A photo of Trang Tien Street in 1953, when Hanoi was under the French domination. Photo courtesy of Doan Bac.
Architect Doan Bac began collecting old pictures of Hanoi while making modifications to his home. He has never been much of a photographer, and this was his first foray into photo collecting.
He was just looking for building ideas.
He soon discovered that most of the pictures had been categorized in French; Bac only spoke English.
The young man turned to his father, a history teacher and French-speaker named Doan Thinh. Soon the project became about much more than Bac's house. Over a two-year period, Bac scoured the Internet for antique photos of the capital city.
Together, the pair amassed a trove of more than 3,000 pictures taken between 1830 and 1954. Some were found in unlikely chat rooms and message boards. Others were collected from neighbors. Some were sent in from friends living in the US, France, and UK.
In honor of the upcoming Thang Long anniversary - and as a gift to his father - Bac will present 1,820 of the images in an exhibition entitled Ky uc Ha Noi xua (Old memories of Hanoi) in Ho Chi Minh City in late August and in Hanoi during the first two weeks of September.
A global effort
In a recent interview with Thanh Nien, the architect recalled how more than 40 photos of Hanoi's old quarter, West Lake, and pristine royal citadel, were donated to him by a tour guide named Le Thanh Hai
After two years collecting photos of Hanoi, young architect Doan Bac (R) will present a photo exhibition entitled Ky uc Ha Noi xua (Old memories of Hanoi) in August as a gift to his father Doan Thinh (L)
Hai had received the pictures from an 80-year-old French tourist who had discovered the images among his grandfather's personal effects. The old man travelled thousands of miles to compare the Hanoi his grandfather had experienced to the images he held in his hand. Satisfied with his experience, he handed the photos to Hai, who generously passed them on to Bac.
Bac said that three quarters of the collection were captured and preserved by foreign journalists, French soldiers and Vo An Ninh, the giant of Vietnamese photography, who passed away last year.
Most of the photos had been kept in France as family mementos and heirlooms.
According to the Vinaphi Company, the exhibition's sponsor, these photos tell the real stories of Hanoi from 1831, when the city was officially named "Hanoi," to October 10, 1954 when the Vietnamese government officially assumed control from the French colonists.
Representatives from Vinaphi acknowledged that the quality of the photos varies widely since most of them were collected from the Internet. But the company believes that the catalog of pictures remain a valuable resource, despite the inconsistencies.
Bac and his father classified the images into five subsections: an overview of the old Hanoi, Thang Long - the capital city, Hanoi under French domination, people of old Hanoi, and historical epochs. These subjects are subdivided into 24 themes, which include the citadel under the Nguyen Dynasty, transportation, and fashion.
A collection of 80 restaurant and market snapshots offer viewers a unique perspective on life in the bygone days. Thanks to the images, one can marvel at the sight of ambulatory pho concessions (stove, pot, and wide flaring bowls) being humped through the town on narrow shoulders hundreds of years in the past.
A selection of 592 photos lumped under the category "Hanoi under French domination" tell the story of how Western architecture influenced the formation of the city's public works, landscape and transportation (e.g. bicycles, electric cars and motorbikes).
Images of Hanoi's Cathedral begin with its construction in the midst of a vast empty space. As time passes, viewers can witness the slow arrival of a wall followed by planters filled with flowers and trees. The ground floor of the church is swallowed by homes and the once expansive courtyard fills with life.
In the same exhibit, official clothing morphs from imperial garb to western business suits. Horses turn to bicycles and, finally, cars parked in neat rows.
For Bac, the process of the collection entailed a process of endless surprise and discovery.
"I hope the photographer's families will visit the exhibition and write the names of these anonymous photographers on our display booths," Bac said.
The young architect says he happened across an image of Vietnam's renown composer, Pham Duy, standing on the bridge to Turtle Tower in Sword Lake, while on the hunt for an image of the bridge's construction.
He was startled by the late Vo An Ninh's documentary images of the famine of 1945, which claimed more than two million lives.
Bac does not forsee any copyright problems - most of these photos were uploaded from the Internet but the exhibit represents a non-profit undertaking.
After the exhibit closes in September in both Hanoi and HCMC, Bac plans to donate the collection to the Hanoi Museum.
Two vendors with their ambulatory pho concessions hundreds of years in the past