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Briton depicts Ha Noi through the ages

Update: September, 02/2013 - 05:47

The city that was: A photo taken of Ha Noi's Old Quarter, where cyclos and bicycles were a popular means of transport. — VNS Photos courtesy of John Ramsden

by Ha Nguyen

Young reporter Pham My and his friends were very excited to enjoy John Ramsden's photos of Ha Noi, depicting more than 30 years including the country's post-war period.

Ramsden was a deputy head of the British diplomatic mission in Viet Nam in 1980-83. He spent much of that time discovering Ha Noi through his more than 1,800 photos.

Last month, he returned to the capital city after more than three decades, meeting and talking with Hanoians, particularly young ones, about the city and its people, at the Goethe Institute.

"Ramsden showed us many photos and told a story about each photo he had taken. What impressed me most were his photos of a simple and ugly bicycle carrying bulky goods, or people lining up their buckets to wait for their turn to get running water to bring home," My said, adding that although the photos were taken before he was born, he still found Ramsden's photos very exciting.

Ramsden said during that time Ha Noi was short of safe drinking water, but Hanoians were so modest and united. "I didn't see them elbowing each other but instead patiently waiting their turn."

He recalled a story about the photo Bicycle. "Living in Ha Noi for three years, I saw how the Vietnamese used these kinds of bicycles that were brought to the country by the French. They used them to overcome roads full of obstacles or difficult to access in order to carry goods to their army to fight against the French and achieve victory at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. After that, the Vietnamese also used these bicycles to overcome the Truong Son Range to deliver much-needed items to their army in the south to fight against the American troops, and during peace time, Hanoians used them as a means to earn a living."

My said he was very impressed with Ramsden's photos showing the quiet and peaceful streets and roads of old Ha Noi.

Animal instincts: A boy riding his buffalo on the outskirts of Ha Noi.

Asked whether he knew or ever came into contact with the famous Vietnamese painter Bui Xuan Phai, Ramsden said: "I was taken to visit Phai at his studio and was bowled over by what I found: wonderful paintings that really captured the poetry of Ha Noi's old quarter. I was fascinated by his studio, a single room that was also the family home. Phai was a modest, warm-hearted man, always friendly, even when interrupted at work. But you could see at a glance that he was also a man of great substance, a brilliant artist who had overcome many difficulties to create a unique and splendid body of work.

"Then I visited quite often. Phai used to show his paintings and drawings. I used to bring him paint from Bangkok as well as things for the family that were unavailable in Ha Noi at that time.

"After I left Ha Noi, I lost touch with Phai - communication in those days was very difficult. But wherever we moved, I always had his portrait in our home along with two small paintings by him that I greatly treasure. It was wonderful to revisit Phai's studio again after thirty years and see his family again," he said.

Asked how he kept his photos and what happened to them, Ramsden said his photos were developed in Bangkok.

" I always felt that some of the very special atmosphere of Ha Noi in those days had found its way into the pictures. I had a few printed when I got back to London so I could show them to friends. I had one or two on the walls at home. But most of the negatives have never been printed.

"In 2005, while I was working in Croatia, I showed my prints to the country's leading photographer who liked them and arranged for a selection to be published in a magazine. Encouraged by this, I had a small exhibition at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, England, in 2010, to mark Ha Noi's 1,000 year celebration.

"My career took me away from Asia and I never had the chance to show my photos to a Vietnamese audience. I wanted to meet people who had lived through the period and to hear what it was like for them - you must remember that when I was in Ha Noi direct contact with foreigners was very difficult and we had little chance to talk to people.

"Eventually, I was introduced to Vietpro, a group of 600 young Vietnamese professionals working in London; and KREU, a similar group of architects, designers and others working in creative industries. They responded very positively, and together we put on an exhibition in London in May. I greatly enjoy working with such talented and enthusiastic partners and watching as our project takes on a life of its own."

When asked how he was storing and looking after his 1,800 photos and negatives, and if any of his collection was damaged or ageing, Ramsden said "The negatives are stored at home in folders. After all this time, some of them have small scratches, but I have now scanned the whole archive and any problems with dust can be dealt with digitally."

In bloom: The flower market held before Tet (Lunar New Year).

Ramsden said he plans to organise an exhibition in October at 29 Hang Bai Street. "It would last for just under two weeks. We hope that many Hanoians will visit the show and will be publicising it in advance.

"We are planning to show between 100-120 photographs, mainly of Ha Noi. We will have a slide show, projecting other photos in large format and will try to recreate the atmosphere of the time. The design is in the hands of my partners at KREU."

"I am grateful to all those who have supported the project, especially our sponsors Viet Nam Airlines and the Thien Minh Group. This year is the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Viet Nam and the UK, and the authorities in both countries have given us their very welcome support," he said.

Asked about Ha Noi after 30 years, he said, "There have been huge changes. It is astonishing that so much has been achieved in such a short time.

"I feel the changes are overwhelmingly positive. It is great to see the people of Ha Noi leading a much more prosperous and normal life. It is great that Ha Noi is no longer cut off from the wider world but instead people come from all over the world, attracted by the city's rich cultural life and its economic buzz.

"Of course, Ha Noi is no longer a quiet place! When I was there, almost no one had a motor-bike. There were no private cars. The old quarter had a melancholy beauty and a poetry that you see captured in Phai's paintings. The villages round the West Lake were peaceful, semi-rural retreats. The tree tops were the sky line - there was not a tall building in sight around the lake.

Local landmark: Women in front of the Ngoc Son Temple on the Sword Lake, the heart of the capital city.

"Ha Noi today seems to me to have found a good balance, preserving much of what makes it so special and attractive, but offering its people a far better life. Cities are meant to be energetic, creative places and today's Ha Noi is certainly that, but the beauty is still there. There are many magnificent buildings, like Hai Ba Trung Temple or Voi Phuc Pagoda, that are off the main tourist trail.

"Beyond the main streets and well-known sights, you also find great charm in the residential quarters, the courtyards teeming with life, the markets, the street restaurants."

Asked what he thinks about modern Ha Noi artists and their works, Ramsden said, "I had the great pleasure of meeting Bui Thanh Phuong, Phai's son, who is himself a very fine artist. His portraits, for example, are wonderfully expressive works. I think Ha Noi is a city where artists can feel at home, and I very much hope to have more time on my next visit to meet more of today's artists and see their work.

"Phai has left some reflections about art, collected in a magnificent book by Phuong. He encouraged artists to be themselves; to learn from older masters, but not to imitate them; to work ceaselessly until they had found something to say and the means to say it. In this sense, Phai will certainly have other worthy followers. But his work is unique. He has captured for ever something about the poetry of Ha Noi. However the city may change, "Phai's Streets" will still exert their magic on future generations."

Asked about his future plans for the collection of Ha Noi negatives, Ramsden said: "I would like to exhibit the photos elsewhere. Maybe in France or the US. Maybe in HCM City. It depends if there is enough interest. I would like to make a book. I want to make the whole archive available online, as a resource for scholars of the period. But I am taking all this one step at a time. For now, I am working hard on the exhibition in Ha Noi and much looking forward to it."

Lifting spirits: Women carry baskets of goods by their shoulder poles on their way to the market.

Ramsden's photos were nominated for this year's Bui Xuan Phai Prize, which was established by Phai's family and the The thao-Van hoa (Sports&Culture) newspaper in 2008.

Truong Le Kim Hoa, editor-in-chief of The thao-Van hoa newspaper and chief of the Organising Board, said: "When viewing Ramsden's photos of Ha Noi during its difficult time 30 years ago, I felt moved because through them I saw both a familiar and strange love of Ha Noi in his work."

Apart from The thao-Van hoa's works, other nominees at this year's award ceremony, titled Love for Ha Noi, include Nguyen Ngoc Dan's exhibition Pho and Made in Ha Noi, an exhibition by 13 young painters held by Mai Gallery. — VNS

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