He chose to do it not with graphic pictures of the violence, but by capturing normal, daily life that highlighted what was being destroyed.
Since October this year, the 83-year-old German photographer has been fielding numerous calls and messages from Vietnam, unable to attend an ongoing exhibition featuring 130 photos he’d taken in Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
“I am sad that I cannot be in Hanoi this time because of the pandemic, but the city is always in my heart,” he told VnExpress International from Berlin, Germany.
Billhardt has won worldwide recognition for his work in the late sixties and early seventies when the Vietnam War was at its peak. His photographs of daily life amidst the war were powerfully poignant.
Thomas Billhardt at an exhibition. Photo courtesy of Thomas Billhardt.
Billhardt loved photography as a child, being raised by a photographer mother. He graduated from the University of Graphics and Book Design in Leipzig in 1963. When he made the first of his 12 trips to Hanoi four years later, he never imagined that it would give birth to an association lasting more than five decades.
He first came to the capital city with a group of moviemakers from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1967 to film a documentary about American soldiers captured in Hanoi amidst the infamous Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing blitz unleashed by the U.S. against the North of Vietnam.
He remembers that at the Metropole, the fanciest hotel in town, “there were more mouses than guests and worms in the hotel’s water.”
Seeing the devastation of the war, the bomb craters, destroyed buildings, and the sounds of air raids and sirens calling for people to take cover, he was moved to tell the story of Hanoi and its people with a “photo chronicle.”
“I was angry on seeing the Americans destroy Hanoi… I wanted to show the world the photos I took in Vietnam so they would know exactly what was going on. Then they would understand and love Vietnam, just like me.”
He decided that his wartime photography would focus on people going about their daily lives, busy working and getting ready to fight at the same time.
A tram in 1975. The tram was a popular form of public transportation for Hanoians. Photo courtesy of Thomas Billhardt.
The photographs of crowds cycling under pouring rain, the happy faces of barefoot children attending an outdoor painting class, a stadium filled with people cheering and laughing as they watched a football match and many such scenes of love and care powerfully contrasted and resisted the extreme violence of war.
“I felt a connection with Vietnamese people when looking into their eyes as they suffered from the raging war,” Billhardt recalled, adding the bravery of Vietnamese was a lesson for him.
“Thomas’s photos hold up a mirror to the world while holding out hope at the same time. They tell of the world’s social inequalities, of poverty, of suffering, of war, but also of the life and laughter of the people who live in it,” said Wilfried Eckstein, director of the Goethe Institute in Hanoi.
“My love for Vietnam is not about houses or roads, it is about Vietnamese people,” said Billhardt who struck up friendship with many of his subjects.
This love prompted him to return in 1999, looking for those portrayed in his photographs and check out their post war lives. He organized an open exhibition at the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square, a busy place in Hoan Kiem district that frequently hosts various festivities.
“I wanted to organize a photo exhibition in the heart of Hanoi to be able to observe, remember and try to find people,” he said.
His main motivation was to search for Hong Ly, a young female soldier he had photographed in 1968 while she worked with a brigade to repair destroyed bridges in the central province of Quang Binh.
“When I asked her what she wanted, she told me she yearned for the war to be over, so she could return to Hanoi, meet her family, go to her favorite places and drink a glass of iced lemonade.”
The search for Hong Ly led to encounters with other people in his photos, or their families.
The most moving of these encounters was with the family of a very young boy taken in October 1972.
At that time, Billhardt was staying in a hotel in central Hanoi when a rocket exploded, killing a lot of local people, including the young boy.
When his family took his body to the hospital, Billhardt followed them and took a photo of the grandmother weeping over her grandson.
“I cried while taking this photo. I told her that her boy would not die in vain, I would publicize it worldwide so people will know exactly what the war was doing in Vietnam.”
A grandmother mourns her grandson in Hanoi, October, 1972. Photo courtesy of Thomas Billhardt.
Billhardt kept his promise and got the photo published by a famous German magazine in 1974. A Vietnamese living in Germany saw it and sent the photo to the boy’s family in Hanoi who had no other photograph of the little one.
Twenty-seven years after the photo was taken, Billhardt found the boy’s father and visited his house in the Old Quarter, and saw his photograph there.
He also found Hong Ly, who was married to a Vietnamese man, and made a documentary on his search for her.
‘Watching the wrong movie’
Billhardt said he yearned to return to Vietnam when the Covid-19 crisis was over.
He said he was excited to see how the country had developed in recent decades.
“I thought I was watching the wrong movie or stumbled into a different world because of the development in Hanoi,” Billhardt said, recalling his first return trip to Vietnam in 1999 after 24 years.
Looking at the colorful street lights, fast food restaurants and bustling roads in Hanoi, he wondered how a country could overcome the past and develop so quickly.
“The only thing that makes me feel bad is that Hanoi’s Old Quarter is not as beautiful as it used to be.”
In 2019, Billhardt started organizing a tour to Vietnam to visit places that he had been to during the war.
But the number of people registering for the tours was so high that he has to plan more trips in the future to meet the demand.
“In Germany, if you talk about Vietnam, you talk about Thomas Billhardt,” said Tran Ngoc Quyen, former Vietnamese Counsel General in Germany.
Even at his age Billhardt plans to continue taking more photos of a peaceful Vietnam to show the world how friendly, hard-working and beautiful Vietnamese people are.
“They are all heroes, those living and those who died in the war, those who have inherited the paths that the older generations have given them to move this country forward.”