catherine karnow

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When I first went to Vietnam in the summer of 1990, it reminded me of my visit to Eastern Europe one bleak winter a few years earlier. Though the climates were vastly different there was the same sense of everything being stark and shut, with the heavy smell of coal in the air. Visually, there was something missing, and I soon realised that it was the lack of advertising: no billboards, no signs, no printed images, none of those pervasive distractions that surround us in the west.

And Vietnam was so poor. I saw men hunched over the ground, carefully cleaning scraps of plastic bags to reuse them, or maybe to sell them. One day as I walked down a narrow street with my overseas Vietnamese friend , we saw a large crowd gathered outside an open house. They were straining to watch a tiny video way up front. My friend said, "they are starving for entertainment". It was true; in 1990 you never saw a T.V. There were no movies, no magazines, no bookstores, only plain Communist party newspapers. People asked me to send them books after I returned home, even if they couldn't read them. A man I knew formerly prominent, lived in a bare room with hard chairs and a fluorescent ceiling light. It was partly the communist spirit of austerity and partly the sheer lack of goods. And yet, despite their hardships, the people remained hopeful, gentle and generous.

In 1990, the door to the rest of the world seemed to be ajar and Vietnam was like a shy young girl peeking out. A foreigner was rare. Not counting the Russians, I doubt that there were more than two dozen visitors in the whole of Vietnam at that time. When I came back in the spring of 1994, and then again in 1995, change was everywhere -- and dramatic. The Majestic Hotel had renovated its lobby, which now featured glittering chandeliers and a concierge desk. There were billboards for Sony, Heineken and DHL, and the rickety old ferries on the river displayed giant Lufthansa signs, an airline the ferry travelers had probably never heard of, let alone would fly on. You couldn't cross the street for all the motorscooters . There were even a few taxis. I saw shops crammed with canned foods and bottles of fancy liquors. I photographed a look-alike Michael Jackson and discos packed with kids wearing L.A.'s latest fashions and dancing as if they watched MTV regularly. There was even "gay night" at one joint. I shot fashion shows whose bikini-clad models shocked an audience in more reserved Hanoi. Popular culture had come to Vietnam. Everyone was drinking coca cola and Baskin Robbins was charging an average three days income for an ice cream cone. Everyone was hustling for a buck, and a tiny handful were getting rich.

Yet I found that the character of the people had barely changed. They remained curious, kind, open. Perhaps they perceived a greater measure of freedom ahead.

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