Hanoi’s amalgamation of architectural influences, unwavering charm, and residents’ ability to transport everything and anything by motorbike, make the city a photographer’s paradise. A good place to start is Lai Xa Village located in the Kim Chung commune of Hoai Duc District, 15km west of the city centre. In May the village opened the Lai Xa Photography museum.
Lai Xa is considered the birthplace of photography in Hanoi and was home to Nguyen Dinh Khanh, one of Vietnam’s most famous photographers along with many of his pupils. The museum has English-language exhibits and showcases photographs and artefacts dating back to the 1800s when the trade first began to flourish in the village.
Huy Van Nguyen, former director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and the initiator of the project believes that a visit to the museum will tell a fascinating story about the early days of photography and its continuing impact on the village.
Through the Ages
According to Huy, exhibits range from information about the technical side of photography and how both modern and old cameras have been used in the village, to information about the lives of the village’s many photographers.
“In addition, the museum will help the public discover how during the difficult circumstances of the war and the Subsidy Era, the people of Lai Xa were able to take amazing photos so that photographers were still able to meet the needs of society,” says Huy. “It is the need of the villagers to preserve and honour the photographic profession of the village.”
Although Huy was the mastermind behind the project, the museum is the first in Hanoi to be created entirely by the community.
“I’m the curator. I organize the entire content of the exhibitions, working directly with the exhibition design team,” Huy explains. “The village and the Nguyen Dinh Khanh Photographic Club are responsible for funding, making houses, collecting artifacts, photographs, organising exhibitions and displaying the works.”
The end goal is to turn Lai Xa into a tourist destination. Huy believes that this will transform the lives of villagers who were once farmers but have lost their land to the process of urbanisation.
Huren Marsh, a lecturer in Vietnam with a professional background in exhibition and museum design praised the grass-roots nature of the museum.
“The museum is an excellent example of a small but well-considered piece of exhibition design that focuses on a community and individuals,” says Huren. “I think the story of a community that was so engaged in photography over so many years should be of interest to a wider audience.”
Huren also recommends a visit to the Nguyen Van Huyen Museum as it’s a five-minute walk from the Xai La Photography Museum and has a larger exhibit.
The museum has only just been established and there’s a lot more to be done. Huy’s plans for the future of the museum include seeking funding and finding donors to complete unfinished exhibits. He also plans to add touch-screen exhibits for a more interactive experience. For those interested in photography, it’s a worthwhile way to spend a day.
The Lai Xa Photography Museum is open on weekends only from 9am to 4.30pm or by special appointment. The museum is located in the Kim Chung commune off QL32, just past My Dinh and the village of Nhon. You can find it on Google Maps
Photos by Julie Vola