Photography exhibition provides rare look into Hanoi’s past

Tuesday, 2016-04-12 16:06:22
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A shot taken of local people going about their daily lives
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“You could ride your bicycle from north to south, or east to west of the city in only 15 minutes” Mr Muoi told me as he described the Hanoi he used to live in as a boy. I found it hard to believe his words as I stood there pondering the Hanoi of 30 years ago, these days in Hanoi it can take 10 minutes just to drive down my local main street, Kham Thien. The Hanoi of the past sure was different, it seemed to have a certain innocence and untainted beauty about it, in days when Hanoians hadn’t yet purchased the first Honda Dream’s which would in future years fill the city streets beyond recognition. Standing there, looking at the pictures of the city in the past, at first I couldn’t help but feel little connection with the Hanoi of today.

Despite the poor weather conditions on Friday evening, that didn’t stop a large crowd of Vietnamese, French and other foreign guests from gathering at L’Espace in downtown Hanoi. The occasion was the opening of Années 80 – a photography exhibition showcasing images taken by Frenchman Michel Blanchard during the 1980’s in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and surrounding areas. In the presence of several notable guests such as Michel Blanchard and Duong Trung Quoc, the exhibition was a great success drawing a large number of guests to the venue to see Hanoi in simpler times - in the days when Hanoi’s population barely reached one million. Since then Hanoi has developed into a very different city while on the road to international integration and in striving for a more modern and more prosperous nation.

Michel Blanchard, a French journalist, was based in Hanoi from 1981 to 1983 as Bureau Chief of AFP. At this time when few foreigners were present in Vietnam, Mr Blanchard was able to capture what few outsiders saw or experienced, and what Vietnamese at that time possibly didn’t have the means to capture. At that time, only a decade after the American war and with a closed market, Vietnam was struggling with poverty and the after effects of war. Few Vietnamese had the luxury of owning high-tech camera equipment and so had no means of capturing pictures of their family or of Hanoi for later generations to see. Chatting at the exhibition with Aaron, an American expat who has lived in Hanoi for 11 years, he noted “A lot of my [Vietnamese] friends here don’t have photos from when they were kids because they didn’t ever have a camera, I guess because they couldn’t afford one… so it’s interesting to see so many young people here looking at photos of Hanoi from the 80’s during a time when people probably didn’t have a chance to document what it [Hanoi city] looked like”. As I wandered around admiring the photos of days past in Hanoi it occurred to me that Mr Blanchard did much more than just snap a few shots of this peaceful city and its inhabitants, he documented history for the following generations and captured Hanoi at a special time in its history.

As a foreigner living in Hanoi it is often difficult to understand the city’s diverse past which spans just over 1000 years. Therefore, as someone interested in Vietnamese history and culture, this event was marked high-up on my calendar as I always wish to learn more about this fascinating city. The exhibition of Blanchard’s photographs taken in the 80’s provided a rare chance to look into Hanoi’s past and understand more about how present-day Hanoi came to be. These days while zooming around the streets of Hanoi on my Honda Wave, I am often distracted by the mish-mash of architectural styles, from Soviet, to French, to modern-Asian, to name a few. Behind the more modern facades one can still see the beauty of old French inspired buildings which have stood the test of time, countless war and conflicts, as well as Hanoi’s often destructive weather (it is mid-April now and everyone seems to already be seeing the effects of mouldy May). Blanchard’s photographs explore the beautiful architecture of Hanoi’s old quarter, the countless lakes scattered around the city, the various forms of transport and the daily life activities of the city’s people. But most notably to me, the photos depicted Hanoi in a time when the streets were almost empty and when people were poor but happy.

However, the photographs displayed at the exhibition are much more than just a few snaps of Hanoi’s residents and streets in the 80’s, as Ms Ngoc Ha (32, Vietnamese) explained “Vietnamese people love French people and French culture, and it is the same also with the French, they have always loved Vietnam and find this country very charming, these photos are not just images but also represent the feelings of French people in regards to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, and that is beautiful”. These words said by an old teacher of mine resonated in my mind as I walked around the exhibition, the special relationship and sentiment between the French and the Vietnamese began to make more sense to me, something that I always struggled to understand when learning about the French colonisation of Vietnam in history class.

It was amazing to see so many different people from diverse backgrounds walking around and enjoying the exhibition, from young to old, foreign to Vietnamese, everyone seemed delighted at the chance to view the historical photographs. Talking with a father and son from Hanoi, Mr Muoi (59, Vietnamese) who brought his son along to the exhibition to see the city he grew up in, “All of the pictures I can see here are very beautiful, many pictures here remind me of when I was a young boy going around the streets of Hanoi”. For many guests coming from older generations, the pictures represented a simpler time when there were no motorbikes, cars or incessant beeping noises that now colour the city’s streets atmosphere. “Looking at these photos of Hanoi from 30 years ago it’s totally different” Ha (23, Vietnamese) the son of Mr Muoi exclaimed.

As well as providing a glimpse into the cities past, Blanchard’s photos also portrays the strong character and enduring spirit of Vietnamese people who were poor, yet happy. As Lily (23, Vietnamese) noted “Looking at these pictures I can imagine my parents living in that world… my parents often tell me about how they were poor and struggled for a better life, but I could never imagine that until I saw these pictures... although, what was most surprising to me was that the people in those pictures all look so happy”. The exhibition was indeed, a rare chance for young Vietnamese to understand more about their parent’s generation and the struggles they went through to build a better life for their families. Listening and taking with many guests present at the exhibition, I wondered whether the Hanoi of 2016 was in fact a better place to live in, in comparison to the Hanoi of 1983. People have more now, however do they still have the same level of happiness? When stuck in traffic on the overly-crowded and polluted streets of Hanoi today, one often finds themselves daydreaming of living in a more peaceful and cleaner environment. Sure, Hanoi has developed and brought about a more prosperous life for the following generations, but at what price?

Taken at a time before the economic boom in Vietnam and before the “Doi Moi’ policy transformed the nation of Vietnam into a prosperous, civilised society, Blanchard’s photographs document an important time in Vietnam’s history, allowing elder generations to reminisce and remember, and the younger generations to understand more about the Hanoi their parents and grandparents grew-up in. The Années 80 photography exhibition is indeed worth checking out. Open to visitors until April 30 at Institut Français de Hanoi – L’Espace (24 Trang Tien, Hanoi).

Outside the exhibition at Institut Français de Hanoi – L’Espace on Friday evening.

Renowned historian and National Assembly member Duong Trung Quoc being interviewed at the event.

The exhibition attracted a large number of people.

Duong Trung Quoc (far left), Michel Blanchard (second from right) and distinguished French guests speak about the photographs and motivation for hosting the event.

Mr Blanchard being interviewed by the Vietnamese press.

The photography exhibition allowed young Vietnamese to gain an insight into Hanoi during the 1980’s.

Vietnam in the 1980’s by Michel Blanchard.

The photography exhibition attracted many Vietnamese guests as well as many foreign visitors and expatriates from France and other nations.

Intersection of Tran Hung Dao and Ba Trieu Street, Hanoi.

Duong Thanh Street (1984).

By Chris Dunn