Seeing Vietnam through a new lens

Herb Way's Vietnam

Tom Flynn
Special to The Black Mountain News

Earlier this year, local photographer Herb Way, 67, traveled to the nation that's eponymous with the war that polarized the U.S. during his early adulthood - Vietnam.

“My partner Anny (Bestel) went in 2014 with a travel buddy,” Way said. She returned, describing the country's beauty. She encouraged Way to return with her on a future trip.

Herb Way, making photos on the Perfume River in Hue.

Way who described himself as “somewhat of an offbeat person,” always wanted to go to Vietnam, as well as another American foreign policy hot spot from the era, Cuba. “I don’t necessarily want to do conventional tourist things," he said.

“Anny told me now beautiful it was and showed me some pictures and I said ‘yeah, I’d love to go.' I was against the war, and I never regarded any Vietnamese person as my enemy."

By July 2016, encouraged in part by a generous offer from the tour company that Anny used on several occasions, the two booked a trip.

Way, who arrived in Black Mountain in July 2014, was in high school in northern New Jersey during the heart of the Vietnam War and, following graduation, enlisted in the New Jersey Air National Guard. following his graduation.

Family transportation, Ho Chi Minh City

“At the time they (the U.S.) weren’t deploying National Guard reservists the way they do now,” he said. He joined in late 1967 and was formally trained as a photojournalist.

fter training stints in San Antonio and Denver, he returned to serve his unit at McGuire Air Force Base in southern New Jersey, near Fort Dix.

On Feb. 25, Way and Bestel left Black Mountain for Vietnam. They returned March 10. Way came back with 4,300 photos.

His view of travel photography is in keeping with his view of travel destinations. “My intent from the outset, which I have on all vacations, is to not take stereotypical pictures," he said. "What I wanted to do in Vietnam was to focus on the people.”

Vendor, Hoi An

“They’re a dignified, poised people," he said. "You don’t have to have a lot of money to have class. I was impressed by them.”

At times, Way’s desire to strike his own course was at odds with the notion of traveling in a tour group of 38 people. “I did manage from time to time to slip away on my own," he said. "It was just me, the people, and the camera.”

Departing the US from Los Angeles, the group landed in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon prior to its "fall" to communist control in 1975 (the current government describes it as the "liberation of Saigon"). Saigon was the capital of the former Republic of Vietnam - more commonly known as South Vietnam.

The group Way and Bestel were with generally traveled from the south to the north, including to Saigon's counterpart during the Vietnam War, Hanoi.

Vendor, Ho Chi Minh City

From Ho Chi Minh City, the group flew to Da Nang, the coastal city roughly halfway to Hanoi. Its airport was a major U.S. airfield during the war. While there, Way visited "China Beach," a picturesque strip of beach that later gave name to a late 1980s drama series. They also visited Hue, the Imperial City, just north of Da Nang.

From there the group continued northward, including visits to Hanoi and to its east, the picturesque Ha Long Bay coastal region.

More than four decades after the conclusion of a war that rent the country asunder, notable differences still exist between Hanoi and the southern capital, Way said.

“Ho Chi Minh City is more westernized than Hanoi. It has energy that resembles New York somewhat. My perception is that Hanoi has a more communist feeling.”

Way’s camera helped span a cultural divide cleaved by the significant differences between the English and Vietnamese languages. “A smile goes a long way, and I would ask to take a picture,” said Way. “In some cases, I didn’t want to disturb a good candid scene, and I’d take a picture, and they’d turn and look at me. I'd bow and say ‘thank you.’ And they would bow back, and we’d smile at each other.”

Sightseeing boats amid limestone islands, Halong Bay

The tour was largely city-focused. There were some limited rural ventures, including the drive between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, where Way saw and photographed some of the country's iconic rice paddies.

While in the north he visited the prison camp sarcastically dubbed, due to its brutal living conditions, “The Hanoi Hilton” by imprisoned Americans.

The prison, perhaps best known as the place where U.S. Senator John McCain was held and tortured, was built by the French, with a torturous intent largely unknown to Americans.

“The major narrative at the prison is that they show you what the French were doing to the Vietnamese people," Way said. "You don’t hear much of that when you talk about Vietnam. They showed us a guillotine in the prison. I was really moved by that.” The prison includes an exhibit denoting where McCain was held, Way said.

While the war largely defines the country in America's eyes, such is not the case in Vietnam.

“They call it the American War. It wasn’t something that was in your face everywhere you went; it wasn’t something that people seemed to be preoccupied with," he said. "They tend to be a youth culture as they are here. What's there now - seeing how those people have such dignity and ingenuity - they really bounced back. Those cities are hustle and bustle, just like New York or Chicago or any big city.”

If the future makes a place for it, Way would like to return to the country, with fellow photographers and with some knowledge of the language to expand upon his already nuanced view of the country, its people, and history.

“I would have loved to have engaged in conversation with some of the people that I photographed," he said. "Some of the older people, the lines in their faces and their expressions on their face would make you say ‘wow, this person really has a great story to tell.’"