he was 27, he made history by capturing an image of the tanks knocking down the gate of what is now the Reunification Palace. That image is still used in history textbooks at Vietnamese high schools today. He has sold thousands of photos to numerous international media outlets covering Vietnam during the war. But Cuong’s success didn’t come easily.
“I was born in Hue to peasant parents in 1949. My mother had a small snack shack by the village road. My father was a traveling merchant with more children than he could feed. It was wartime. Life was difficult. Naturally, school was a luxury we could not afford for more than the first four years,” he recalls.
When he was ten, he ran away from home after his parents pulled him out of school because they couldn’t afford the tuition anymore. Homeless and living in sewers and construction sites, he managed to learn English from tourists and foreigners who took pity on him. After saving some money he returned home to help around the house before enrolling in free anti-illiteracy classes sponsored by the government. When he was 15 he held his first camera – a beat up, old Honeywell Pentax his father gave him for his birthday. It was the greatest birthday present he had ever received
“I took a couple of shots and realized I was holding something incredible in my hands,” says Cuong. “I was transfixed.” He exhausted the film roll his father gave him in a matter of days, taking photos of anything he found interesting. When he was 18, he met Kyoichi Sawada, a Japanese war journalist who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1966 but later died on the battlefields of Cambodia in 1970. “Sawada liked antiques and by chance was checking out the stuff at my father’s place during his time in Vietnam. He looked at the amateur photos I shot from my old Pentax and told me I had an eye for angles. He then sat me down and in a couple of days taught me the basics of photojournalism.”
However, Sawada did more than just show him a few tips. Sensing uncultivated talent in the young boy, he encouraged Cuong to pursue a career in photography and later on introduced him to recruiters at UPI. “There was no lack of good photographers at UPI at the time, but most of them were foreigners. The interest of the period was war and life in Vietnam. There were places that foreign photographers could not get into. People they could not talk to. So UPI was looking for Vietnamese photographers for strategic positions. A thousand photographers applied for the job. They chose only two. I was one of those two.”
Cuong worked for UPI and API for 12 years, from 1966 to 1978, covering the war. He learned on the job that a picture oftentimes holds more value than words. It was during this time that he met, worked with, and got to know countless reporters and journalists coming in and out of Vietnam in search of a big scoop. He thought Peter Arnett was a swell guy who could hold his calm and humor even when bullets were whistling past his ears. On the other hand, he wasn’t so fond of Tim Page who he thought was all bark and no bite and had a nasty habit of stealing other people’s credits.
On April 30, 1975 as Saigon fell, millions fled the city, many among them the same journalists, photographers and reporters he once worked with. “My boss asked me if I wanted a seat for myself and my family on the evacuation helicopter. I had worked for him for more than a decade then and we had survived countless battles together.” He turned down his boss’s offer, holding his camera to his chest and told him: “Photographers should never turn away from historical moments. I will stay behind and capture everything on film. Don’t worry about me. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
With him were a handful of brave journalists who looked forward to witnessing a turning point in history. He continued to send photos to UPI headquarters in America as promised until three years after the reunification. At 29 years old Hoang Van Cuong retired from photojournalism and put away his camera.
* Images by Ngoc Tran.
The following are some of Cuong’s work:
1975 President’s Bodyguards
Cuong in front of the now Reunification Palace
1972 A mother is missing her family, Central Highlands
Cuong’s photograph in a newspaper