I met Nguyen Van Thang in February, in a small city named Hue on the central coast of Vietnam. I was on a photography trip, shooting dozens of rolls of film, using my camera as a way to connect with people I'd never met - though our countries had been bound by the sorrows of war.
Vietnam had been woven into the cultural fabric of my consciousness as I grew up in America in the social tumult that marked the 1960s and 1970s. My images of it were shaped by war and profound human loss; for me, words like "Tet" - as in the massive "Tet Offensive" of the final war years - held only military connotations. It wasn't until I planned this trip that I learned that Tet is actually the Vietnamese people's ancient, joyous celebration of the lunar new year.
I had already spent two weeks in Hanoi, by the time I made my way to Hue one sunny afternoon. I'd been overwhelmed by the human kindness I'd encountered while shooting photographs of perfect strangers in northern Vietnam - a daily sweetness that took form in little gifts of fruit from street vendors, invitations into homes of perfect strangers, courtly greetings from older men in berets and fedoras.
I was humbled by their unrestrained good-will, aware that Americans would not be nearly so gracious when confronted with a former enemy. I was finding the connections I'd been seeking - but nothing prepared me for what I would gain from Nguyen Van Thang that day in Hue.
I hired Thang as my driver to take me down the coast to the small fishing village of Hoi An. His English was good, and he was eager to talk. Once he'd learned I was from the United States, the conversation turned, not surprisingly, to the war that we shared in common - the "American" war, as it's known in Vietnam.
Thang lost his father in the war - a member of the South's army, he'd been shot and killed by the northern Viet Cong. He and his four brothers and sisters were left on their own when his mother, too, died. When I asked how, he answered simply, "Because of the war."
The siblings, he said, had difficulty getting good jobs after the war ended - the country's new Communist government did not look kindly on those Vietnamese who had fought against it.
But things are changing, Thang said; he has a good job as a driver and his wife works hard as a tailor - their goal to do all they can to make sure their two children had every opportunity to get ahead.
"I have no complaints," he said softly. "My life is good."
I was moved by his words - and unsettled at the same time. Because as he spoke of the war, we were driving through countryside I'd never seen before but recognized as the scenery of the Vietnam War. Lush green rice terraces, palm trees, blue lagoons and curving mountains all rolled by - images I'd known through television, and through powerful cinematic reenactments of the war, such as "Platoon" and "Apocalypse Now."
I was trying to take everything in, while caught in a time warp, where the war had both a past and a present for me.
And then Thang asked if I liked rock music, and ticked off some of his favorites, as I nodded my approval - Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, and CCR. The latter momentarily stumped me, until I realized he was using shorthand for Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band whose music was virtually the soundtrack of the war era for a whole generation of Americans.
To my delight and further emotional disorientation, Thang slipped a cassette into the car's tape player - Creedence Clearwater's greatest hits. We cranked it up, my foot tapping on the floorboards, Thang crooning along with the choruses, imitating the twang of John Fogerty's vocals.
One after another, the songs poured out, the antiwar rebelliousness of "Fortunate Son," and the foreboding of "Bad Moon Rising," which perfectly captured the dark mood of the time:
Don't go out tonight
They're bound to take your life
There's a bad moon on the rise.
I was lost in thought, when I heard Thang say, "Everything outside."
I turned to him, not understanding. Thang gestured to the tape player, indicating the music, then put his hand on his heart and lifted it outward. "The soul comes outside," he said.
I nodded. I understood him perfectly. Yes, the guitarist had played so passionately and so purely that the notes he played carried a transcendence, which spoke to Thang and to me as well.
I was startled to think that this player was testifying across time, that the music he had recorded some 30 years ago spoke so powerfully in the present. I thought of Thang, and his difficult life, and how he and I both had a history with this music and the war it was rooted in - and of how that music was forging a bond between us in the present.
We said little else during the ride, lost in Creedence Clearwater. But as we edged down the final mountain pass, a saxophone solo began. Thang pointed at the cassette player. "Bill Clinton," he smiled.
I laughed. I knew I'd never again listen to this music the way I used to; that for me, it would now be as much about the present as the past. Creedence Clearwater had taken on a whole new meaning for me.
So had Vietnam.
*Sara Terry is a Boston-based freelance writer and photographer.