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Culture Vulture (Sept. 012 2012)

Update: September, 12/2012 - 09:30

French researcher Olivier Tessier, who holds a doctorate in anthropology and is a member of the Ha Noi-based Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO) (French school of Asian studies), was granted the "Bui Xuan Phai – Love for Ha Noi" award early this month for his research on Ha Noi's Ancient Citadel. The prize recognised the several years Tessier has spent collecting precious photos and documents on the citadel and organising exhibitions and conferences honouring the values of the old capital.

Olivier Tessier talks with Culture Vulture about the prize and his work.

Were you surprised to get the prize?

It was a great honour for me to get the prize. I'm very grateful to the Bui Xuan Phai Fund. It's an honour not only for my work, but also for the work that the EFEO has done for 20 years.

You have lived in Ha Noi for 15 years. When did you begin to love Ha Noi?

I fell in love with Ha Noi when I first arrived in 1993 as a tourist. At that moment, I looked at the city with the curious eyes of a tourist who is fascinated with the incessant activity of the Old Quarter: 36 streets of old French houses, filled with a neverending traffic jam of bicycles. I still remember seeing the paintings by Bui Xuan Phai that show the passion the painter felt for the old Ha Noi.

In 2006, when I began to work at the EFEO as a scientific member, my vision of the capital changed. I was responsible for a co-operative project between the EFEO and the Viet Nam's Archeology Institute, focusing on the Thang Long Imperial Citadel. I am interested in the history of the citadel of the 19th century, as well as in the evolution of the city during the colonial period. My work allowed me to get to know the capital better and appreciate it more. If one can love a city like one loves a woman, I would say that I was seduced by the charm of Ha Noi.

Among the many precious and rare photos of Ha Noi that you found, there was a photo of a very old map of the capital dating back to the early 19th century. Could you tell us more about it?

At the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient in Paris, I was lucky to find a photo of a map of the Thang Long Citadel dating back to before 1831. (The year 1831 marked the administrative reform of King Minh Mang, when the city changed its name from Thang Long to Ha Noi).

Before that, the oldest map of the citadel that Viet Nam owned dated back to only 1831.

As you know, in 1802, King Gia Long built a grandiose citadel in Ha Noi in the Vauban French style. We can see this style in many citadels in various regions of Viet Nam including Son Tay and Hue. The citadel was built with the help of French military engineers even before the invasion of French forces in Viet Nam in 1885.

It's great. The map is very precise and includes many details like the names of the buildings, the distances between different edifices inside the citadel and even captions indicating the function of each area and building. From this precise map that shows clearly the organisation inside the citadel, we can probably reconstruct a complete map.

It's amazing to see that Ha Noi in the early 19th century was all countryside. I also saw on the map the image of Vietnamese women doing some small business.

Regarding the daily life of Vietnamese people in colonial times, there is a book by Frenchman Henri Oger entitled Techniques du Peuple Annamite (Mechanics and Crafts of the Annamites). You contributed a lot to republishing the book. Could you tell us more about the work?

We co-operated with HCM City General Science Library, which kept an original version of the book, to reprint it in three languages – English, French and Vietnamese – in both print and electronic forms in 2009. We had a lot of work to do for this second edition of the book.

With his book, Henri Oger left the Vietnamese people an inestimable treasure. The book shows the industries, customs and daily activities of the Vietnamese people, then called An Nam people or Annamites, through a collection of some 4,200 paintings and sketches printed on do (poonah) paper. It is considered one of the first documents on Vietnamese industrial culture in the early 20th century.

Ha Noi has changed a lot since those old days. What do you think of Ha Noi today?

Ha Noi has become very modern with a lot of cars and motorbikes on the roads. I still keep in my mind the image of Ha Noi in 1993 when I first came here, with a lot of bicycles. Unfortunately there have been some negative changes in Ha Noi, which makes me a bit sad. But I can still safely say that I love Ha Noi. — VNS

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