Century-old Hanoi photos on show

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The images of Hanoi a century ago captured by late French photographer Leon Busy are on display at an exhibition in the capital.

Two France-based Vietnamese studies experts, historian Emmanuel Poisson and ethnologist Dinh Trong Hieu, put it up after collecting 60 of Busy's photos of Hanoi and its surrounds shot in 1914 and 1915 from the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris, according to The Thao & Van Hoa news website.

Historian Duong Trung Quoc said the photos are "invaluable documents of a piece of memory that has been lost in time."

He said though sites can be preserved to some extent, actual day-to-day scenes, customs, the thinking, habits, and family traditions "have changed so much after 100 years."

French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn, who the museum is named after, in 1909 initiated a project called the Archives of the Planet, which collected 72,000 color photos and 183,000 meters of film in 22 years until he went bankrupt and later died in poverty.

Busy, then a lieutenant in the army, was assigned the job in Vietnam.

He took some 1,700 photos of northern Vietnam by 1920.

Architect Doan Bac, a collector of old Hanoi photos, said the photos were taken just a few decades after Vietnam had been colonized, and so the setting was still Asian with little westernization unlike years later.

Busy's photos capture the largest spaces possible but always maintain a focus, usually an element of daily activity, the environment, or religious beliefs.

Prof Phan Huy Le, chairman of Vietnam Association of Historical Sciences, said many objects in the photos are now gone due to natural disasters, war, time, and also carelessness and "narrow-mindedness at a certain point of time."

One example, he said, is the tomb site of Hoang Cao Khai, a historian, writer, and viceroy of northern Vietnam under French colonial rule and a reviled figure for collaborating with the French.

His tomb was built in 1893 with sophisticated Vietnamese architecture, but has been left uncared for and is almost in ruins. 

He said the photos show how Vietnamese culture evolved after a century of turmoil.

The photos are on show at the Exhibition House, 45 Trang Tien Street until January 5.

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