Hà Nội photographer loves his hometown

October, 01/2016 - 09:00

Photographer Nguyễn Hữu Bảo cannot count how many photos of Hà Nội he has taken, because it is always in his heart and his love of the thousand-year-old capital runs in his veins. He does not want to keep the photos of Hà Nội for himself, but rather express his love of Hà Nội and the photos by showing them to people.

Hà Nội Dấu Yêu (My Dear Hà Nội) photo book with captions in Vietnamese, English and French was launched last Friday in Hà Nội. Photo coutersy of Phương Nam Book
Viet Nam News

by Nguyễn Thúy Bình

Photographer Nguyễn Hữu Bảo cannot count how many photos of Hà Nội he has taken, because it is always in his heart and his love of the thousand-year-old capital runs in his veins. He does not want to keep those photos of Hà Nội for himself, but rather express his love for the city by showing them to people.

Bảo chose about 200 black and white photos to print in a photo book entitled Hà Nội Dấu Yêu (My Dear Hà Nội), which was launched last Friday in Hà Nội.

Bảo’s photographic collection records, but does not idealise, three decades (from 1978 to 2015) of everyday life in Hà Nội. His images focus on the city’s dominant middle class that he knows so well.

Hà Nội is now 1,000 years old. With a millennium of history behind it, the city is a veritable museum, a fortress guarding and preserving the traditional spiritual values that comprise something akin to a Vietnamese essence, according novelist Nguyễn Huy Thiệp.

“The complexity of life in Hà Nội makes it deserving of the unceasing efforts by intellectuals and artists to observe, record and analyse its march through time.”

“As will be apparent in the following pages of the book, photographer Bảo has not shied away from the painful and tragic aspects of their culture,” said Thiệp.

“Indeed, with his aesthetic sensibility, Bảo has brought these and many other aspects of urban life into vivid relief.”

The book is a collection of ten photographic "short stories" about Hà Nội which photographer Bảo names Câu Chuyện Hồ Gươm (Stories about the Lake of the Returned Sword); Hà Nội Có Cầu Long Biên… (Hà Nội has Long Biên Bridge…); Hà… Lội (Paddling in Hà Nội); Người Thành Phố (City People) and Nhà Cổ - Bỏ Thì Thương Vương Thì Tội (Old Houses – A Shame to Demolish Them, Hard to Keep Them).

Bảo snapped all the photos incidentally. He has set out to capture life as it is, eschewing anything posed or contrived.

“As a historian, I find two characteristics of this wonderful collection particularly appealing,” said Dương Trung Quốc, chairman of the Việt Nam Historians Association.

“First is the simple timeless quality of the photographs that comes from the black and white form. Second is the realistic quality of the images that comes from Bảo’s approach to his craft.

“These photographs of a Hà Nội that no longer exists, no doubt stimulates different responses among the young and old. For those of us like Bảo, who witnessed these scenes in our youth, they stir up intense feelings of nostalgia and melancholy. For the younger generation, they stir up feelings of delight and curiosity.

“Whether old or young, all of us can appreciate the simple fact that there is something beautiful about the passage of time,” Quốc said.

For those who are so young they cannot imagine how Hà Nội was before their birth, some of the photos in the book are humorous.

"I like the photos in the Hà... Lội story," said Nguyễn Phương Thảo, a young Hanoian who attended the book launch.

"I cannot imagine how Hà Nội was flooded like in the  Ở Phố Nguyễn Du (In Nguyễn Du Street) photo. That was just ten years before I was born in 1990. The photo is very interesting," Thảo said.

The photo snapped a man and a woman who are young and look great. They are talking to each other while standing in the waters of the flooded street. It is difficult for viewers like Thảo to guess their relationship. Are they a couple or just neighbours?

Bảo said that the situation in which he took the photo was very funny. It is at the crossroads of Nguyễn Du and Bà Triệu streets after a heavy rain.

"After taking the photo I could not see where my bicycle was," he said. "The bicycle had fallen down and sunk into the water. I just saw the handle-bar when a passing van caused a wave across the road."

Another photo features a couple sitting on a bench in Lê Nin Park with their feet submerged in water. These photos were taken in the 1980s when Hà Nội’s streets were always flooded after heavy rain.

In Nguyễn Du Street. A photo from 1980 by Nguyễn Hữu Bảo as reproduced in Hà Nội Dấu Yêu (My Dear Hà Nội).

Bảo is a Hanoian who has lived his entire life in the heart of the city during a period of great change.

Born in 1952 to an upper class family, Bảo is one of the sons of businessman Nguyễn Hữu Nhâm who is the owner of the popular Tam Kỳ cloth shop in the north.

Unlike their father, the sons worked in art. The elder brothers studied film at the Theatre and Movie School, and Bảo was sent to Czechoslovakia to study mechanics from 1967 to 1970.

Bảo remembers the first day when he took a camera to shoot his first photo. One of his cousins, a Vietnamese soldier who was among the Vietnamese prisoners in Phú Quốc Prison, was released by the Sài Gòn Administration in accordance with Paris Peace Accords in 1973.

"I was told to go to Thường Tín Railway Station south of Hà Nội to receive my cousin," Bảo remembers. "It was a big surprise because his parents thought he had died and they were going to set up an altar for him."

At that time, Bảo had never taken a photo despite his brother being a cameraman. He quickly learned how to take a photo with an old camera before he went to receive his cousin. He was confident and thought that it did not matter if he could not take good photos.

He took a whole roll of film at the spot, but he has kept only one small-sized picture in his wallet that is priceless to him. From then until 1978 he became a photographer specialising in recording Hà Nội’s architecture at the Hà Nội Architecture Institute.

Thanks to working at the institute he developed a special attachment to Hà Nội, making the time spent over the years putting the photos of the city together extremely pleasurable and gratifying for him.

Bảo has had solo and group exhibitions in Hà Nội, HCM City and in Paris. He has also won second prize at the National Photography Awards and third prize at the Hà Nội Photography Awards.

"I want to share Hà Nội Dấu Yêu with the community as an honour to Hà Nội, the capital," Bảo said. "It is my emotion inspired by daily life in the city."

The photo book is not only the fruits of a native Hà Nội photographer, but also a gift for those people who live in Hà Nội and for overseas Vietnamese to reminisce about their childhood and adulthood.

The photo books with captions in Vietnamese, English and French are being sold at Phương Nam Book stores in Hà Nội and HCM City. VNS