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In 1970, Cuong, was invited to join the American news wire service United Press International as a freelance photographer. He jumped at the chance:

weary vietnamese, over 100,000 strong, flee south towards saigon
Weary Vietnamese, over 100,000 strong, flee south towards Saigon.

Covering the war:

I traveled to almost every battlefield in the country. I wanted to use my camera to speak out, to tell the world that my country had suffered too much.

Cuong covered the “Convoy of Tears,” the stampede of refugees and South Vietnamese army deserters down Highway One, driven from their homes in the final weeks of the war. His heartbreaking photos of war’s impact on ordinary Vietnamese were published all over the world.

On April 30, 1975 brought Cuong the scoop of a lifetime. His boss at UPI told him to head to the city limits to cover the advancing Northern troops and their impending victory.

cuong rode on one of the first nva tanks entering the city
Cuong rode on one of the first NVA tanks entering the city.

First photographer into the city:

When I saw the first tanks of the Liberation Army rolling towards the city center, I left my car, grabbed my camera and got on the first tank. The soldiers were very happy , and they welcomed me as a journalist. They asked me to show them the way to Independence Palace because they didn’t know the way.

Cuong rode with the victorious North Vietnamese Army soldiers all the way to the palace – where he took historic pictures of the surrender of South Vietnam. In the chaotic final days of the way, Cuong had to make the biggest decision of his life: to stay in Vietnam or to flee to America.

over 350,000 vietnamese would be sent to re-educaion camps

Over 350,000 Vietnamese would be sent to re-educaion camps.
photo by: Marc Riboud

On deciding to stay or flee:

On April 30, 1975 leaving Vietnam would have been very easy for me. A helicopter landed on the roof of my house. My family left. My friends left. I decided to stay because this is my fatherland, and these are my people. I thought peace would now last forever in my country. We would stand shoulder to shoulder to rebuild the country and a permanent peace.

His optimism would prove tragically naïve. In May, the new communist government began calling in all "collaborators" who had worked for the Americans of the South Vietnamese regime. Cuong had seen his work for UPI as a way to document the suffering and strength of his people, not as a form of collusion with the enemy. The new government didn't agree. Afraid of being locked away in a re-education camp - or worse - Cuong became a fugitive from the new government.

south vietmamese generals sit quietly - like schoolchildren - in a political indoctrination class

South Vietnamese generals sit quietly - like schoolchildren - in a political indoctrination class.
photo by: Marc Riboud

Cuong pays for his decision:

I was on the run for nine years. I ran away to the Mekong Delta, where I bought a small boat and became a fisherman. But nine years is too long for a young man like me to live in sorrow. I decided to come back to Saigon, where I got married in 1983. Seven months after my marriage I was put in jail. I spent seven years in a re-education camp. My son was born not knowing his father’s face. When I returned home he was seven years old.

Cuong spent his years in the camp writing out tedious “self-criticisms,” listening to lectures on Marxist dogma and toiling away at manual labor. He was one of the last prisoners to be released.

today, cuong runs an antique store in hcmc
Today, Cuong runs an antique store in HCMC.

Cuong's hope for Vietnam, today:

I have seen too much war now. I am tired. But after all that has happened, I still love my country. Vietnamese who live overseas have the same feelings. I think if the government really opened the doors, they would give up everything and come back to their country. And we would go to the airport and welcome them. I hope that someday husbands and wives and brothers and sisters and friends can all reside under the same roof again, happily and cheerfully.

Today Cuong lives with his wife and two sons, 18 and 13, in a small home in downtown Saigon. Since his release from re-education camp in 1992, he has tried to embrace the capitalist spirit that drives modern Ho Chi Minh City. Cuong invested in two popular and profitable restaurants, and started collecting antique Vietnamese and Chinese ceramics and bronze. In 2001,he turned his collection, which numbers more than 1000 pieces, into a private museum which is opened to the public. Upstairs in the family's private living quarters, photographs from the war cover every inch of wall space.

You can visit Cuong's museum at 64 Dong Du Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

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