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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

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.

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.

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One of the highlights of our trip was travelling on the Mekong river from Ben Tre to my father’s home village, Sa Dec. He laughed as he sat in the sun on the deck of our wooden boat. It would have been much cheaper and quicker to take a bus, but the only way to really experience life in the Mekong Delta is by way of water. We came across stilt houses nestled by the shores among coconut palms, fishermen casting nets for their daily catch, children swimming and playing by the banks, cargo ships filled to the brim with all kinds of goods, and large factories processing sugar, coconuts and rice.

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We came across a traditional floating village surrounded by dramatic limestone mountains in Ha Long Bay. These villages have been around for generations. For many years, these people’s main livelihoods included fishing and pearl farming, but due to the increasing number of visitors in the area and the decrease in fish populations, many residents have turned to tourism to earn a living. The local government has recently devised a plan to move the people living in these villages inland. The main objective is to improve residents’ quality of life and to give children greater access to education. Pollution and environmental protection are also big factors.




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There are some 1,600 islands in the Ha Long and Lan Ha bay areas, but most of them are uninhabited because of their precipitous nature. In 2000, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee added Ha Long Bay to its World Heritage List. Since then, tourism in the area has grown significantly, providing a viable income to the local communities, but with a social and environmental impact on the traditional way of life.

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At the Khe Sanh Combat Base in central Vietnam, a decommissioned U.S. tank, armoured vehicle and Hercules bomber are on display. The battle at Khe Sanh was considered one of the bloodiest of the Vietnam War. It is estimated that around 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped in the area by the U.S. Air Force.

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The overnight train journey from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City was supposed to take 16 hours, but it took a total of 31 to reach the city, also known as old Saigon, because of a mechanical failure. We had a cabin to ourselves and all the time in the world. My father read a classic Chinese novel by Jin Yong and told me stories from his past that I had never heard before; stories of how he met his first girlfriend, how he got in a fight and his very first time visiting Saigon with my grandfather. He also shared with me horrific details of his siblings escaping Vietnam during the war.

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The one food experience my father likes to reminisce about is “beef seven ways." I’ve heard about this style of eating all too many times, but never really understood it until we went to Au Pagolac in Ho Chi Minh City. It is basically a seven-course meal brought out all at once: bo nhung dam (beef dipped in vinegar broth); bo nrong la lot (grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaf); bo nrong mo chai (secret house marinated grilled beef); bo sa te (grilled beef satay); cha dum (steamed meat loaf); bit tet (beef steak); and chao bo (beef congee).

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When my father finished primary school in his home village in Sa Dec, he moved to Cho Lon, the Chinese quarter in Ho Chi Minh City, to attend high school. He lived above the store where my grandfather had a Chinese medicine business. The building is still standing, but was sold to a new owner in 2000. That owner still runs a Chinese medicine business though, under a different name.




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Our captain, Trinh Ngoc Diep, enjoying an iced-coffee break at a riverside café in Cai Be during our seven-hour boat journey. Born and raised in Ben Tre, Captain Diep knows the river like the back of his hand. He was delighted to converse in Vietnamese with my father, despite the fact that my father’s Vietnamese is very rusty. After not speaking in his mother tongue for such a long time, my father was thrilled to have someone to speak with on a slow boat to his hometown.

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During a visit to a small Chinese temple in Sa Dec, my father was unexpectedly greeted by two of his old schoolmates: Wong Kum Chow (77 years old, left) and Wong Bing Choi (79, middle) attended the same elementary school as him between 1955 and 1959. “Most of our classmates have passed away,” Chow said. "We are lucky to still be here and to meet you after so many years. Let’s have some tea together.”

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The veneration of elders holds significant standing in Chinese culture and the celebration of lineage and ancestry is integral to what it means to be Chinese. My father had never made it to my grandfather’s funeral; in fact, our trip was the first time he ever set foot in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. He was finally able to visit the grave at a Chinese cemetery in Sa Dec. The emotional weight he had been carrying all these years was finally released through streams of tears as he swept clean the grave of my grandparents and offered them incense and fresh fruits.




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Vietnam is going through massive transformation and modernization. In many cities throughout the country, old buildings are being torn down for new developments. In this image taken in Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City, a vulnerable and slender apartment building is waiting for its turn to be demolished. Its fate will likely be the same as the building that used to stand beside it for decades before it was finally taken down.

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My father and I photographed together at the Meridian Gate at the Imperial City in Hue. This is the journey of a lifetime. He was born in Vietnam in the 1940s and, like many Vietnamese, left at a young age because of war. He hasn’t been back for nearly 60 years, and so much has changed since. Vietnam today is a free and independent country, with the majority of the population under the age of 40. Excitement is in the air as a new generation lives without war for the first time, and the country embraces a truly free economy. The standard of living is at its best ever. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity with my father, as this might be his first and last time visiting his homeland since he left.

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