Silk Robes and Cell Phones

Three decades after Frances FitzGerald won a Pulitzer Prize for Fire in the Lake, her classic work on Vietnam, she returned with photojournalist Mary Cross

Despite the extreme poverty of the Black Thai tribe, the clothing of members (like this vegetable seller in Dien Bien Phu) is often adorned with silver clasps. Mary Cross
In the funeral procession the writer witnessed, women carry a 30-foot scroll. Covered with Buddhist scripture, it symbolically eases the passage of the dead into the afterlife; the women's unlit straw torches represent illumination for that journey. Vietnam's revival of interest in Buddhism closely followed the country's economic restructuring. Mary Cross
A broom maker plies her craft at her home in the village of Phuong Trung, outside Hanoi. Like other villages in northern Vietnam, Phuong Trung is known for a particular handicraft—in this case, brooms and conical hats. Newspapers on the shutters help protect the house from cold, testament to the country's wide range of temperatures as well as its continuing poverty. Mary Cross
In Hanoi's old quarter, Bao Nguyen painstakingly copies photographs by hand—and not just those of Hollywood stars of yore, although these are clearly popular. Small shops of artisans and tradespeople crowd this section of Hanoi, also known as the 36 Streets. Mary Cross
Ao dais make striking uniforms for four university students heading home after classes. Long gloves and hats provide welcome protection from the sun in a land where a suntan is not considered fashionable; masks serve as barriers to dust and exhaust. Mary Cross
Ten days before her nuptials, Vu Thu Hien tries on a wedding dress in Hanoi. Though ruffles like these in Thanh Nhan's shop are the current rage in Vietnam, tradition is never far away. The glass case on the right contains red lacquer wedding boxes, into which tea, rice wine and sweet cakes are customarily placed, to be shared by the bride's and groom's families during the wedding ceremony. Mary Cross

FitzGerald conjures up an intimate portrait of Vietnam with images as vivid as those from Cross' camera. Here, she describes the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam: "In the spring, when the rice is only half-grown, you can make out the small dikes that divide the paddies into a pale-green patchwork; the water shines through the rice like shards of a mirror in the sun. From dawn to dusk there are figures in the landscape: women up to their knees in water pulling weeds; a farmer netting small fish or crabs; a boy tending his buffalo; men and women moving water from one paddy to another with a rhythmic dip and swing of straw baskets."

Vietnam has endured French conquest, two wars and a ruthless communist restructuring and yet has retained its cultural underpinnings. Now that the communist government is loosening its policies, ancient village rituals and alliances are returning to the fore. Many village dinhs (their version of a New England meetinghouse) and Buddhist temples are being restored and once again are becoming the center of village life. Villages have taken up their traditional crafts: blue-and-white pottery in Bat Trang, nom-leaf coverings for conical hats in Chuong in Ha Tay province. Other villages, such as DongKy, have expanded on traditional crafts to reach international markets.

A return to private enterprise and family farming has invigorated the economy, and people have extra money to spend on family ceremonies, village festivals and pilgrimages to holy sites. The Vietnamese are gracefully incorporating new ideas and ancient practices to forge a culture that will take them into the 21st century and beyond.

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