Revisiting Vietnam With Photographer Catherine Karnow

Contributing editor and photographer Catherine Karnow, who has shot for both National Geographic magazine and National Geographic Traveler, shares a wonderful example of how social media can reconnect us.

A few weeks ago the most extraordinary thing happened. I received a message from someone whose mother I had photographed two decades ago. I wondered whether this could really be the same woman.

Twenty years ago, I went to Vietnam to shoot a “personal” story–I wasn’t on assignment for any magazine or client. In 1990, Vietnam was barely open to the rest of the world; the door had been cracked open only very slightly. The country was just starting to emerge from the dark years of austerity, poverty, and communism following the fall of Saigon in 1975, and I was hoping to document that. People welcomed foreigners with an abundance of warmth and curiosity. There were very few visitors at that time; I was usually the only foreigner around.

I was shooting all sorts of subjects, from military training schools to orphanages to the first fashion show at the Hanoi Opera House. I took photos of last of the old fishing junks in Halong Bay and the strange Cao Dai sect near the Cambodian border. The cities were quiet and empty, nothing like how they are today. There were only bicycles in Hanoi, almost no cars or motorcycles.

I spent a few days on the Saigon to Hanoi train. The train linked south and north Vietnam, symbolizing that this was one unified country, not the two parts it had been during and prior to the war.

It was July and unbearably hot and sticky. The train was filthy and there was no respite from the dirt and heat. The food was disgusting.

The train moved so slowly at times that you could have gotten out and walked faster. Thank God I was taking pictures and my intense focus kept me distracted from the misery of the situation. For days, I walked up and down the train, meeting people and photographing them. I was sometimes with my Vietnamese-Australian friend who acted as translator.

Finally on the third day, we approached the mountains in the central part of Vietnam. The train moved even more slowly as it wound around to climb the steep track. I knew it would be a good shot when the train started to come down; you would see the green mountains and the track curving behind. I went up to the front of the train, looking for a way to photograph people at the window and see the rest of the train curving behind. I needed to be ready for when we would descend.

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I came upon a young mother with her children. My translator friend was not with me, so I had to gesture my request for permission to photograph her. She nodded smiling. As the train started to pick up speed as it descended the mountain, we finally felt the first breeze in days. I leaned way out the window to get the right angle, and we were all laughing, feeling the joy of the freefall. Afterwards I gave the children a box of crayons and promised to send photos to the mom.

Somehow I lost her address and was never able to send her any of the photos. One especially exuberant shot became quite a famous image. It is published all the time, and has even been on the Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam

for years. I’ve always wondered what happened to that beautiful woman and her children and wished I could share the success of the photo with her.

A few weeks ago I was profiled in a cover story in one of Vietnam’s biggest magazines. There was a long interview and various photographs of mine published, including the famous train shot. The same day as that article was published, I got a Facebook note from a Rosalyn Vu. Unbelievably, it was the daughter of the woman in the photo, although she was not one of the children pictured. She said she and her mom had seen the photo on the Lonely Planet guide and always wondered how to get in touch with the photographer. I was astonished and delighted to hear from them. Just to be sure it was the same person, I asked Rosalyn to send me a shot of her mother now. Sure enough, it was the same woman, twenty years later. We were overjoyed to reconnect. A few weeks later, a friend was going to Vietnam and agreed to take several 8 x 10 prints of that photograph, as well as other shots from our time on the train together. They were thrilled to get the prints and we are all now in close touch.

Update: Catherine Karnow will be teaching the National Geographic Traveler Photo Seminar, A Passion for Travel: Photos That Tell the Story on two dates this fall. The first is on Sunday, September 25 in Los Angeles and the other is Sunday, November 13 in Tampa. Visit for more information and to register.

Photos: Top photo taken by Vance Jacobs; Bottom photo by Catherine Karnow.