Homecoming: A photographer documents a journey to Vietnam with his father, who left the country nearly 60 years ago
Nearly 60 years after last setting foot there, William Lam travelled to Vietnam with his son, in part to pay his respects to his parents for the first time. The journey revealed how much the country has changed, and how strong the connection still is for him. Words and images by Johnny C.Y. Lam
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My father left Vietnam for Hong Kong around the age of 16, at the time when the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong, launched a guerrilla war against the Diem government in the South in 1960. My grandfather, having just lost his wife due to illness and worried his children would be drafted and eventually killed in the fighting, began to send them away. My father, William Lam, was the first, followed by his nine siblings.
All left by boat, ending up in different countries during the exodus. Some are now in Sweden, some in Australia, some in the United States and some went back to China, where my grandfather is originally from. Not everyone who left Vietnam at that time shared the same good fortune as my father’s family. Countless died at sea during the arduous journey when boats ran out of fuel or came up against storms. Some who survived told horrendous stories of pirates raiding their old and beaten wooden boats, robbing them and raping women.
Since my family moved to Canada in 1992, my father would tell me stories of his past and often mentioned how much he would love to return to to his hometown in Vietnam and to pay respect to my grandfather at his resting place in a small Chinese cemetery in Sa Dec. In January, I offered my father a gift, to travel to Vietnam with me for the first time since he left nearly 60 years ago.
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We started our three-week journey in Hanoi, to Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City and eventually, back to his hometown, Sa Dec, in the Mekong Delta. We stayed at simple hotels, ate mostly at street stalls and took two overnight trains and numerous boats to experience the energetic, colourful and rapidly changing country that is Vietnam.