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Hanoi: Spirit of Place the Return to Hanoi!

by Sam Clark

An update on the Hanoi: Spirit of Place exhibition we sponsored earlier this year. The VIETPRO team (a group of energetic and hugely resourceful young professional Vietnamese based in London) and Sir John successfully  moved the exhibition to Hanoi last month. By all accounts it was a resounding success. We will find out first hand from Sir John at this Friday’s ‘Experience Travel Group Vietnam Supper Club’. For those of you without tickets, we’ll post an update here subsequently.

Hien Vo speaks
The current UK ambassador, Antony Stoke
Sir John and the Vietpro team
Cutting the ribbon
The exhibition in full swing
Sir John Ramsden and the Vietpro team

In the meantime, for a bit of background, this is what Sir John wrote before he went out to Hanoi for the exhibition:

“Anyone who has lived in Hanoi will understand the expression “spirit of place”. I spent three years in the Embassy, from 1980-83, a time of great economic difficulty and relative isolation. But even then, the city had a special atmosphere that soon had me under its charm.

I arrived with little idea what to expect. I had never, for example, seen a photograph of Hanoi. Before the internet age we all knew much less about each other. Very few westerners had been to Hanoi through the long years of war. Trade, tourism and cultural exchanges were at a trickle.

The Embassy was tiny, by the standards of that time. There were five of us, with our Vietnamese interpreters and drivers. We all squashed into the ground floor of a villa in Ly Thuong Kiet St, with our equipment, files, radios etc.

Our only means of communicating with the public was our notice board, where we showed pictures of British life. Occasionally, someone would stop to look but it was not a busy part of town. The street was broad and empty. There was almost no traffic.

I was the deputy head of Mission and had the good luck to live in the flat above the office. Most western diplomats lived in the Thong Nhat hotel or in one of the new blocks on the edge of the city. None of us had our own cars. There was little social contact between the small foreign community and the people of the city. We felt fairly isolated.

At that time Vietnam was viewed from outside through the prism of war and ideology. Its culture and way of life were far too little understood abroad. I had been given no time to learn the language or prepare properly but I felt I could start to learn by just looking at everyday life.

For me, this meant long walks around the old city, or bicycle rides out to the West Lake. I would go early in the morning or after work, when it was cooler and there was a softer light.

I loved the old quarter around the Dong Xuan market, alive with the bustle of workshops and street traders. Produce came in from the surrounding villages, mostly carried in baskets slung from shoulder poles. Watching all this was a delight for the eyes. It also gave me a deep respect for the resilience and adaptability of the people.

I had no idea, when I arrived, that Hanoi was a city with a thousand years of history.  Beyond the well-known monuments, such as the Temple of Literature, were many others, just as old, that I only discovered by stumbling on them.  The city lived its life against the backdrop of a splendid heritage from the past – a little patched and peeling after the war years but deeply atmospheric.

I was also fascinated by the temples, which were still very much in use. At the week-end we could apply to visit great monuments like Chua Thay or Chua Keo, as a way of getting into the countryside and seeing something of village life. I particularly enjoyed festivals, like the one at Dong Ky where giant firecrackers were taken in procession round the rice fields then let off in the temple courtyard.

Throughout my time in Vietnam I took photographs. It was a way to explore and make contact with the country. I made no secret of my photography though I used to carry my camera in a straw bag: the less people noticed me, the more they natural they would be on film. No one ever tried to stop me. Indeed I was met with nothing but kindness and courtesy.

By the time I left Vietnam, I had accumulated over 1700 black and white negatives. It was a very special place and time and I always felt that some of that specialness had found its way into the photos. But my career took me away from Asia and the photos lay in a drawer for the next 27 years.

By the 1990s I was aware of remarkable changes in Vietnam. I remember overhearing businessmen in a London cafe talking excitedly about their trip to Hanoi, something unthinkable in 1983. Wonderful novels and diaries by Vietnamese writers started to appear.

I had kept a few notes but had always hoped to learn more about the photos by showing them to people who had lived through the period. After I retired, some kindly fate eventually led me to Vietpro, the Association of young Vietnamese professionals in London; and KREU, a similar group of young architects and designers.

I explained that I had staged a small exhibition in Bath for the Hanoi Millennium in 2010 but hoped to do something bigger in London – might there even be some interest in Vietnam?

Their reaction was beyond my wildest hopes. While studying and working in top London institutions, these brilliant young people were still deeply engaged with their home country. Most of them were born after I left Hanoi. The photographs were a rare window back on the world of their parents and grandparents. With charm, energy and focus they adopted the project.

In less than six months, Vietpro and KREU have conceived, funded, designed and realised our exhibition “Hanoi  Spirit of Place”. We were greatly honoured that the Ambassador, HE Mr Vu Quang Minh formally opened it. The occasion was enlivened by music from the period, by the ladies in glamorous Ao Dais and by Vietnamese food – for a few hours we were all back in Hanoi.

The London exhibition closed on 4 May: our next aim is to bring it to Hanoi and, we hope, to Ho Chi Minh City. With the help of the two Embassies and the British Council and with generous backing from Vietnam Airlines and Thien Minh Group we hope to do this in the autumn, as part of the celebration of 40 years of UK-Vietnam diplomatic relations.

I much look forward visiting Vietnam again, after a gap of thirty years. I know I will see a country transformed and full of excitement for the future. The seeds of that transformation were sown by the remarkable generation whose lives are portrayed in my photographs. Our exhibition is a small tribute to their courage and resilience; and to the enduring appeal of the Vietnamese culture and way of life.”

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