When Michael Burr, a Vietnam War veteran, decided it was time to ride off into the sunset after a lifetime career in photography, he chose Vietnam, of all places, and moved there to live out his days. It had been some 50 years earlier in Saigon, during his one-year tour of duty as an English language instructor for the U.S. Air Force, that Michael first honed and tested his street photography skills; luckily for him, fate spared him from getting battle-tested in any warfare during the conflict.
We meet on Trần Hưng Đạo Street, across the road from where he was first lodged after arriving in Saigon in 1969, at a busy café called My Life Coffee, so that Michael can tell me about his life.
The spirit of adventure
Born to a WWII veteran who had served in Europe under General Patton, Michael was raised in a backwater town surrounded by pleasantly rolling hills and dairy farms but for teenage Michael, the town’s saving grace was its relative proximity to New York City. Hungering for adventure and enjoying a long leash from his parents, Michael would often board an early morning bus with friends to New York, where they would dig into big-city charms such as visiting world-famous landmarks, taking long subway rides for 25 cents and getting a wino to buy them a 6-pack for a bottle of cheap wine.
Too busy having a good time, at college Michael paid little attention to a war his country was waging in distant Vietnam; for a time, it looked like Uncle Sam wasn’t too interested in him either. Inexplicably, the U.S. Army failed to draft Michael in 1965 when he flunked out for two semesters. This allowed Michael to get his act together, get readmitted to university and graduate with a BA in Art History in 1968.
The dreaded letter
After graduation, Michael started working as an apprentice in a photography studio, at a time when domestic support for the American involvement in the Vietnam War was fading rapidly in the wake of the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Launched by North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong, the offensive resulted in many American casualties and landed a strategic blow on the credibility of U.S. officials who at that point were assuring the public that the war was nearly won. The approval rating of President Lyndon B. Johnson slumped so badly that he refused to run for re-election and the 1968 election was won by the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, who promised to end the war with a then-secret plan. Now known as “Vietnamization”, Nixon’s strategy was to gradually reduce American presence in Vietnam by transferring all military responsibility to the South Vietnamese government.
It was against this backdrop that Michael Burr received the dreaded letter from his draft board – the one that famously started with “Greeting” but went on to communicate that such and such was to report for induction into the U.S. Army. Among the enlisted in 1969-1970, only 2.5% ended up in combat infantry units, and Michael wasn’t going to be one of them. On the strength of his bachelor’s degree he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and, after basic military training, attended a six-week English language instructor course, in line with the aforementioned Vietnamization. Before he knew it, Michael was on a plane to Vietnam.
A different world
Only flying to the other side of the globe wasn’t quite as smooth as it is today, and Michael’s flight required refuelling stops in Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines. Finally, on 23 September 1969, his plane touched down in Saigon, tossing Michael – a country boy who had never travelled outside of the U.S. before – into a brand new world. His head spinning with all the strange sights, sounds and smells, Michael was assigned to his BEQ, or Bachelor Enlisted Quarters, and began his tour of duty.
His teaching assignment came with a lot of free time, allowing Michael to roam the streets and alleys of Saigon, camera in hand. Over the course of the next 12 months, he would take over 1,500 photos, capturing Saigon’s busy street life – the hair-raising traffic with all sorts of vehicles, mainly motorbikes and mopeds, competing for space with little regard for traffic rules; children running barefoot in the streets and people wearing pyjamas like they forgot to change in the morning; women gliding along in their graceful áo dài, Vietnam’s national garment. Using unfiltered tap water, Michael would then develop these photos in his bathroom, converted into a makeshift darkroom, with the developing trays on the shower floor and the 35mm enlarger on the toilet seat.
He was told to stay on his guard while in the streets, watch out for booby traps or any suspicious behaviour, and never go across the Bến Nghé canal or to the other side of the river, into enemy-controlled territories. In a similar vein, he was instructed not to fraternise with local women for fear of contracting black syphilis, a mythical STD. Still, Michael hardly felt threatened at any time during his one-year tour, especially with some of the most elite troops protecting Saigon – and was pleased, under the circumstances, to be able to pursue his budding passion for photography.
Sadly, his work as an ESL instructor proved to be boring, and Michael soon found it to be as futile as the war itself. His job was to teach English to the personnel of the South Vietnam Air Force, RVNAF, in keeping with Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. The teaching method, however, was typical of that era, and consisted mostly of students parroting fixed phrases back to the teacher. Seeing how things were, Michael lost interest in the job but he never made any effort to communicate the senselessness of it all to anyone in the higher echelons. No one would listen, no one would care.
By that time it was clear that the public opinion back in America would not be placated, and neither was there a way to stop the rot among the forces stationed in Vietnam, where the morale took a nosedive all across the hierarchy. Search-and-destroy operations became known as “search and avoid”, with combat units radioing the wrong coordinates and falsifying battle reports. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, a 1965 single by the Animals, became an unofficial anthem of the era and an absolute fixture for radio disc jockeys and bands playing in armed forces clubs.
Michael would make the most of the relaxed regulations during his off-duty time, and when he wasn’t combing the streets of Saigon for the best photo opportunities he was getting high on the roof of his lodgings with his clique, oftentimes to the tune of distant explosions and with clouds of smoke on the horizon. The local marijuana was potent, days flew by quickly and his tour was up.
Disillusioned by the realities of the war, Michael returned to the States in September 1970 and obtained his discharge from the Air Force the following year. As he left the military base, he gave a double middle-finger salute to the security police at the gate, and then drove straight to Venice Beach and became a hippie. He then lived in Puerto Rico for six years, moved back to the U.S. in 1977 and spent the next four decades working as a commercial photographer in California, taking pictures of products and celebrities.
Vietnam was at the back of his mind all this time but it took Michael 33 years before he would visit it again. He first went back in 2003 and made two subsequent trips later on, each time in awe with the quantum leap forward the country had taken. He finally moved to Saigon in March 2017, at the age of 70, his plan to indulge in the tropical charms of Asia and have a few more cans of his favourite drink of old, the 33 Beer – rebranded to “333”, in a strangely half-hearted effort to shake off the beer’s colonial origins.
Saigon, too, was renamed after the war to Ho Chi Minh City, in honour of the iconic leader of the victorious North Vietnam. Meanwhile, the city has morphed into a modern metropolis, with commerce and prosperity very much in evidence in the streets, and yet it has somehow managed to retain most of the unmistakable appeal of Southeast Asia. Not a bad place for a veteran to retire to.
For more snapshots of Saigon by Michael Burr, go here: Saigon in 1970 in the photos of Michael Burr, Vietnam War veteran.
Michael Burr is available to give presentations of his photographs and lectures about his experiences during the Vietnam War. High-quality hand-made giclee (digital ink-jet) prints are also available in a variety of sizes and papers. Please contact Michael Burr directly at [email protected]