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[Photos] Family Albums Depict the Everyday Lives of Vietnamese People in the Late 1800s

Following last week’s photo essay on railway construction, this week’s images focus on the everyday lives of people in northern Vietnam. 

The following shots come from five old albums left on a shelf in the cellar of my family’s small country house in the south of France. They lay forgotten for decades and were only re-discovered after my grandfather passed away.

Although it’s difficult to know exactly when or where most of these photos were taken, it’s clear they were taken during my ancestors’ travels around the north of Vietnam.

Many were likely taken during the railway construction, with photos from Lang Son Market and nearby areas featuring. Others are more quotidian: a tailor’s workstation; monks praying at a pagoda; children and nuns posing in front of a building; a group of Chinese mandarins; or an iconic shot of water buffalo in the fields.

In three of these photos, a French colonial explorer poses in the midst of village life. Who this man was is a mystery. Was he my other great-great-grandfather, Vézin, or perhaps another contractor working on the railway? He’s certainly not Louis Vola, another of my ancestors — you can see him on the photo taken in front of the Brasserie Hommel in Hanoi, second from the right.  

My favorite photo of them all, though, is the first in this series: one of my grandfather posing in the garden at a very young age, holding a cane and wearing a hat that probably belonged to his own grandfather.

While I am not proud of my great-great grandfathers’ behavior in Vietnam, they did leave an interesting photography archive for us to look back on and provide an opportunity for us to reflect on our troubled family history.

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