Back Heritage » Vietnam » The Vintage Charm of 1995 Vietnam on Kodachrome Film Slides

The Vintage Charm of 1995 Vietnam on Kodachrome Film Slides

While editing a retrospective of my recent work from Vietnam in the summer of 2019, I discovered 50 yellow boxes of Kodachrome slides in my basement that were shot in 1995. The images were from my first trip to Vietnam.

Back then, I was curious about the country because I grew up during the war, and despite being of draft age, I was exempt from serving. In 1995, there weren’t many foreign tourists in the country. It was a year after the United States normalized relations with Hanoi and lifted sanctions. Most of the passengers on the flight to Hồ Chí Minh City were Việt kiều, visiting their country for the first time since they left. The tension they felt as they cleared customs was obvious.

In many of the towns and cities I visited during my three weeks in Vietnam, the same scene repeated itself. Young men congregated outside in teahouses to watch American-made action movies, many of them depicting warfare taking place in the jungle. This was before digital flat-screen monitors but the audio/video was still impressive. From down the street, I would hear the soundtrack of American soldiers shouting orders at each other, with gunfire in the background.

I stayed for close to a month and mainly traveled overland by train on the Reunification Express from Saigon to Hanoi. I stopped over for a few days each in Nha Trang, Đà Nẵng, Huế and Hanoi, and made overland trips to Đà Lạt and Hội An. Passing through the rice fields of Central Vietnam as the sun was rising felt like a dream; the landscape out the window had so many variations of the color green. 

What initially struck me about Hanoi and Vietnam in general was the beauty, the color, and the charm of the people. However, when I looked through the lens and zoomed in closer, the picture wasn’t pretty. This city was digging itself out of war and poverty. This photograph taught me that from a distance all may look well, but up close there is a lot more than meets the eye.

There were also more sober moments, like having a meal with a psychiatrist in Huế who recounted how, as the pressure of modern-day life increased, more people would be in need of his services.

This photo was taken at a rest stop on the road between Nha Trang and Đà Lạt. We were in a minivan and the state of the road made it a truly frightening journey. 

In Hanoi, I met a widow whose husband was killed during the American War. She actually invited me up to her apartment and cried as she recounted the story.

1995 was a few years before digital cameras and technology were introduced and the web was in its infancy with ever-so-slow dial-up modems. After editing my work, I had scans made of about 30 images for what would become my very first website, called Vietnam Journal. It went live in the winter of 1996, one of the internet's early photography sites. It would be two years before the web was introduced in a very limited way in Vietnam.  

While traveling in Huế, I ate most of my meals at Luc Than Family Restaurant. The proprietor, Luc, was a deaf-mute whom I was able to reunite with in the winter of 2016.

For almost twenty years, I had done editorial and travel photography for magazines, some of which I later sold as stock to agencies in various countries, mostly in Europe. In Vietnam then, there weren’t many stock opportunities. Just the mausoleum where Hồ Chí Minh was preserved, people riding around on bicycles and women with conical-shaped hats. In 1995, the photography business model was on the verge of changing. Digital technology was still in its infancy; 35mm DSLR cameras cost over US$20,000 and weighed several pounds. A few years later, with the advent of royalty-free photos, the market for stock sales disappeared. The combination of these circumstances allowed me to simply explore and photograph what interested me. 

I fell in love with Vietnam shortly after arriving and returned several times between 2015 and 2019, including teaching photography via the Fulbright program in 2015. 

When I returned to Nha Trang in 2019 I was unable to find this bridge, not having taken note of its name. 

I have made countless photographs like this, but what sets this one apart are the memories I have of the time and place. Unlike most travelers in Nha Trang, I was drawn to the older, industrial part of town, not the beach which was just beginning to be developed. Now 25 years later, I still remember crouching on the ground photographing this group of boys who were about half my age. The light was fading quickly and I was concerned about holding my camera steady, with such a low film speed, about five stops fewer than what I'm able to shoot digitally today.

These children outside of the Đà Lạt bus station were dressed up for a family event. 

This couple with their bamboo mat, coffee and cigarettes had cordoned off their personal space at Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the heart of the city. It was a very hot day in June and it seemed as though nothing existed outside of their own little world. They didn’t seem to be aware of my presence although I was pretty close. It’s curious how both of the younger men in the background noticed them, perhaps because of my presence. The three elements make a curious little triangle.

A food vendor in Hanoi serves meals with a colorful mural depicting patriotic workers on the wall behind her. 

Elements in this image bring back sharp memories. The woman facing the camera is at least 55 or 60 years old and must have witnessed and experienced untold horrific events during the American War. While traveling in Vietnam on this first trip, I became haunted by these women. I tried to imagine what they had gone through, their direct suffering and loss.

The scene I captured of young people exercising around Hoàn Kiếm Lake in 1995 seems not much different from what I witnessed when I returned in 2019. 

On my first day in Nha Trang while I was drinking coffee, this Amerasian man, Linh, approached me. His English was much better than most of the locals so we hung out together for part of the afternoon. He thought I might have connections to help him to relocate to America.

More locals exercising around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. When I took the photo, I couldn't help but wonder if the man in the foreground had lost his arm during the war. 

This image almost looks like a scene from the war in Vietnam. A group of laborers were transporting stacks of coal. Each wooden crate attached to their bicycles weighed over 100 pounds.

In 1995, bicycles and cyclos were far more common and impacted the rhythms of traffic in the capital city.

The 50 rolls of processed Kodachrome film from my first trip to Vietnam in June 1995 that I discovered in the basement of my home in the summer 2019.

See more of Geoffrey Hiller's photos here

[Top image: On my second day in Saigon, I went to a park downtown and saw a group of students exercising. They approached me and asked where I was from, and who I was traveling with, interested by the unfamiliar concept of traveling alone. So I showed them photos of my wife and two young daughters in the US.]

Partner Content