Until a few years ago, living in America was a preposterous dream for Vo An Ninh. Many times during his career of more than a half century, Vo, 87, had endured weeks of solitude in Vietnamese jungles accompanied by his almost equally ancient camera, taking pictures of his country's natural wonders.
But when Vietnam's beloved nature photographer arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Christmas Day, 1991, he promptly fell in love with America and its cities. He lived for more than two years in San Diego, with a daughter he had not seen since 1954 and her extended family, before returning to Hanoi last April.
Vo traveled widely throughout the United States during his stay, delighted by the skyline and cacophony of the modern American city. Las Vegas was his favorite.
"When I arrived in San Diego, I felt like a peasant visiting a city for the first time," he recalled. "But when I saw Las Vegas and compared it to Hanoi, I felt like I had been living in the jungle."
After he was profiled in The Times ("A Renewed Focus," Dec. 27, 1993, View), Vo was deluged with offers from galleries throughout the United States that wanted to sponsor exhibits of his work. An international team of 100 photographers who went to Vietnam this year to chronicle a day in the life of the country for a photography book invited him along.
Vo was flattered by the offers, but declined them all.
He returned to his beloved Vietnam, pressured to go back by family members in Hanoi anxious to see him again and prodded gently along by a government that still regards him as a national hero.
His granddaughter, Christine Pham, said Vo was greeted at the airport by government officials who welcomed him back with bouquets of flowers and provided a motorcade to his house.
"In one of our telephone conversations, my grandfather said he had mixed feelings. He missed Hanoi and was beginning to suffer from boredom in San Diego because he wasn't taking any photos," Pham said. "But he also missed his family in America. I told him, 'Grandfather, you have two homes now.' "
She said the old man cried before boarding the plane at LAX for the flight to Vietnam. But he promised to return in 1995 with negatives and exhibit his photos in Washington. He also said he wants to see Las Vegas again.