Emma Chapman, author of The Last Photograph, on the research trip that inspired her latest novel and led to her setting up a charity, Vietnam Volunteer Teachers, to bring native English speakers to remote areas of the country.
When I first visited Vietnam with the idea of setting a book there in 2012, I had never been to Asia. On our first trip, my husband and I did a whistle stop tour of the country as I tried to gather inspiration.
Even as we looked out of the plane window on our way into Saigon, I was overwhelmed. Everything about this place was so far from my comfort zone, and I was unsure whether I would be able to write this book. It’s similar to the way Rook feels when he arrives there to cover the war in The Last Photograph.
It was when we reached the remote Central Highland region of the country, off the tourist trail, that I felt I’d found somewhere that might resemble the Vietnam of the 1960s, of the wartime. In fact, much of the most intense fighting of the war had taken place in this difficult terrain, and we hired a tour guide to show us the sights.
He took us to the locations of some of the fiercest battles, and showed us the remains of airstrips used by the Americans, where we could still find bits of ammunition exactly fifty years since the war began.
We returned to the town of Kon Tum, on the edge of the Dak Bla River, and surrounded by mountains. Our tour guide, from Highland Eco Tours took us back to his brother’s house for some tea.
His brother works as an English teacher at a school he has built at his house. The school only teaches English, allowing students of the public schools to supplement their learning.
He showed us around his school room, and while we were there, I asked him when was the last time a native English speaker had come to this area to help teach. He laughed, explaining that they hadn’t had native speakers teaching here for twenty years. As a result, he told me, the Vietnamese people in the area struggle with pronunciation of simple words.
When we returned home, I thought a great deal about what he had told me. He was a man with great integrity who was well regarded in the community. He had been in Kon Tum and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) during the war. He had lived through it. A few weeks after I got home, I emailed him and asked him if he would like me to come and help in his school. In return, he could tell me stories about the war and Vietnamese culture.
Two months later, my friend Sophie and I returned to the Central Highlands. Every day, we helped at the school, and in our free time, our new friends would take us out into the countryside and show us their country.
Initially, I was nervous about asking about the war – it was such a hugely devastating event in the history of Vietnam, particularly in the South. Luckily, with Sophie by my side, the questions came, and I was amazed how open people were about it. I’m not sure whether that’s due to something honest in the Vietnamese nature, or whether perhaps it is easy to discuss difficult issues in a language that isn’t your own.
The war wasn’t the only thing I was able to learn about. Being in the country for three months, amongst the people, was an incredible way to learn about Vietnamese life. At all times, I felt incredibly lucky to have found a way in to this amazing, vibrant place: to have people to explain and show me aspects of their culture.
We visited minority villages, sang with guitars on the river bank, drank endless coffee, ate delicious local food, and were totally immersed in the lives of these people who welcomed us with opened arms.
I was able to imagine scenes for my new book, and to get a real sense of the setting. When Rook first arrives in Vietnam in The Last Photograph, he is in the same position I was when I arrived there myself. When he is trying, desperately, to get to grips with the country so that he might do justice to it in his photographs, those moments reflect my own feelings.
'Rook looked through the viewfinder, the blood rushing in his ears. He wanted to do justice to it all: the sounds of the cicadas from the paddy fields; the dense, maddening heat' – The Last Photograph
I will always be so glad I sent that tentative email asking if the English teacher would like me to return. Not only was I able to understand things about the resilient people of Vietnam and their country that I would never have gleaned from books, I learned things about myself.
My trip to Vietnam became more than a research trip: it taught me so much about a different culture at a time in my life when I had never been exposed to that, it opened me up in ways I never could have predicted. I ate things I’m still surprised at, including parrot, frog, and various animal brains. It helped me harness the beginnings of the novel that became The Last Photograph, but it also gave me a new perspective and friends I now call my second family.
Emma in Ao Dai – Traditional Vietnamese Dress – with the family.
Leaving the country was bittersweet. I knew it would be some time before I returned, but more than that, I didn’t want a further twenty years to go by before another native English speaker visited.
Therefore, when I arrived home, I set up Vietnam Volunteer Teachers to allow others to have the same amazing experience I had there.
We’ve had a steady stream of volunteers, all of whom report life-changing experiences. If you’d like to get involved or are visiting the country and want to pop in, you can find out more at www.vietnamvolunteerteachers.com.
Emma Chapman's The Last Photograph is out now.
Rook Henderson is an award-winning photographer, still carrying the hidden scars of war. Now, suddenly, he is also a widower. Leaving his son Ralph to pick up the pieces, Rook flies to Vietnam for the first time in fifty years, escaping to the landscape of a place he once knew so well.
But when Ralph follows him out there Rook is forced to unwind his past and to ask himself what price he has paid for a life behind the lens.
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