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Culture

When a War Becomes a Tourist Attraction

Photographer Horst Faas talked to DW-WORLD.DE about working in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and how the country has dealt with its past.

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Horst Faas (right) in the field with South Vietnamese soldiers

Born in Berlin in 1933, Horst Faas joined the Associated Press (AP) as a photographer in 1956 and covered wars in the Congo and Algeria. From 1962 to 1974, he was based in Saigon as AP's chief reporter for Southeast Asia. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for his work in Vietnam and in 1972 for his photographs of Bangladesh. He now lives in Munich.

DW-WORLD.DE: What are your most abiding impressions of the Vietnam War?

Horst Faas: What my colleagues and I were unable to forget was the fate of our Vietnamese colleagues. Many of them fled in 1975 and ended up in the US. Other stayed behind -- and we worried about them constantly. I tried very hard to find out what happened to them. All the ones I managed to trace suffered badly after 1975. After the North Vietnamese victory, they all spent time in re-indoctrination camps. But I've noticed a fundamental change since 2000. The Vietnamese people we worked with no longer want to emigrate. They say Vietnam has changed and improved and they prefer to stay.

While you were working for AP as a picture editor during the war, you published two photographs that went around the world. One showed a Vietcong being shot by a Vietnamese soldier in Saigon , the other a girl running away from a napalm attack. Both images were very controversial. Why?

Napalm Angriff während des Vietnamkrieges, historisches Foto

The famous photo taken by Nick Ut

The first was taken by Eddie Adams on one of the first days of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive in 1968. I was working as picture editor in the Saigon office. I was told to edit Eddie Adams' film and send it out. It was a similar story four years later when Nick Ut took a picture of nine-year-old Kim Phuc Thi running down the road covered in napalm burns. The pictures were controversial because the content was so shocking. Back then, publishers, newspapers and readers tended to be far more cautious. Things are different now. In those days, many newspapers would have had their doubts about publishing that sort of image. But they were so dramatic that it was obvious they would end up appearing everywhere.

When the war ended in 1978, you went back to Vietnam many times. As of the mid-1980s, the country began to see an economic upswing. Had you expected that?

I had always been aware that the South Vietnamese -- indeed, people in Southeast Asia on the whole -- were unusually hard-working and inventive. I wasn't surprised to see the Vietnamese pull themselves together so quickly, and it was only ever a question of time. It took 15 to 20 years. After four to five years the country had begun opening up, but it only really gathered momentum after Perestroika had happened in Europe and ushered in a period of change.

Vietnam is considered a role model for developing countries because it managed to kick-start its economy and cut poverty by 50 percent. Did you see evidence that people were better off than they used to be?

Fotograf Horst Faas

Horst Faas today

Forget the statistics -- I did notice that people out in the villages, a long way from the cities, were much better dressed. They had larger houses, electricity and toilets. In the past, the poverty in South Vietnam outside the cities was overwhelming and it was probably even worse in the North because what happened there was even worse. In the 1980s, Saigon began turning into a modern, clean city. The slums have gone, they've been replaced by houses that used to look a little Spartan, but these days the trees have grown and the street vendors have set up their stalls everywhere. It's become a lively city.

These days, the relics of the Vietnam War are seen as something of a tourist attraction and the country has exploited this. How do you feel about that?

Fotograf Horst Faas in Vietnam Pulitzerpreis 1965

Faas won a Pulitzer for this photo of a father holding his dead child

It's funny. The Cu Chi tunnels were opened to the public. I was there in 1978 and met a Vietcong commander who told me he had been appointed future director of the tunnel once it had been converted into a tourist attraction. Now you can take a coach trip to Cu Chi, where thousands of Vietcong died over the years, and shoot at cardboard cut-outs of US soldiers.

Can you understand that so many Vietnamese are unwilling to talk about the war these days?

The mood in Vietnam has changed. In the 1990s they would still talk about the war and exchange memories. But today, the younger generation doesn't want to hear about it. I feel that the Vietnam War has been brushed under the carpet the same way the two world wars were in Europe. The past has simply been stored away in a museum.

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