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Photo Archives: Vietnam In The 19th-20th Centuries

Bird In Flight launches a new column dedicated to interesting photo archives on the Internet. The first issue highlights photographs of Vietnam in the 19th-20th centuries.


Seven years ago a former architect from Vietnam named Pham Manh Hai began collecting rare photos documenting life in his native country. Today, the archive contains 45,606 photographs, as well as drawings and maps of Vietnam. The oldest of them date back to 1880.

At the end of the 19th century, when Vietnam became a colony of France, many French photographers visited Indochina with cameras. Striving to capture exotic everyday life and the culture of Vietnamese people, they literally shot everything possible. The archive of Manh Hai includes photos of buildings, river channels and bridges, portraits of local dwellers, reportages of events, journalistic publications, a bird’s eye panorama of Saigon (today, Ho Chi Mihn City), postcards, and even political advertising. In many of the photos one can see soldiers and military hardware. Vietnam gained its independence in the middle of the 20th century, which was preceded by numerous armed conflicts.

Native of Vietnam Pham Manh Hai is quoted as saying, “I collect old photos of Vietnam just for the thrill of it and to get a better understanding of my country’s past, especially during the two Indochina wars that devastated our country,” Manh Hai explains in his comments for Bird In Flight.

“Between 1954 and 1975 Vietnam was divided into two states: a Communist state in the north and a non-Communist state in the south, just the same as North and South Korea nowadays. People in South Vietnam do not know much about North Vietnam over all these years of separation. People in the Communist North Vietnam even know less about South Vietnam over this period due to Communist propaganda or covering up the policy of the North Vietnamese government. After the unification of Vietnam by the Communists in 1975, the new government confiscated all books or materials published in South Vietnam and destroyed them with the aim of erasing all memories of the people about the non-Communist South Vietnam prior to 1975.

Thanks to the archives preserved in other countries, old photos and publications published in South Vietnam cannot be destroyed. I have collected almost all of these photos from the Internet and from national libraries in the U.S., France and Australia. I want to share them with those who are interested in Vietnam’s past.”

French citizens Hippolyte Arnoux and Emile Gsell, who are considered commercial photographers in Saigon, are the creators of the oldest photographs. In the 1880s, while traveling across Asia, they shot landscapes, and portraits of representatives of various strata of people in Vietnam, China, India and Cambodia. The photos were printed in a book titled Voyage de l’Egypte à l’Indochine (“Voyage from Egypt to Indochina”).


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1880-Indo1.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 01”, “text”: “‘Voyage from Egypt to Indochina’, 1880. Photo: Hippolyte Arnoux and Emile Gsell.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1880-Indo.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 02”, “text”: “Voyage from Egypt to Indochina’, 1880. Photo: Hippolyte Arnoux and Emile Gsell.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1880-Indo2.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 03”, “text”: “Voyage from Egypt to Indochina’, 1880. Photo: Hippolyte Arnoux and Emile Gsell.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1880-Indo3.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 04”, “text”: “Voyage from Egypt to Indochina’, 1880. Photo: Hippolyte Arnoux and Emile Gsell.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1915-Leon-Busy1.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 05”, “text”: “Woman smoking opium, 1915. Photo: Leon Busy.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1915-Leon-Busy5.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 06”, “text”: “Rice, 1915. Photo: Leon Busy.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1915-Leon-Busy4.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 07”, “text”: “Saigon theater, 1915. Photo: Leon Busy.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1913-sol5.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 08”, “text”: “Soldiers, 1913. Photo: Agence Rol.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1916-soldier2.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 09”, “text”: “Soldiers, 1916. Photo: Agence Rol.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1916-soldier1.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 10”, “text”: “Soldier, 1916. Photo: Agence Rol.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1916-soldier3.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 11”, “text”: “Soldiers, 1916. Photo: Agence Rol.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1925-Chagneau-1.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 12”, “text”: “1925-1930. Photo: Raymond Chagneau.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1925-Chagneau-2.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 13”, “text”: “1925-1930. Photo: Raymond Chagneau.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1925-Chagneau-3.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 14”, “text”: “1925-1930. Photo: Raymond Chagneau.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Thomas-Billhardt-1969.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 15”, “text”: “Northern Vietnam, 1969. Photo: Thomas Billhardt.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Thomas-Billhardt1-1969.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 16”, “text”: “Northern Vietnam, 1979. Photo: Thomas Billhardt.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Thomas-Billhardt4-1979.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 17”, “text”: “Northern Vietnam, 1979. Photo: Thomas Billhardt.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Thomas-Billhardt5-1979.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 18”, “text”: “Vietnamese-Chinese war, 1979. Photo: Thomas Billhardt.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Thomas-Billhardt6-1979.jpg”, “alt”: “Vietnam Archive 19”, “text”: “Vietnamese-Chinese war, 1979. Photo: Thomas Billhardt.”}

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