In 1972, I was born Đỗ Văn Hùng in Saigon, Vietnam. In the closing days of the war, as part of Operation Babylift, I was evacuated on a Pan American Airways 747 from Tan Son Nhat to San Francisco International and, after medical processing in Harmon Hall at the Presidio, to Buffalo Niagara where I was adopted in West Seneca, New York and renamed Mark F. Erickson.
As a child, I had a natural inclination to drawing, painting, and photography. For the last, my older brother had built a darkroom in our basement, so I had access to everything I needed to learn the basics. Regarding Vietnam, I knew and thought nothing of the country and only passively learned about it from the stories America was telling itself about the war, mainly through the movies of the 1980s.
As a student at Harvard College, I made my first Vietnamese-American friends, studied Vietnamese history from a Vietnamese perspective with Hue-Tam Ho Tai, and learned documentary photography with Chris Killip and David Goldblatt. From Killip and Goldblatt, I learned how powerful photo essays challenged the national narratives of the English (In Flagrante), the South Africans (In Boksburg), and the Americans (Robert Frank’s The Americans).
Highly influenced by what I learned from them, I returned to Vietnam in 1993 with a manual 35mm camera, a basic tripod, and a lot of film to see my birth country with my own eyes. I spent countless days riding my gearless bicycle around Hanoi, burning images into my memory. Given that I was always seen with a tripod strapped to my back, my nickname amongst the few English-speaking foreigners was Tripod Boy. Beyond Hanoi, I traveled by bus in the north to Lang Son and Haiphong, and by train southward to Quang Tri, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, and Saigon, which had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Upon my return to the United States, I started the work that you now hold in your hands. Suffice it to say, it has taken a lot longer to finish than I ever imagined. So long that the world in these images no longer exists: the one after the conflicts with America (1954-1975), Cambodia (1975-1989), and China (1979), but before the rapid increase in economic development that continues to this day.
Many excellent photo essays have been published about Vietnam, mainly about the war years. Some are powerful but also necessarily ugly, as war is without censorship from Washington or a makeover from Hollywood. This book is not about war or famous people or infamous places. Instead, it is about the beauty that I found in ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary places. It is a glimpse into a life I never had the opportunity to live.
Mark F. Erickson (Đỗ Văn Hùng) is the author of the photobook Other Streets: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived.