It’s that time of the year when people are leaving Hanoi for good or off overseas to see relatives and friends to escape the summer heat. Lots want to take a photography book as a souvenir to remind them of their time in the city or show those friends and relatives what an exotic spot they’ve holed up in.
For a couple of years now books in this genre have been as scarce as hens’ teeth and a lot of the books that have been around for years are getting dated, while some perennial favorites are out of print.
But Things Asian Press has filled in the 2014 gap with a reasonably priced, soft cover volume that’s jam packed full of photographic images that you wish you’d personally captured the last time you saw them. Best of all, it’s not full of trite or condescending text.
American editor and photographer, Elizabeth Rush, is a former expat and a dab hand with the camera. She has got together a bunch of five, youngish and experienced Hanoian photographers to join her and photograph the vibrancy of Hanoi.
The result is a work by Elizabeth, Vietnamese nationals Maika Elan and Nguyen The Son, Viet Kieu Mathew Dakin and former Word Magazine photographer Aaron Joel Santos. It will be a sure sellout and will set the standard for all future general photography books about Vietnam. It may even scare a few photographic wishful thinkers in a different direction.
If you haven’t come across Lost and Found Hanoi yet I’d suggest that you get a wriggle on as books of this calibre are a once-in-a-decade phenomenon.
Another nice choice is from 2011 and was a joint project of French urban development group IMV and the Hanoi People’s Committee. It’s trilingual (English, Vietnamese and French) and though the accompanying text is more personal to the compilers, it manages to stay away from teeth-grinding clichés.
Hanoi: From One City to Another is still very relevant and the images will be appreciated by people who have gotten off the beaten track and explored with their eyes wide open. Photographers Vincent Bertholon and Clement Musil take you on a visual journey that will make a lot of readers smile with recognition. Berthelon’s pen and ink and watercolor sketches add to the book’s appeal
It’s a hardcover, coffee-table type of book literally stitched together in the old Vietnamese way by the Van Hoa Publishing House, and this adds to its charm.
Some people collect selections of prose or poetry rather than visual images, and as this year is the centenary of the birth of one of Vietnam’s most creative expats, Marguerite Duras, who was born in Saigon to a French couple and who returned to France at 17 after a love affair with Vietnamese-Chinese merchant, Huyen Thuy Le, it’s hard to go past four of her memoir-cum-novels. Imbued with memories of her adolescent years in the Mekong Delta they move between life in Sa Dec, Saigon and the mangrove reaches of Cambodia.
The most famous novel is The Lover, a story that traces the sensual paths of its unnamed protagonists between Saigon and the pretty river town of Sa Dec.
Duras honours the Asian male as a sexy being, beautiful and worthy of art and love. She expressed this first through the naked, masculine Japanese body in her 1959 screenplay for the film Hiroshima Mon Amour. This was also given potency in the form of the Chinese character in The Lover.
Readers who have grown up under the dominion of a depressive mother will empathize strongly with the girl. Females who were considered second rate to their male siblings will cheer her on.
The 1992 movie of the book was released to critical acclaim. Faithful both to the text and period, it is bewitching. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie and you’re exploring the rivers that make up The Mekong Delta, you can’t help but be reminded of the scene early in the novel where the 15-and-a-half-year-old girl meets the elegant young man in the black chauffer-driven limousine.
She’s wearing a dress of real, sepia-coloured silk that used to belong to her mother, one of her brothers’ belts, a man’s fedora hat, and a pair of worn, gold lame high heels, decorated with little diamente flowers.
The other Duras novels and memoirs that evoke her Indochinese adolescence are The Sea Wall, Eden Cinema and The North China Lover. Once taken in by the Duras magic you’ll understand why the French are intent on celebrating her centenary.